George Lucas Educational Foundation
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My career got off to a bad start when I was hired to teach in a Minneapolis Ojibwe Survival School. That was the year that Prince's Sign O the Times dropped -- the year most of my lesson plans failed. More terrifying was the fact that I had no backup plan.

I'm embarrassed now to admit that I sent over 15 kids to in-school suspension in a single morning. A chair was thrown at my head and later a waterfowl-sized stone. At a school event, a masked student threatened me with a hunting knife while I stood at a public urinal.

The attempted assaults weren't fun, but I classified them as aberrations and moved on. What really unhinged me was that students didn't like me. And their scorn felt earned. Most of my memories of that year have been erased, but I'll always remember putting on my headphones, leaning my head against a bus window on the ride home from work, feeling numb, listening to Sign O the Times.

It took a decade for me to figure out what I did wrong -- a lot of little things, but one big thing. I didn't try hard enough to understand my kids -- I didn't understand their religion, their language, their relationships, their home lives, their poverty, their politics, their weekend visits to the rez, their history, or their dreams. And secondarily, I was too occupied with pretending I knew what I was doing to share anything real about myself.

Today we know more strategies for helping all kinds of students succeed. But none of them can work unless we learn to "see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs," says author John Green. Otherwise, it's like "looking at your window shade but never looking inside. But once the vessel cracks, the like can get in. The like can get out."

Research-Based Strategies for Working with Diverse Learners

A review of the research (PDF, 119KB) on teaching diverse learners sorts the "best practices" into four categories, summarized below:

1. High Expectations

Teachers address beliefs that lead to lower expectations of diverse students and persistently teach challenging curriculum.

2. Culturally Relevant Instruction

Instructors associate engaging curriculum with the knowledge, skills, values, and concerns that students bring with them from their home and community. Other practices include cooperative learning, extended dialogues to develop language and thinking skills, explicit teaching of cognitive strategies, and the use of technology to enhance instruction.

3. Caring Relationships

Teachers develop relationships with their students. They co-learn, co-teach, and co-research together.

4. Parent and Community Involvement

Instructors communicate with parents, and invite them into their children's learning process.

Working together, teachers, parents, and administrators can make significant progress in supporting diverse learners. Harrowgate Elementary School in Chester, Virginia, where 61 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, struggled to involve parents. Harrowgate's solution was to initiate the Parent Partners Program that awards points to guardians for participating in different school events: parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, classroom service, any of the 40 yearly workshops, etc. "Parents responded to these new opportunities, making high parent involvement an embedded part of our culture," writes Linda Wood, Harrowgate Elementary School Principal, in NAESP's Best from the Best. "For the first time in our 50-year history, the PTA realized 100 percent membership!"

In the download for this blog post, you'll find a collection of tactics for enhancing those classroom conditions that boost academic achievement among diverse learners -- strategies that do not arise from the discredited cultural deficit model.

Ultimately, a teacher's goal at the end of a semester is to gaze upon the shadows of all our departing learners and see that our lessons taught them to reach for a patch of blue sky, bright with significance and purpose. And to keep reaching.

How are you remaking your classroom to foster learning among diverse students?

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Supporting Diverse Learners

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Roxann Evans's picture

Todd, like my grandmother use to say, experience teaches wisdom. I am so happy that you have some experiences to share, and experiences that only made you into a better person. Well, while I cannot say I have encountered such drastic experiences as you, I can certainly say that I have had the culture shock when I moved from one country to the next during my teaching career. While, I will not get into the details, I will say that these were and continue to be, great moments of learning experiences for me. I continue to cherish them, and understand the importance of knowing each student. Great article Todd.

Chris D's picture

Thank you for sharing your insight on this issue. I teach in a school for refugee children, and can confirm that the suggestions and tips you outlined are effective and useful in a multicultural setting. I could relate to your challenges at the beginning of your career, and was so pleased that time and hard work helped you find the best ways to meet the needs of your students!

Tracey Reynolds's picture

What a story! I am a currently working towards my teaching license and trying to gather information to help guide my first year of teaching. The strategies you provided for working with diverse learners are wonderful. I especially like the idea of giving points to parents to help create involvement. As a former Head Start worker, I know how important parent involvement is to student success. I am wondering how you gained the insights needed to turn your teaching career around. Do you have any tips or strategies that helped you gain student relationships? Also, what happens when create high expectations but students are unable to meet these expectations?

Brittany's picture

Todd, this is an insightful blog. I am currently in a class learning about cultural differences. In what other ways have you allowed yourself to learn about other cultures? For example, have tried food from other cultures? Or maybe had the opportunity to visit a diverse student's home? I think having an actual experience of other cultures is a great opportunity!

Gweny's picture

I found your reflection on your first year as a teacher to be very insightful and helpful. I am currently in a transition to teaching program and learning about cultural differences. I think you make a valid insight that it is important to get to know your students and to let your students get to know about you in order to have a successful classroom experience. I also found the strategies that you listed to be very informative and helpful, and I will definitely be referring back to them once I have a classroom of my own.

Monica Torres's picture

I am currently a student enrolled in a Transition to Teaching Program in Indiana. Your personal experience discussed in the introduction was very valuable to me. It truly goes to show that taking the time to get to know your students and their backgrounds is crucial in teaching diverse learners. They have to know that you care about them individually in order to build a trusting relationship with you. I'm sure this is something that takes time to build since there are many students in each classroom, but it seems to make all the difference. Also, I agree in that even though we are teachers, we have to be learners as well. That makes children of different cultures feel welcome and more open to being themselves.
Thank you for sharing,

LHolliday's picture

I work within a very culturally diverse school district in Indiana, as well as currently enrolled in a Transition to Teaching program. I can appreciate you story as well as quote of "see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs". I believe that we can all learn from our students, and their diversity that they bring to the classroom. I believe that at times we as educators can get caught up in the curriculum, and what we need for our students to know for things such as standardized testing, that we forget to get to know and try to fully understand them, especially during times where we may become frustrated, and sometimes doubtful. I'm sure that building a solid rapport with students and families is a major step towards helping the diverse learner as well as others.

brnsharp's picture

Thank you for sharing your reflection on what the cause of a difficult teaching year. It has been my experience that honest self-reflection can highlight a multitude of imperfections in ourselves, and by sharing these reflections we can potentially save others from making the same mistakes. I appreciate the opportunity to learn from your trials.
Aside from the necessity of understanding our diverse student group, what stood out to me and got me thinking in a different direction was the comment about Harrowgate Elementary School. I am currently a secretary at an Elementary School, and we recently renamed and rebranded our PTO to Community Group to eliminate the stigma that only parents can participate in the school. We have seen an increase in our family involvement but can nowhere near claim that we have 100% membership. It is hard to imagine what that would be like, and the potential it would mean for the school. Thank you for getting me thinking.

josh's picture


I am currently in a Transition to Teaching program with Indiana Wesleyan University. Thank you for sharing your insight teaching diverse learners. I also enjoyed reading your experiences you had before you came upon this realization. I found your review of the research on these four categories to very informative. Letting students know that you care at a high level helps them to trust you and hopefully be more involved in the learning process. I also believe that parental involvement is another important factor in the learning process of students Parental involvement is imperative in the student to continue learning outside the classroom and to continue with education later in life. Thank you again and I look forward to reading more of your insights.

tortellini6887's picture

All four of these steps are perfectly said. You must always demand excellence from your students. They will never be perfect, but their efforts and everything they do must be perfect and excellent. The last part about culture is key for any sport team to succeed. I train athletes all day and everyday and having that strong culture with a clear and precise message on expectations is what makes that program run.

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