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Nicole Smith Professor Krol-Sinclair ED231 Tutoring Reading & Writing December 9, 2009 Conflicts of Beliefs: Dealing with

Difficult Topics in the Multicultural Classroom Without a doubt, one of the most wonderful things about working with Chelsea Public School District and Boston Universitys Intergenerational Literacy Program is the incredible amount of diversity you can find within any of the classes. The program works with children and adults from a wide range of cultural backgrounds including different races, nationalities, genders and religions. Every learner, whether they are a Spanish speaker from Guatemala or a recent immigrant from Somalia, shares the common cord of a desire, and in many situations a personal necessity, to increase their proficiency in the use of the English language. And while it is this common desire that has brought so many together, it is truly their differences and the diversity of their personal backgrounds that incites and drives the successfulness of this program. Diversity among the students and staff makes every daily encounter within the ILP an exciting one, not only for learners but for the teachers and tutors as well. The diverse make-up of the program creates a very unique nature that cannot be found in many other classroom situations. Yet, while this cultural diversity is of great value to the enrichment of the learners experience, it also has the potential to create roadblocks or points of tension within the classroom. ILP teachers and staff exemplify a sound sense of awareness for these difficulties. Teachers and tutors aim to approach every learners cultural and personal individuality with sensitivity and openness in order

Smith 2 to foster a comfortable classroom atmosphere for all. When difficult issues such as politics, social class, sexuality and religion arise in classroom discussions or activities, it is necessary that participants step back to acknowledge the diversity around them and work to respect all cultural and personal views. The ILP adult learners class is one designed to help parents develop their English literacy skills as well as support the literacy of their children. Daily lesson plans are usually frame worked by a focus on a particular literacy skill as well as an overarching social skill. During a particularly interesting session in this fall, learners were introduced to the reading, interpretation and creation of graphs, charts and other abstract representations of data, as the literacy skills related to gathering information. The social skill or issue of the week was talking to children about difficult topics, which included discussions about sex education. Understanding that sex education, even when discussed in a generally homogenous cultural group, is a discussion that requires the utmost of sensitivity and respect, all learners were encouraged to share their thoughts as well as keep an open mind for the opinions of their peers. After the class broke out into small groups, each group of learners along with their tutor was asked to construct a simple bar graph representing their answers to a survey about sex education. I found myself with very diverse group of seven learners from El Salvador, Guatemala, Afghanistan and Somalia. As a majority, the group was very open about their ideas concerning talking to their children about sex, and everyone was respectful of the converse opinions at hand. Two of out Somali learners, however, were silent through most of the activity. I tried my best to get everyone involved so that all thoughts could be heard, yet, I could not get any real answers from these learners. Assuming that the root of the problem was a language

Smith 3 barrier, one of our other Somali speakers began to translate the activity as we went along. Still, the only response I received was a few quiet no from one learner and silence from the other. I soon realized that the issue at hand was not one of communication or understanding, but in fact the product of a cultural divergence and, consequently, discomfort. As one of the classroom teachers came to look over the progress of the activity, one of the learners finally spoke up. He explained that, although they understood the assignment, they were not comfortable with the questions. As Muslims, these learners believed that sex was not a topic to be discussed between children and their parents, especially their mothers. Another Muslim learner chimed in as well, saying that such a public and open discussion was usually unheard of. This revelation surprised as well as intrigued me as well as the other learners in the group. Curiosity began to take hold, as our non-Muslim learners began asking how sex education was dealt with, if at all, in their culture, but I saw fit to keep the conversation at bay and instead focus on the graph assignment. There were many elements at play during this situation, some of which I was unaware of at the time. Looking back, I can now see the weaknesses of my strategy, well as some of the successes of situation. It is important that teachers, tutors and learners alike, are always aware of cultural differences in the classroom. In this specific case, it was a conflict of a religious belief and its relationship to a social value. While diversity is strong at the ILP, there are certain values that are shared among the majority. This body of common overarching cultural values, or the national macroculture, is made up of the overlapping and integration of

Smith 4 microcultures.1 Microcultures refers to the values and beliefs of individual racial, religious, national or cultural groups. Every learner in the ILP has a different degree of macrocultural and microcultural values that can be dependent on factors such as the number of years they have lived in the U.S., degrees of assimilation, and their personal background. Even shared values are sometimes mediated and interpreted differently in microclutres, taking on a variety of forms within a single group. In the case of the ILP, the macrocultural values shared majority are beliefs such as the importance of education, family and community, which is evident in the very existence of the program and the dedication shown by its participants. These are the areas in which microcultural values overlap (Figure 1.1). Outside of these and other macrocultural values, however, is the diversity of beliefs that make up the microcultural background of each learner.

Banks, James. The Nature of Culture in the United States. Multicultural Education: Characteristics and Goals. Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives. Ed. James A. Banks and Cherry A. McGee Banks. 7th ed. New York: John Wiley, 2009. pp. 11-15.

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Interactions during the adult ILP class, such as the difficult discussion motioned before, help ILP students, as well as teachers and tutors, become more comfortable acting within the national macro culture, their microcultures and the microcultures of others. During our sex education discussions, learners were able to experience the workings of both the macro and micro values of their peers. Some shared similar opinions, others brought different interpretations to the table and some disagreed completely. Even thought the topic was difficult and uncomfortable for some, the interaction opened up the door for understanding. Conversations that open up this type of cross-cultural learning are of great importance to the ILP experience. Although time and circumstance did not allow on this particular occasion, I think that the cultural exchanges that began to happen that morning in the classroom serve as a powerful way for learners to become more comfortable talking about their beliefs as well as others. As our Muslim learners spoke up to share their views, other participants also shared their opinions. In a snap, the discussion transformed, and I no longer had to prod for answers or participation. The collision of these macro and micro cultures stimulated the conversation to such a point that I was forced to remind the learners that we still had a graph to complete! These types of interactions are wonderful, but do require an equal, if not greater amount of sensitivity and respect than others. Having more time for multicultural conversations such as this would be a great way to help ILP learners gain a better understanding of the diversity that surrounds them. It is a skill that should not be taken for granted, for even as an American-born English

Smith 6 speaker, I also learned some valuable lessons that day. It is crucial, however, to approach these situations with a strategy in mind. One incredibly simple, yet effective, strategy for leading and participating in discussions of difficult topics or multicultural conversations is the R.O.P.E.S. system. R.O.P.E.S. is an acronym that stands for five simple guidelines for having productive conversations in multicultural classroom.2 The system is made of these standards: R - Respect and Responsibility: All participants need to respect each other and take responsibility for their responses. O Openness, Opps and Ouch: Learners should strive to be open to new ideas and new ways of seeing things through the eyes of those around them. Being able to say opps when one unintentionally says or does something that might be offensive to someone from another culture or religion is an important part of acknowledging differences and demonstrative sensitivity. Also, being able to say ouch when someone says something that is found offensive is vital to creating awareness. P Participation: Being willing to participate and become more culturally aware is a necessity. The desire to share and learn must be present. E Escuchar: Escuchar is Spanish for listen. The best way to gain a full and enriching understanding of others is to hear what they have to say. S Sensitivity: Even within the context of learning about each other and becoming culturally responsive, everyone still must remain sensitive to certain topics and people's responses to them. Never discount someone's feelings or values. The R.O.P.E.S. system is an idea that I picked up on while sitting in on Brenda Smiths Cultural Diversity in the Classroom Seminar at Cal State University Long Beach, CA in 2006. While I was unable to find any scholarly sources or citations for the idea, I have presented here its basic principles.
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R.O.P.E.S. can also take on a more literal meaning. The ropes can be used to represent the borders that separate microcultures within the classroom. Acknowledging these borders, however, does mean they must be equated to barriers. Learners should feel comfortable extending themselves, respectively, beyond their borders and into their peers. Using R.O.P.E.S. helps to prevent offence, hurt feelings or misunderstandings during discussions and would be a great way to lead difficult classroom discussions for adult learners. An understanding of and sensitivity towards different microcultures and their relationships to our own is a great way for teachers, tutors and learners to ensure that uncomfortable moments within the classroom are abolished. For me, R.O.P.E.S. would have been served as amore effective means of dealing with the difficult situation I found myself in that morning at the ILP. Having learned from that experience, I know feel more prepared and comfortable in helping to lead and participate in multicultural conversations. The ILP is a place where learners feel comfortable and able to share their thoughts and feelings. Any opportunity for fostering these moments of learning should be embraced with understanding and respect.