Diversity in the Christian School: Are All Your Students Feeling Seen?

Cindy DeLeonThe CACE Roundtable, Transformational Communities8 Comments

She had never really been invisible, but He went out of His way to acknowledge her. The woman at the well was shocked when Jesus asked her for water (John 4). She was both a stranger and a Samaritan, so why would this Jewish man stoop to interact with her?

One wonders how often a student who sits in our classroom feels like the Samaritan woman—sitting on the outskirts, walking our halls unobserved, or saying nothing in class. Maybe one reason these students fly under the radar is because they don’t see people like them in the curriculum. The authors read, the stories covered, the individuals featured in our current texts are all important, but how often do they reflect the culture of our students or the diversity God created in students of our respective countries?

American poet Adrienne Rich expressed how disorienting and damaging it must be when a person with moral authority (such as a teacher) develops curriculum but your gender, your race, your culture is nowhere to be seen:

When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you . . . when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing. It takes some strength of soul–and not just individual strength, but collective understanding–to resist this void, this non-being, into which you are thrust, and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.

(from Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979-1985)

When discussing this blog with my little sister, she simply responded, “No one should feel like an outcast or weirdo or atypical in a classroom.” Quite simply, this goal of inclusivity is why our curriculums should seek to be diverse. Remember, Jesus went out of His way to ensure that the Samaritan woman realized she was not invisible—to ensure that when she looked in the mirror, she saw a reflection of herself.

We know how the story ends. Her encounter with the Creator of the universe so revolutionized her life that John goes on to say, “From that city many Samaritans believed in Him because of the word of the woman who testified. . . .”

Yes, you should examine your entire curriculum to see if both the authors and content reflect the beautiful diversity sitting in your classroom and sharing your nation. This evaluation is an investment of time and money, but it is incredibly worth it. There are also other ways to ensure that your students see themselves and the diversity God created in your classroom. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  1. Does the non-verbal communication in my classroom reflect the beautiful diversity of God’s people? For instance, do the figures (scientists, mathematicians, theologians, etc.) on my walls reflect diversity?
  2. Can I incorporate diversity via a bell ringer? For example, has germ gel become your best friend? Let the students discuss how germ gel has changed our lives, then ask, “Do you know that Lupe Hernandez invented germ gel?” Think about what that one little exercise does for the student who never imagined that a woman, a Latina woman, could be a scientist.

Some of my favorite moments in teaching are when students recognize their own worth and potential, like the girl who saw herself for the first time in a book written by Maya Angelou. This girl was 15 and had fallen through the cracks at school. But the teacher whom everyone feared took notice of her. One day this eleventh-grade English teacher commanded (more than requested) that the girl stop by her classroom after school. The girl wondered what she had done wrong. As she walked in and approached the teacher’s desk, her teacher handed her I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings and with a slight smile on her face simply said, “Read it.”

That evening after the dinner dishes were done, the girl began to read Maya Angelou’s story. For the first time that she could recall, she saw herself reflected in the pages of a book. Its message of hope filled her lungs with fresh air. Six years later, over cups of coffee and two slices of chocolate cake, the 21-year-old, then in her second year of teaching, told her former English teacher how that book had saved her life—it had made her feel less alone. The English teacher walked alongside that young woman for years to come as she found her way back to her faith and to Truth. Still teaching, the young woman is passionate about history, but even more passionate about students.

The English teacher was changed too. She incorporated Caged Bird into her whole-class curriculum, and she never hesitates to invest in students who are less likely to be seen. Both teachers understand that curriculum needs to reflect students.

Then there is the ninth-grade student who was athletically gifted but loved science and math even more. However, she had never learned that a woman who loves those two subjects can do things other than teach. But one day during a history discussion, this young African-American student learns about the beautiful actress Hedy Lamarr. A decade before her death, Lamarr said, “The brains of people are more interesting than the looks.” Lamarr, too, loved math and science, so during World War II, she along with her intellectual partner endeavored to figure out how to make Allied torpedoes invisible to the enemy. What they landed on was how to “hop” radio frequencies. At the time, the US Navy dismissed her idea, but today we understand that this woman who was valued only for her beautiful face laid the groundwork for Global Positioning Systems (GPS), secure Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth technology.

So what does this have to do with the African American student who had been mostly valued for her athleticism? When her teacher was done telling the Lamarr story, this girl sat stock-still in amazement. She was no longer invisible. Thankfully, this young lady will have the opportunity to pursue her love of math and science in ways that Hedy Lamarr was never afforded. She knows that it is more than acceptable to be smart and beautiful and athletic. As a teacher, we must go out of our way to make sure that all our students are able to see themselves in God’s plan for our society and His work. Through a curriculum designed to reflect the beauty of God’s diverse creation and through other intentional acts, we may help a student see themselves for the first time in the mirror of our classrooms. By God’s grace, may our schools be known to follow Jesus’ inclusive example.

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8 Comments on “Diversity in the Christian School: Are All Your Students Feeling Seen?”

    1. Thank you, Mr. Armstrong. Means much coming from you, sir. Hope it helps us all (including myself) be better in our calling.

  1. Thank you for this article, Cindy! I am going to use the germ gel story today! Our school is going to do a theme week in which we are going to study different inventions, and I am committing to sharing inventions that are from POC and women!

    1. You’re welcome, Kelsie. Thank you for taking the time to read the blog. Hope the idea works (worked) well. Please feel free to reach out if I can be of further help. Thank you for your commitment; it’s not lost on me that it means both time and effort.

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