Accommodating for Cultural Diversity in the Classroom

Many teachers, myself included, will be teaching in culturally diverse classrooms during their teaching career. Every classroom is diverse and unique in its own way.  Teachers must possess knowledge on how to accommodate for cultural diversity in their classroom.  Because of this and as part of an assignment in my Teaching Students with Mild Disabilities class, I researched cultural diversity in the classroom. This paper is a result of my research and will be a key ingredient in my teaching.


    Culture encapsulates various aspects. There are a number of cultural factors, which have direct implications for teaching and learning.  Teachers need to be responsive to individual ethnic groups’ cultural values, practices, language, learning preferences, involvement and familial patterns.  Today’s teachers must also be more than just aware or respectful of the idea that ethnic groups have distinct values or they may display similar values in unique ways (Gay, 2002).

    This paper will explore cultural diversity in the educational setting, examining first how cultural diversity can be accommodated in the classroom, then identifying five crucial issues in the literature for accommodating for cultural diversity in the classroom.  Then a discussion will ensue on how decisions of pedagogy should be effected by cultural diversity.  Finally, this paper will discuss the emerging issues of empowerment and natural support and provide a brief personal reflection.

How cultural diversity should be accommodated with in the classroom

            Despite the disproportionately below average achievement of students of color, disagreement still exists over including multicultural education in curriculums.  Culturally responsive teaching holds that explicit knowledge about cultural diversity is necessary to meet the needs of all students today (Gay, 2002).  In order to accommodate for cultural diversity, this type of teaching method is imperative.  Culturally responsive teaching includes:  a knowledge base about cultural diversity, including ethnic and cultural diversity in the curriculum, displaying care, constructing learning communities and reacting to cultural diversity in the presentation of instruction (Gay, 2002). Culturally responsive teaching is defined as:

“Using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (Gay, 2002, pg. 106).

            There are many contributions that various ethnic groups have made to certain subject areas, and too many teachers are unaware of these accomplishments.  To accommodate cultural diversity, teachers must convert the curriculum into “culturally responsive curriculum designs and instructional strategies” (Gay, 2002, pg. 108).  This can be achieved by performing in depth cultural analyses of textbooks.  In my opinion, this will take an extraordinary amount of time and many teachers would not have the available free time to do this.  More realistic methods to accommodate for cultural diversity are needed.

            Another way to accommodate cultural diversity in the classroom is through symbolic curriculum, most commonly seen in the form of bulletin board decorations, signs, banners, or posters around the room.  I feel this is much easier for teachers to accomplish than in depth analysis of text and many teachers I have seen do utilize their bulletin board space to celebrate diversity. Teachers can take advantage of these so-called “advertisements” and encourage their students to learn important multicultural lessons from these symbols (Gay, 2002).  Teachers must make sure that the images in their classrooms represent a variety of age, gender, time, place, social class, and all types of diversity across ethnic groups.  It is also important for teachers to clarify and explain inaccurate portrayals of ethnic groups in the mass media and popular culture.  For many students, unfortunately, the television can be a powerful and believable source of knowledge (Gay, 2002).

            Cultural scaffolding is another way teachers can accommodate for cultural diversity. This can be paraphrased as using students’ unique cultures and experiences to increase their academic success.  Teachers must not expect anything less than high performance from their ethnically diverse students (Gay, 2002).  Unlike the typical American culture, many other cultures, such as Asian cultures, tend to place group success over individual success and effort; therefore ethnically diverse students may have different styles in which they perform work.  Because of this, a variety of assessments, such as performance-based assessments should be utilized in the classroom.  A community of diverse learners, in which all learning styles are appreciated and accepted, is important (Gay, 2002).  Not only do various ethnic groups have different work styles they also have different communication styles, which reflect their cultural values and form their behavior (Gay, 2002).  It is imperative that the classroom environment be a welcoming and accepting environment of all types of communication patterns.

            One way I have seen cultural diversity accommodated in the classroom is by sharing of individual cultures from the students themselves. One way I saw this achieved was having each student bring in an ethnic dish of their choice and sharing it with the class on a multicultural feast day.  Another way to easily accommodate and celebrate diversity in the classroom is to have parents or family members of the students come in to the classroom during a specific holiday and share with the class their holiday practices. I saw this done by a student of the Jewish faith whose mother came in during Hanukah to read a story about the holiday and share a traditional craft with the class.

            Cultural diversity needs to be accommodated in our classrooms because it provides a number of benefits to children.  For elementary school children, it gives them an increased warmth to and appreciation of being human.  It also helps children to have a more logical understanding of the existence of ethnic diversity in the history and culture of not only our society, but also the world (Gay, 1979).

5 Critical Issues in Accommodating for Cultural Diversity

            One key issue in accommodating for cultural diversity in the classroom involves transforming curriculum into culturally responsive and culturally accurate curriculum.  One type of curriculum present in the classroom is formal plans, which policy makers often approve and go together with textbooks.  Many of these textbooks, although improving over time, have been inaccurate in their portrayal of ethnic and cultural diversity (Gay, 2002).  One example I thought of regarding this issue was how in school we only learned about the civil war through the lenses of the North, since we are part of the Northern United States.  One-sided views can often be biased, in my opinion.

            Another key issue found in the literature that may pose a problem with accommodating for cultural diversity in the classroom is the issue of communal communication styles (Gay, 2002). In different cultural groups there are unique roles of the speaker and listener when communicating.  For example, some African-Americans use a call-response method of communicating; Native-Hawaiians use a method called talk-story.  These communication patterns can prove problematic in a classroom if a teacher is uniformed of this particular way of communicating.  To accommodate for this type of diversity, the teacher needs to handle a situation involving communal communication styles of a particular ethnic group very cautiously because denying a child of their natural way of speaking can inadvertently stifle their academic achievement (Gay, 2002).

            Preparing teachers more effectively to work with diverse groups of students is another issue in accommodating cultural diversity in the classroom.  Teachers cannot accommodate for cultural diversity if they are unaware of the unique aspects of different ethnic groups. Teacher preparation programs must provide more thorough understanding of students who are not from the United States’ ethnic, racial and cultural norm.  Future teachers need to learn more about how specific cultures of certain ethnic groups affect learning strategies, behavior, communication, and classroom interactions (Gay, 2002). I feel that there is not enough time in teacher preparation to go over every ethnic groups’ culture but I think an effort should be made to focus upon the majority of ethnic groups in a certain area where a future teacher may be teaching.  For example, in the Miami area there is a large population of Cubans so maybe teacher preparation programs in Florida should include aspects of the Cuban culture for example.  Teacher preparation classes should also include the opportunity for future teachers to become aware of their own cultural beliefs that affect their behavior (Lin and Kinzer, 2003).

            No matter how much a teacher may try to be un-biased by their own culture, it still may occur, even when trying to accommodate for cultural diversity.   Our cultural knowledge provides us with information that molds our explanations of events and our behavior (Lin and Kinzer, 2003).  For example, a teacher could be reading her students an un-biased simple nursery rhyme and asks her students a question about it, expecting an answer reflected by the rhyme itself.   Western culture will usually interpret “Mary Had a Little Lamb” as a nursery rhyme about a girl and her lamb, but other non-western cultures may see this rhyme as being about Mary and the lamb as her meal, for example.  If a student were to give this answer a teacher may consider it incorrect and therefore have lowered expectations of an ethnically diverse student (Lin and Kinzer, 2003). Being aware of cultural knowledge and mismatches between cultural knowledge is a key issue teachers must keep in mind when accommodating for cultural diversity.

            Some teachers seem to feel that subjects, such as math and science, are incompatible with cultural diversity.  This is another key issue when accommodating cultural diversity in the classroom. Gay (2002) does not feel this is true and she proposes that there actually is a position for cultural diversity in every subject.   For example to accommodate for cultural diversity in mathematics, a cultural focus could involve a lesson on Egyptian numerals, the Chinese calendar, or counting words in different languages.   Many teachers are not aware of the significant contributions that different ethnic groups have made to certain subject areas. What teachers perceive they are aware of about the field may be based upon vague information stemming from popular culture of the media (Gay, 2002). This problem can also be solved by adding more knowledge of contributions of different ethnic groups to a vast variety of disciplines in teacher preparation programs.  There are less publicly observable but, nonetheless, extremely noteworthy contributions of many ethnic groups in science, technology, medicine, math, theology, law, etc. (Gay, 2002).  This website provides a lesson used for celebrating German-American day on October 6th, which would be very beneficial for a teacher attempting to accommodate for cultural diversity in any subject: 

Decisions of Pedagogy

            This discussion of how cultural diversity can be accommodated in many content areas brings us to our next section on how decisions of pedagogy should be effected by cultural diversity.  As already previously discussed, teaching in a culturally responsive manner involves many changes to the curriculum.  When planning a lesson or unit, teachers should try to choose texts that are free of stereotypes, which sometimes can be difficult (Davis, 1999).  When deciding what to teach, teachers must also get a sense of how their students feel in the cultural climate of the classroom.  Gay (2002) feels that teaching ethnically diverse students need to be “multiculturalized,” meaning that instructional methods should attempt to counterpart the learning techniques of diverse students (pg. 112).  The cultural characteristics of a particular classroom should provide the measure for deciding how instructional techniques should be altered for ethnically diverse students (Gay, 2002). Ethnic learning styles include eight elements, some of which are:  preferred content, methods of working through learning activities, ways to model and explain ideas, physical and social settings for activities, and so on.  These components can allow multiple points of entry and importance for matching decisions of pedagogy to the learning methods of various ethnic groups (Gay, 2002).

            Davis (1999) also feels it is important to keep in mind, when assessing students or assigning tasks, that English may not be the first language of many students.  When I am a teacher, depending on the subject area, perhaps for certain assignments I will allow students who do not speak English to compose the assignment in their primary language. Assigning collaborative assignments and choosing tasks which recognize student’s diverse backgrounds and unique interests is another way cultural diversity should effect decisions of pedagogy (Davis, 1999).  For example, a teacher could assign a book report, which allows students to explore the aspects of a traditionally underrepresented ethnic group.  I believe this is an important aspect of cultural diversity in the classroom and that all teachers should take into consideration the interests and backgrounds of their students when assigning tasks.  Another example of how teachers could accomplish this would be allowing students to choose an ethnic group or culture of their choice to do a report or presentation on, relevant in some way to the unit.  Freedom of choice is a way to empower your students, which will be discussed in more detail in the following section.

Natural Support and Empowerment

            Our text discusses natural supports as an integral source of assistance to pupils with disabilities.  Natural supports can be friends, classmates, teachers or family (Downing, 2002).  The idea of natural supports in our environment for students with disabilities can be applied to students who are ethnically diverse.  Natural supports should be in place for all students so each pupil can feel that they are a vital part of the classroom atmosphere.  Grigal (1998) discusses staff members, time, and space as natural supports that can be made available to students with disabilities, but I feel these same supports need to be in place for students who are ethnically diverse, as well.  Staff members, such as ESL (English as a second language) teachers can be available resources that general education teachers can turn to for information about tailoring lessons to include all students. One way in which time can be used as a natural support for diverse students is allowing flexibility when turning in assignments, since these students may not be speaking the same language the paper needs to be written.  Grigal (1998) discusses how setting up a classroom in a strategic way, by utilizing space is another way to provide a natural support. This can be accomplished by seating children with disabilities next to children who are not disabled. To accommodate and provide space as a natural support for diverse students would include placing a student from the dominant culture next to a student from outside the dominant culture.  Not only could the ethnically diverse student be assisted by the other student when he or she is confused with certain ideas, but these ‘seat buddies’ learn a great deal from each other.

            Of course the common natural supports should also be used in ethnically diverse classrooms, such as:  peer tutoring or lunch buddies.  A teacher could ask a number of students to join her for lunch once a week hopefully providing an opportunity for friendships to form across cultural lines.  The teacher could also receive feedback from her students on how accurately they feel the teacher is accommodating cultural diversity in the classroom. Peer tutoring is also an effective way for both students involved to help each other and possibly become friends, another support.

            Student determination and empowerment are also essential characteristics of a classroom, which supports diversity.  Providing students with more choices and allowing them to be involved in their own education are essential when empowering your students.  As stated before, a classroom, which supports and celebrates diversity and provides a welcoming environment for every student allows students to feel empowered.  Allowing students themselves to have a say in how they will be assessed or what subject material they will concentrate on to some degree are ways to accomplish this. 

            Cummings (1989) lists a number of ways to empower students who are ethnically diverse.  Some ideas are to have signs around school and your classroom that are written in various languages, not just English.  She also suggests providing opportunities for students to be able to communicate in their primary language and to be able to write plays or newspaper articles for the school in their primary language.  Students should also be permitted to study their primary language and culture in elective subjects (Green and Hsu, 2000).  I think these are all excellent ways to empower students and by permitting students to feel that they are in control of their own educational success, in a comfortable, welcoming, and diversity-accepting environment, I believe all students will excel above and beyond their capabilities.

Personal Reflection

            As a future teacher, in the process of completing a teacher education program, I knew there was a lot I had yet to learn about teaching.  I feel that I was more concerned about how to teach and what to teach, than the many other issues involved in this profession.  After researching and writing this paper I have realized that cultural diversity in the classroom is not something to merely be aware or respectful of, but something that needs to be thought about and accommodated for each and every day.  It is a much more important aspect of teaching than I had not previously considered until now.  I am glad I had the opportunity to write this paper and obtain ideas of how cultural diversity will play an active role in my classroom.


Davis, B.G. (1993).  Tools for Teaching. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Downing, J.E. (2002).  Including Students with Severe and Multiple Disabilities in Typical Classrooms.  (Practical Strategies for Teachers.)  2nd ed. Baltimore:  Paul H. Brooks Publishing Company.

Gay, G. (2002).  Preparing for culturally responsive teaching.  Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106-116.

Gay, G. (1979).  On behalf of children: a curriculum design for multicultural education in the elementary school.  The Journal of Negro Education, 48, 324-340.

Green, B. and Hsu, K. (2000).  Multicultural education: Common problems experienced by various cultures.  (Report No. S0 032 855).  Houston, TX:  National Association of African American Studies & the National Association of Hispanic and Latino Studies:  2000 Literature Monograph Series.  (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 454 143)

Grigal, M. (1998).  The time space-continuum: Using natural supports in inclusive classrooms.  Teaching Exceptional Children, 30, 44-51.

Lin, X and Kinzer, C.K. (2003). The importance of technology for making cultural values visible.  Theory Into Practice, 42, 234-242.