Issues in Classroom Diversity

November 17, 2010

Al Boerema introduces the topic:

The theme of this issue of CEJ is diversity. Let’s talk about this from the perspective of whether diversity is a value that Christian schools should seek. What does it mean for a Christian school to be diverse, and what are barriers to creating and maintaining diversity in Christian schools?

November 29, 2010

Rebecca De Smith begins the conversation with some opening thoughts.

Hello all!

God loves diversity. Just look at the creation. From microscopic DNA molecules to the vast universe filled with countless stars and galaxies, our Creator has demonstrated boundless creativity over and over again. Diversity is an undeniable part of our world, and so we shouldn’t be surprised that it is becoming prevalent in our schools. More and more students with diverse backgrounds populate our classrooms. They come with a variety of cultural backgrounds, language proficiencies, academic abilities, and many other diverse characteristics. As Christian teachers, we are called to respond to the needs of these students. Here are two places to begin.

The teacher’s attitude is key in creating a classroom atmosphere of trust and acceptance, where all students are welcomed, supported, and provided with the best opportunities to learn. We only have to look at the Master Teacher to get us on the right track. Jesus Christ embraced the various men, women, and children he encountered, loving them, accepting them, teaching them, and giving them exactly what they needed. We can learn a lot about accepting diversity by adopting the attitude of Jesus and modeling his actions.

Along with an attitude of respect and acceptance, teachers must provide effective instruction so all students can achieve. Adapting curriculum to students with various learning needs, language limitations, and social/emotional deficits takes time, energy, and a lot of creativity. This can be very challenging, and the more diverse your students are, the more challenging it can be! Begin to find ideas for differentiation by taking advantage of the many resources available through books, websites, and experienced teachers in your building. The more ways you learn to adapt your curriculum, the more effectively you’ll meet your students’ needs.

So is diversity in our schools really something we should encourage? Is it worth all the time and effort we must put into it? All we have to do is look around at the delightful world we live in to see that diversity is something God intended for us. We cannot deny it—we must learn to embrace diversity with joy and acceptance in our attitudes and actions as we teach God’s covenant children.

December 9, 2010

Christian Altena adds to the discussion:

A snowy greeting to all from Chicago!

Amen, amen, thrice I say “amen” to the thoughts expressed by Rebecca. Amen to a celebration of the diversity of God’s people. Amen to an awe-filled wonder at the multitudinous examples of his power expressed in creation. Amen to the variety of religious expressions that we increasingly find within our schools. Amen to the differing ways that our students experience and understand the world around them. Amen to their perspectives, for through them our worlds all widen. Amen to the diversity that is unified in Christ.

Having said all this, diversity can be very scary and controversial; and even within the body of Christ it can be confusing and alienating. There are two very troubling and contradictory currents of thought these days which I’ve noticed wreaking havoc in some of my students’ minds: one flowing towards a critique-less, postmodern acceptance of all types of difference, and the other towards a knee-jerk, AM-radio hostility and indifference to the other. Some of my students would prefer not to dwell on the many prescriptive aspects of our faith, and some are quite done with any notions of absolute truth. In the other direction, many students—especially in today’s political climate—find it nearly impossible to understand, or even listen to opposing political or religious viewpoints. I was deeply saddened to notice two years ago that in the halls of my school some students and teachers found it challenging to celebrate, or even talk about the historic election of 2008. Even I didn’t go out of my way to mention that I had attended Obama’s acceptance speech in Grant Park that warm November evening.

I agree with Rebecca that the teacher plays a critical role in helping students to develop a Christlike attitude to the differences around them. Teachers must constantly be on the lookout for opportunities for students to practice a manner of thinking about diversity that seeks truth, promotes justice, doesn’t shrink from taking a principled stand, but above all, exudes the love of Christ.

December 10, 2010

Mary Ashun takes this further:

Chicago … aaahhh … a white Christmas for sure!

I continue to be amazed at a phenomenon that I have observed for the past couple of years. Teachers, professors, school leaders with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working think that on topics of diversity … it is a desirable thing. There’s a huge gap, though, between thinking it and taking active steps to fulfilling that desire. I will share a couple of examples that have given me cause for joy, although they make me realize that we haven’t yet reached the critical mass we need to make this an entrenched part of our schooling systems.

1. Just over a year ago, I was invited by Gary and Leo Van Arragon to speak at a conference for Ontario Christian high school teachers about my experience as a person of color within the Christian school system. I was understandably nervous, but the incredible support I received from these two brave men helped an awful lot. I was able to share my heart, some of my hopes and fears, and the desire that we would admit some of our shortcomings and be ready to listen to those we wish to embrace. From the comments afterwards, I knew I’d said what needed to be said. But there was one man, a Christian school teacher, who berated me afterwards with the comment, “It’s people like you who make it difficult to hire people who are not like us. You come and upset everything!” I struggled to keep my composure and wondered why one person could make me feel like all the other positive comments meant nothing. I had mentioned the need to be proactive in hiring “others” and his comment to me was “if they won’t come to us, how can we go looking for them?” I don’t need to tell anyone of the number of qualified individuals, looking for work, who don’t look exactly like us. Perhaps soliciting others to help us in our search for individuals who share our vision but are different is a start. What it did teach me, though, was that those who believe that something must be done and are actually doing something need to present more of a unified front and fight to make sure that diverse opinions, while necessary in any organization, are constructive and ensure sustained growth.

2. Last week, a student of mine participating in a practicum at a Christian high school invited me to speak to his grade 9 class. They were studying immigration, and he found it troubling that their perception of African immigrants was one of refugees, AIDS victims, and other unfortunate realities. His e-mail said, “I was wondering if you could come and speak to them, to give them another perspective of an African immigrant.” How could I say no to that? I jumped at the opportunity, and spent a most memorable hour with students who asked me questions about leaving my home country, what I miss most about Ghana, and what I felt about the possibility of Ghana playing the Netherlands in the World Cup this past summer!

I’m definitely of the opinion that diversity could start with us acknowledging the other’s presence in more tangible ways. We could realize that what we deem valuable is not always valuable to the “other,” but if explained, it could become more valuable. Teachers are key here—if you meet someone “different” who inspires you to see others differently, why not invite that person to your class? Principals—why not design a program that actively recruits diverse peoples to visit and speak to your students and or parents? University professors—in what way have you shown your students that you value diversity, especially when they all look like you? People are different because God created them that way, but given the chance, it is possible that these differences could be the basis for a profound sense of place in this world.

December 13, 2010

Tim Leugs contributes:

Hi everyone,

Thanks for your comments. I am in full agreement with you about the importance of diversity in our world and in our classrooms. God has created all people in his image, and the differences between all of his children add to our understanding of him and his creation. Acknowledgment of our differences is an important step in this—as well as recognition that diversity extends far beyond issues of race, culture, and religion. Even in a class of [seemingly] homogeneous students lies a font of differing thoughts, opinions, and interests. We should be aware of this when considering our students—even a class of middle-class white students provides multiple opportunities to see the Savior.

At the same time, though, there are always opportunities to see Christ outside of any classroom’s usual experience. Seeking out these opportunities should be a part of any school’s plans for educating students, but I strongly feel that these opportunities should not be simply made up of a single visit to another locale. If a suburban Christian school classroom can engage diversity by building a relationship with an urban Christian school, it should consider taking advantage of this opportunity (and vice versa)! If a school’s resources and technology can equip it to build a partnership with a school from another country, let it do so and continue on for years to come! If a school’s campus lies within driving distance of a retirement home, what experiences in knowing God more fully can be found in a continuing relationship!

I recognize that my definition of diversity is not a traditional one. I hope, though, that you can all see past that to recognize that all people (and their own uniqueness) can, as Mary put it, “be the basis for a profound sense of place in this world.”


The panel consists of:

  • Mary Ashun, who teaches in the education department at Redeemer University College.
  • Christian Altena, who teaches at Chicago Christian High School in Palos Heights, Illinois.
  • Al Boerema, who teaches in the education department at Calvin College.
  • Rebecca De Smith, who is the Discovery Room coordinator and the curriculum coordinator at Sioux Center Christian School in Sioux Center, Iowa.
  • Tim Leugs, who teaches at Legacy Christian School in Grand Rapids, Michigan.