Peer Review, Summer/Fall 2001

Vol. 4, 
No. 1
Peer Review

Approaching Diversity: Some Classroom Strategies for Learning Communities

Learning Communities in a Diverse Urban Environment
I teach at one of the most culturally diverse campuses in the country, LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, New York. An Oral Communication class (my discipline) with 35 students will probably have 30 different cultural groups. Most of my teaching is in learning communities, either in thematically linked Liberal Arts Clusters or developmental programs such as New Student House. For most of our students the learning community is the first college experience. They enter the community feeling overwhelmed with the rigors of registration and testing, confused about what they want to do and what we want them to do, and angered by the reality of having to take basic skills classes.

Learning Communities have been part of LaGuardia since the early 1970s when Roberta Matthews created the first Freedom Clusters. Since then we have developed basic skills and ESL clusters, pairs of courses that link language with specific program content, and most recently, Freshman Interest Groups. Because of our multicultural constituency, we, the faculty, learn a great deal about diversity from the students we teach. It is imperative for us to recognize the complexity of experiences in our classroom in order to build upon that complexity in discussion of culture and identity.

All of our learning communities are linked around a common theme. We try to offer a wide enough array of communities that students will be able to find one that relates to them as entering students. Our New Student House Program, for example, clusters pre-college level writing with reading and a college level content area such as Introduction to Business. The credit-bearing course may provide the theme for the cluster, or the faculty teaching may jointly decide on another theme. With our Liberal Arts Clusters, the team designing the community submits the theme in advance to the Associate Dean of Faculty; once all possible Clusters are submitted, the Dean, with the advice of a faculty committee, selects the clusters to run in any given semester. Most often, the selection of Clusters reflects a variety of courses and a variety of themes. In the fall 2001 semester, for example, we are offering Liberal Arts Clusters with such titles as "Sociology and Culture of the Family," "Culture, Society and Work: a Global Perspective," "Harlem on My Mind," "The Hip Hop of Language." All of these reflect the cultural and economic diversity of the incoming freshman class.

For us at LaGuardia, diversity is more than ensuring that our classes reflect a diversity of texts to reflect the diversity of our students. In learning communities especially, "doing" diversity means engaging in dialogue, confronting and grappling with our diverse personas. Students are asked to engage in a variety of roles each day. Our students are workers, parents, children, non-native speakers, retirees. They are also from culturally diverse backgrounds. Often they play multiple roles at one time when their work, family, language, and learning intersect. The class discussion is about how we construct these personas or have them assigned to us; the sensitivity to diversity follows as we deconstruct these social roles and look at what positive and negative attributes that we attach to them.

Because learning communities are designed by faculty from different disciplines who come together to find a way to approach teaching and learning through the different perspectives of the disciplines, they are the ideal structure for dealing with diversity. LaGuardia faculty teams are as few as two people and as many as five. The curriculum for any community is co-designed by the faculty who will collaboratively teach. Depending on the specifics of the community, faculty may share time in front of the class (team teach) or teach discreet sections. All communities meet on a regular basic to discuss the students, modify the assignments (if necessary), and monitor student success in the various classes. This method of design and delivery is what comes closest to an ideal opportunity for restructuring both curriculum and pedagogy in ways that promote inclusion and reflective examination of a wide range of diversity issues.

Ground Rules for Discussion of Diversity
How do we engage in this discussion of diversity? There are several strategies for such discussion. Faculty teaching in the community should agree to meet the students together, in whatever hour of their schedule they begin the semester. During this first meeting the team should discuss the learning community, the syllabi for the courses in the community, and the approach to learning via small group collaboration. In learning communities in which I participate, I often give a first day assignment that allows students to engage immediately in collaboration. This demonstrates for students the procedure that collaborative classes expect for all tasks; that is, group formation, task examination, discussion and reporting out.

During the second meeting I suggest facilitating the design of a list of "Ground Rules for Discussion." I first encountered this idea in the early 1990s when Roberta Matthews gave me an article by Lynne Weber Cannon on such "ground rules." Cannon clearly outlines how to produce such a list for any group. Since most of our learning community work deals overtly with issues of diversity, we have found it useful to design a set of "ground rules" for each community. The students actively participate in the establishment of these rules, which are put upon the board as they are named. Each rule is voted on; when a complete set is done, one member of the class copies the rules and everyone, including faculty, sign the copy. Those rules become our guidelines for future discussion. A typical set of rules offered by Cannon include the following:

  1. Acknowledge that racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and other institutionalized forms of oppression exist.
  2. Acknowledge that one mechanism of institutionalized racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, and the like is that we are all systematically misinformed about our own group and about members of other groups.
  3. Agree not to blame ourselves or others for such misinformation, but accept responsibility for not repeating such misinformation.
  4. Agree not to blame victims.
  5. Assume that people do the best they can.
  6. Pursue information about our own group and others.
  7. Share information about our group with other members of the class.
  8. Agree to combat stereotypes about our groups and other groups so that we can break down the walls that prohibit group cooperation and success.
  9. Create a safe atmosphere for open discussion.


In addition, I help the class generate a list of basic classroom etiquette guidelines that could include such things as obeying the general rules of discussion such as acknowledging a discussion leader, raising hands for the opportunity to add to the discussion, not interrupting others, respecting all others, not name calling, deciding when discussion will begin and end.

Obviously, I lead the discussion that results in this sample list, but I actively engage student perspectives so that the list reflects the class. A volunteer copies the list from the board, once signed, the list becomes our contract for discussion. A copy is made for each student in the class. My experience is that students take the contract seriously, and they will often point out when the rules are being violated.

Classroom Activities for Fostering Meaningful Dialogue
I usually teach either Oral Communications or the Art of Theatre in learning communities. Whatever the class, I use the following assignment, which I adapted from a course in Intercultural Communications.

Groups are formed and given the task of learning as much as they can about a particular cultural group and to teach the class what they have learned. In most cases I asked each group to choose a cultural identity other than those represented in the group. I encourage the groups to interview members of the identified group, to visit specific neighborhoods, and to use the web for research. Presentations focus on such issues as nonverbal communication codes within a specific culture, the history of a culture as it relates to the history of the United States, or the integration (or non-integration) of customs and rituals of the culture within the larger culture of New York City. This assignment is spread over several weeks; the presentations themselves are rich and rewarding for all.

Dealing with diversity can be very difficult. We all know that the biases that our students bring to the classroom are often linked to an inherited set of values and beliefs that are rarely questioned. As a teacher, my role is to guide the discussion (or to sometime ask a class member to guide if I want to engage in the discussion in a different way) and to ask students to reflect on what they have learned about other groups and what level of comfort/discomfort they feel as we engage in such discussion. I challenge them to think about what causes their comfort or discomfort and how that level relates to their identifying with the oppressed or the oppressor. This stepping back from who you are to attempt to see how you arrived at that place with those values is difficult. As the discussion level moves from culture as national heritage or race, to culture as shared value systems, to culture as gender linkages, to culture as sexual orientation, the discussion becomes more and more difficult. My personal experience is that the last is the most difficult. It is at that point in the discussion that I come out to the class. My identification of myself as a "gay man" is a revelation to them. As you can imagine their questions for me range from those based on the broadest of stereotypes, to those of a most personal nature. I answer what I can, based on my experience, and simply say "too personal" when it is. My willingness to take the risk of coming out alters the dynamic of the class. The cultural identification that most of them accept as sanctioned discrimination is now something that the class must confront. At the end of the discussion I use a common CAT (Classroom Assessment Technique); I have the class write a one minute essay about the discussion. What they write to me, anonymously, I share with the class at our next meeting. The discussion is unbelievably rich.

With the Ground Rules for Discussion in place, with the procedures for discussion clearly understood, with the most inclusive assignment given, and with the support of your fellow teachers in the learning community, rich and meaningful discussions of diversity can take place. Perhaps students can become more aware of how cultural differences can enrich us all.

The inherently collaborative nature of the learning community paradigm offers faculty an opportunity to restructure curricula to include diversity issues. The pedagogical strands that most evidence themselves in such communities (cooperative and collaborative learning, service learning, etc.) are natural modalities for different ways of seeing, hearing, and knowing. The supportive nature of the faculty toward one another and toward students in the community establishes the perfect forum for the difficult, but necessary, discussions that we must have if our democracy is to generate new ways of dealing with racism, classism, heterosexism, ageism and the variety of ills that plague us.

* Ground rules taken from Lynne Weber Cannon's article, "Fostering Positive Race, Class, and Gender Dynamics in the Classroom." Women's Studies Quarterly, 1990:1& 2: 126-134.

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