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Appreciation for diversity.

Fostering a Deeper Respect for Different People and Perspectives

Jan 04, 2019 2019-01-04

By Cicely Woodard

Every year, in early August, I ask my students to bring in an item that represents them or their cultures. Some of my students bring in baby pictures, items that they use while participating in their favorite sport, or even souvenirs from a family vacation. One day, a student named Pranitha came dressed in traditional Indian attire. She talked about how it was a family tradition to make the earrings that accompanied her outfit.

Later in the day, a student named Hannah turned show-and-tell into a performance. She strapped on her ukulele, faced the class, and started filling the air with unbelievably beautiful music. As she sang “Stand by Me,” students in my diverse classroom clapped, danced, snapped their fingers, and sang along. I looked around and I was reminded in that moment that it’s our diversity that unites us. We all come from incredibly different backgrounds, but we show up at school with one common goal: to learn. After each person shared, my students did choreographed cheers that I taught them. After Hannah’s performance though, the students erupted into thunderous applause.

Some wonder why I spend so much time at the beginning of the school year trying to get my students to participate in an activity like this. When there are procedures to teach, rules to determine, parents to contact, and paperwork to complete, why spend time on show-and-tell? I want my students to value each other as people. I want them to celebrate their differences. I want them to appreciate what each individual person brings to our classroom.

My efforts don’t stop there. Students in my 8th grade math classes sit at tables. Every week we change the seating arrangement with a computer program that randomly shuffles the seating assignments. I don’t consider test or quiz performance, gender, or even whether they get along with each other. I simply shuffle their table assignments. This random shuffling gives them the opportunity to work with a new set of people each week. They experience different perspectives from people they may not always talk to. They learn to disagree respectfully, to justify their own thinking, and to critique the reasoning of others. They learn to collaborate and to accept people for who they are. They even learn to accept people whom they never thought they would get along with.

Recently, a student named Cole volunteered to share his work on a particular math problem. As he walked to the front of the room to display his work on the document camera he said, “This may not be right, but even if I have made a mistake, I am going to learn something.”

I was elated that Cole was okay with presenting in front of the class and making a mistake. I was glad that he understood that mistakes lead to learning. But then his classmates started to fill the air with words of encouragement. They shouted:

“You got this, Cole!”

“It’s okay if it’s not right. We are all learning together!”

“If you make a mistake, we’ll just try a different method.”

Their enthusiasm reminded me that they are learning more than just the value of making mistakes; they are learning to value each other.

My students are diverse in so many ways. Not only do they come from unique backgrounds and cultures, but they also think, communicate, and respond differently.

It is my hope that in May, when my students leave my class, they will not just have great appreciation for math, but also deep respect for people and different perspectives.

Cicely Woodard teaches 8th grade mathematics at Freedom Middle School in Franklin, TN. Students in her classes develop critical thinking skills while engaging in challenging math tasks that require them to justify their thinking and critique the reasoning of others through small group work, whole class discussions, and writing about math. Cicely earned a Bachelor of Science in Mathematics from The University of Memphis, a Master's of Education from Vanderbilt University, and she is currently studying educational leadership as a doctoral student at Lipscomb University. She is a 2019 Horace Mann for Teaching Excellence Award Winner and the 2018 Tennessee Teacher of the Year. You can connect with her on Twitter @cicely_woodard.

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