Differences in the Classroom; A Challenge for Democratic Educators

By Williams Ayers


Differences are all around us: different landscapes, different temperatures, diffe.rent routes, different tastes. Different people. When things are the same, we hardly notice. Sameness is flat, tedious, unremark­able. Differences jump out at us, jog our consciousness, lend texture, depth, and contrast to our developing senses. Differ­ences help us to get hold of the world, and to see ourselves in the world.

How sad, then, when differences are conceived of as problems. Cultural differ­ences are too often cast as deprivations, physical differences as deficits, social dif­ferences as pathologies, racial differences as potentially explosive. In schools and classrooms the drive is too often for conformity for uniformness, for a single standard. For sameness. Instead of seeing a huge range of normal difference in our classrooms, and teaching with and to those differences, teachers are increasingly ex­pected to label and tag differences in the interest of an imagined educational effi­ciency. These children are learning dis­ abled, for example, these are at-risk or culturally deprived, these are gifted and talented. All are categorized, all pulled aside or separated in some important ways for enrichment or remediation.

Grade level equivalency replaces multi­ple perspectives and various potentials, standardized tests replace a rainbow of possibilities. Children who do not or can­ not fit the narrowed, crabbed concept of normal are cast out, and all children lose the opportunity to learn and to grow in concert with others like and unlike them­selves.

What If…

What would classrooms be like if dif­ferences were central to the concerns and activities of students and teachers? What would schools be like if differences were not seen as misfortunes? What would happen for children and teachers if the basics included a basic abiding acceptance of our dazzling human diversity? 

To begin, classrooms might become laboratories for learning instead of mini­ lecture halls. Curriculum, teaching, evaluation might all become linked to a process of investigation. Investigation might lead to the development of a deeper sense of self-awareness and self-knowl­edge. Teachers who are self-aware, who are sensitive to their own cultural ties and af­filiations, for example, their own strengths, weaknesses, attitudes, biases, and openings, will also be in a stronger position to understand the diversity of strengths, weaknesses, cultures, and so on that children bring to classrooms. These then might become the raw material for figuring out much of how and what to teach. Awareness of differences can aid teachers in developing a pedagogy that is sensitive, flexible, and responsive.

Critical Stances 

Investigation of children, of class­rooms, of reality will almost certainly lead to a critical stance, and some discovery of deficiency 9r unfairness, and possibly to some clear and appropriate action to rem­edy problems. Discovering, for example, a window-display in a neighborhood toy store that depicts animals dressed as Native Americans, could lead a class to send a letter or set up a meeting with the store owner to explain why that particular dis­play is inaccurate and offensive. Deciding to change the pronouns of some of the characters in a book in order to include girls and women as important participants in the story, or writing a letter of protest to the author, might be an appropriate activity for some. Participating in community activities that are organized to expand opportunities for people or to celebrate cultural and social diversity is another way to look critically at the world and to act upon it.

In JoAnn’s preschool classroom differences are embraced and celebrated. Silhouettes of each child, cut from heavy butcher paper and decorated by the children, hang from the ceiling. One child’s silhouette is adorned with a hearing aid; another’s re­flects a serious attempt to portray her dark ~PAGE 3 FOLD TEXT~  a banner that reads “We Are Special.” Underneath are photographs of each child accompanied by some autobiographical information: I like —–; My favorite food is —–; I get angry when —–; and so on.  Another space announces: All Kinds of

Families. Here children have painted pic­tures of their own families, some includ­ing pets and favorite baby-sitters or friends, some revealing difficult and trou­bling circumstances – a mother  dead, a father in jail.

In  Bruce’s  middle  school  classroom differences  are   lso central.  One project this year  involved  an  investigation  into” each child’s name. The path led back to Europe, Africa, Mexico, and China, through the Bible and the Koran, to op­pression, exploitation, revolution and more. It led to a second project, the cre­ation of a classroom museum of cultural artifacts, and the sharing school-wide of deeper and richer knowledge of human culture, history, and difference. Investigation of differences began in each case close to home, but developed and led to a kaleidoscope of areas not-yet-known.

Building on Differences

Classrooms that embrace and build positively on human differences might become more child or youth-centered, more caring places where students would be allowed to experience life whole and integrated, where they could pursue in, a variety of ways their own powerful desires to learn, to become competent, to under­stand, to be cared for and to care for one another. There might be a range of activi­ties, projects, and possible experiences that could build on these desires, grow needs of a range of children, instead of separating out and reifying a single strand of intellectual or cognitive development as the singular goal of schooling.

In classrooms where differences are cel­ebrated, children are expected to grow and learn from a base of self-respect and self­ love. Because differences are not cast as problems, no one needs to be uncom­fortable in recognizing different skin color, hair texture, bilities, styles of learning, ways of knowing. Teachers work to re­spond sensitively to the deepest realities of children’s lives, to create dialogue, to build partnerships across cultures, ages, conditions, and people. The dynamic of creation and recreation is ongoing because needs, focus, and intentions shift with evolving contexts and changing partici­pants. What is vital here is the notion that every child is valuable, and each poten­tially a person of values.

Building classrooms that celebrate di­versity requires a willingness to learn as well as to teach, to be critical and active in opposition, to much of the taken-for-granted active advocate of children and families. The reward is in teaching in classrooms that are interesting, enriching, affirming, and humanizing. The promise lies in creating spaces where children with a range of backgrounds, experiences, and potentials can find success and develop a sense of strength and self-worth. 

William Ayers is an Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Illinois, Chicago. He is author of The Good Preschool Teacher, Teachers’ College Press, 1989.