Diversity and Democracy

Multicultural Education and Mass Violence: Critical Examination by Two Student Groups

Following recent terrorist attacks around the globe, our country is in the throes of increasing anxiety, with fear mongering, ethnic stereotyping, and finger pointing elevated among politicians and average citizens. Never has it been more important for higher education to foster civic, diversity, and global learning through initiatives that help students deepen relationships across differences.

In this article, we outline a project designed to meet this imperative at Queensborough Community College (QCC) of the City University of New York. QCC is one of the most diverse colleges in the country, with students hailing from 139 nations and speaking eighty-seven different languages. In fall 2014, over 70 percent of QCC’s incoming first-year students required remediation. Significantly, most QCC students have college and career aspirations extending beyond completion of an associate’s degree.

To support these students’ success, QCC employs seven high-impact practices (HIPs), including service learning and global/diversity learning, in the five academies in which all degree-seeking students enroll. (Editor’s note: For more about HIPs, see www.aacu.org/leap/hips/.) Faculty often use these HIPs in connection with campus-based cultural resources. One such resource, QCC’s Kupferberg Holocaust Resource Center and Archives (KHRCA), provided the setting for our project.

Gender, Mass Violence, and Genocide

In 2010, the KHRCA received a National Endowment for the Humanities challenge grant to support an annual faculty-designed and -administered colloquia series that encourages Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education across disciplines. The 2015–16 series, designed and administered by the second author and titled “Gender, Mass Violence, and Genocide,” consists of eight events where participants engage diverse perspectives to study how gender structures individuals’ experiences of mass violence and genocide.

Complementing the colloquia series is an exploratory research protocol that examines QCC students’ responses to aligned curricula. During the 2015–16 academic year, students in fifteen courses will attend an event from the series and complete a written assignment connecting their insights from the event with course material. A team of four faculty will then assess these assignments using the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U’s) Global Learning VALUE Rubric, which measures students’ efforts to “analyze and explore complex global challenges” within and across courses (AAC&U n.d.).

Project Description

In fall 2015, students from BE226, an advanced English as a Second Language (ESL) reading course, engaged in a service-learning partnership with students from EDUC101, an education course for pre-service teachers, to explore what it means—within the larger context of mass violence and genocide—to acquire a multicultural education. In the process, the ESL students developed their English reading and speaking skills, while the EDUC101 students gained experience in lesson design, teaching, and assessment.

One major contributor to the project’s success was how seamlessly students from both courses collaborated across language, skill, and cultural barriers. The ESL students had failed the ACT reading test and were required to retake it at the end of the semester to enter credit-bearing courses. These students came from nine different language and cultural backgrounds and had resided in the United States for four years or less. All spoke a language other than English at home and had very little exposure to English outside of the classroom. The EDUC101 students were predominately Hispanic and female and hoped to become elementary school teachers.

Students learned about colloquia series themes as they provided service to one another in myriad ways. Students in both classes commenced the semester by reading The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet by Jasmina Dervisevic-Cesic (2014), which documents the author’s experiences during the Bosnian war. As they read, the ESL students created open-ended reading comprehension questions based on the book. In the first meeting of the two classes, the ESL students used these questions to connect with their EDUC101 partners and converse about their diverse backgrounds.

Because the ACT reading test is so significant for the ESL students, a major component of the project involved learning about assessment. In the second meeting, the ESL students presented on multiple-choice question construction using sample questions they had developed about the book. The EDUC101 students then created a multiple-choice “practice test” on an article about multicultural education. Before administering their test, the EDUC101 students needed to scaffold the ESL students’ knowledge about the article’s challenging content and vocabulary. Therefore, in the third meeting, the EDUC101 students taught vocabulary and concepts from the article before assigning the article and homework to the ESL students. In the fourth meeting, students worked together to review the homework and test and to develop questions for Dervisevic-Cesic, who spoke to a campus-wide audience as part of the colloquia series. The fifth and final meetingbrought closure to the project, as students shared their reactions to Dervisevic-Cesic’s talk and reflected on multicultural education.

Project Outcomes

Critical reflection is a major element of successful service-learning projects (Maloy and Carroll 2014). During this project, students completed five in-depth written reflections, many informed by QCC’s concurrent participation in the Teagle Foundation’s “Student Learning for Civic Capacity” project, assessing their attitudes regarding their own learning. Several overarching themes emerged from these reflections.

The ESL students described increased confidence in their language proficiency. They also mentioned relishing the opportunity to enhance their conversational skills with native speakers. The EDUC101 students zeroed in on “career learning,” reflecting on their experience prepping materials, leading a class, and creating learning strategies on the spot.

This project also achieved our shared course objective: to engage students in critically analyzing the necessity of multicultural education. Many students began the semester with limited knowledge about multicultural education,often defining it as focusing on ethnic fairs, food, and festivals. However, by working collectively across differences to analyze Dervisevic-Cesic’s book and attend her talk, create lesson plans and presentations, and engage in discussions, the BE226 and EDUC101 students assisted one another in augmenting their definition of a multicultural education and their understanding of its importance. As one student wrote, “Multicultural education [helps] to spread knowledge and perspectives as well as sympathy towards other cultures. Multicultural education is of value to society because it gives us the opportunity to learn from one another and spread cultural diversity and awareness.”

Overall, the most prevalent theme that emerged across all five reflection exercises was how much students had learned from one another. For instance, an EDUC101 student wrote, “[This] experience helped me work on my communication and teaching skills through the activities we participated in together. It made me see the perspectives of foreign-born students and how I am not much different from them.”

Preparation for Work and the Global Community

In this unique project oriented toward student success, community engagement, and workforce development, ESL and EDUC101 students benefited equally from an intense collaborative experience focused on critically analyzing the significance of multicultural education within the larger context of mass violence and genocide. All project participants heightened their understanding of the importance of reducing hatred, discrimination, and violence worldwide. What is more, the pre-service teachers stand to bring this knowledge into their future work creating inclusive educational environments.

As mentioned above, this project is just one example of learning activities designed by QCC faculty to support Holocaust, genocide, and human rights education during the current academic year. Other projects have linked coursework with events in the colloquia series through such activities as historical research or photography. Preliminary analysis of papers written by eighty-two consenting students indicates that students’ learning across these projects has clustered around the “global self-awareness” dimension of the AAC&U Global Learning VALUE Rubric, demonstrating students’ development of an “integrated identity with a systemic understanding of the interrelationships among the self [and] local and global communities” (AAC&U n.d.).


AAC&U (Association of American Colleges AND Universities). n.d. “Global Learning VALUE Rubric.” https://www.aacu.org/value/rubrics/global-learning. Accessed January 5, 2016.

Dervisevic-Cesic, Jasmina. 2014. The River Runs Salt, Runs Sweet. Charlottesville, VA: NSPYR.

Maloy, Jennifer, and Julia Carroll. 2014. “Critical Reflection on the Road to Understanding the Holocaust: A Unique Service-Learning Project at a Two-Year College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 41 (4): 369–83.

Julia Carroll is associate professor of reading and writing to ESL students at Queensborough Community College and Amy E. Traver is associate professor of sociology and education at Queensborough Community College.

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