Abby Emerson: Enacting Multicultural Education


How does Abby enact multicultural education in her classroom?

Developing Positive Academic Identities

Abby explains, "To develop students’ academic identities, I try to use their voices as much as possible. So if there is anytime where I can have a student do something I try to have them do it, as opposed to me. If that means I’m going to have them lead the class in moving from one room to the other, that can be that. But another thing that I like to do is have them sharing their work on a constant basis. And so at the end of our work period students are able to showcase what they’ve done. For example, In math, we have math congresses where students come together and instead of me teaching them “hey, this is how you’re going to multiply,” “hey, this is how you’re going to divide the fractions,” I say “hey, what did you do to multiply, what did you do to divide fractions” And then we start with them sharing their strategies and so I’m valuing their knowledge so really, they see themselves as the producers of knowledge, versus me delivering this content to them."

Below, Abby illustrates how she develops students' academic identities by showcasing two different learning experiences from social studies. What strikes you about what she is doing?

The first clip shows students looking at primary and secondary sources about the history of voting in our country. Each group focused on a different demographic group to create a timeline that showed the history of their experience with voting in this country. By creating the timelines, they then taught the rest of the class what they learned and we were able to construct and overall timeline to see who was included and excluded at different points in history.

The second clip shows students working to match biographical descriptions of activists (e.g., Bayard Rustin, Grace Lee Boggs, The Mirabel Sisters), images of the activists, and quotes they said. Then students looked across the quotes to pull out themes around activism that launched our final unit with student-led social action projects. Whether students are teaching their peers what they learned or taking the initiative to do projects on their own issues with their own strategies, students are building up their own academic expertise and identity."

Developing Positive Social Identities

Abby connects students' academic identities with developing positive social identities. She explains: "We do a lot of identity work at the beginning of the school year. And not so much to develop their social identities as if they are not there, but help develop them in the sense that they learn that they are welcome in school and that who they are is going to be important and valued in the classroom. And so we have a lot of conversations at the beginning of the year about who are we and what does that mean. What are the identities that we have, how do they show up in our classroom, how do they show up in the world, how do they show up in our curriculum? And so it’s important that students know who they are before we even get to a lot of the important content because if they are not sure where who they are it can make the conversation about content later in the year much more challenging."

"I would say I understand where students are socially when they are able to articulate for themselves who they are not me necessarily me telling them “Oh, like don’t you think you might be kinda like this” But when I can say, “tell me who you are” and they’re able to just kind of go on and say the different positive things about them whether they are academic or social or cultural identities whatever those are love when students can just answer that question. Who are you and how do you identify? If they can do that independently, then I feel like we’re on a really good track to start the year."

Here we see students working in groups to brainstorm issues they see in the world.

In order to work on their culminating social action projects they thought back to our conversations throughout the year. Many of these conversations centered their identities and problematized times and places in our country when those identities might not have been honored or respected. By understanding their multiple identities and how they fit into our national landscape students are then able to create plans that educate people and lead to a deeper understanding and respect of identity. 

Developing Respectful Engagement with Diverse People

Abby develops her students' ability to engage respectfully with diverse people. She explains that, "I’m fortunate in my teaching context because I do teach in New York City and so there are tons of different people when you’re walking down the street or when you’re just kind of out and about in New York City. But a lot of times students are coming from communities that are segregated because New York City is so segregated. So there are times where racial differences or cultural differences can come to a head in the school context. And so it’s important that when those situations arise, that we talk with each other and the students learn to have conversations about difference. And I find that it’s easier for students to respect other people and other people’s differences when they themselves have a strong sense of self and a strong love of self. Because if they love themselves, then it’s much easier for them to care about other people and they can start to see how important that is. One of the measures that I use to see how students are doing on their respect for other students is how well they’re able to stand up as an ally. I feel like there have been moments where students . . . a sticky situation might happen and they might not necessarily know how to deal with. But if students are able to stand up for a friend that maybe has been targeted for some part of their identity, then I feel that they there are making significant progress."

Here, students are working in groups while participating in the Black Lives Matter Week of Action.

Students started by learning about the thirteen guiding principles of Black Lives Matter through a gallery walk around the classroom. They then separated into small groups based on which principle most resonated with them. From there, they put together a creative art piece that showed what that principle meant to them. These students are writing songs about Black women, creating paintings with transgender affirmations, and other art pieces celebrating Black families. 

Developing Social Justice Consciousness

Abby says, "To develop students’ social justice conscience, I would say that I use current events as a huge jumping off point. And if I can bridge current events with the historical content that I’m being asked to teach in social studies, then I feel like students are able to be more conscious about the world. Because they can see patterns and systems of oppression that have happened historically and how there perpetuated today. And when they can see that it’s not just this one little thing that’s unfair that happened,  that it’s this long history of injustice in our country, then they’re able to be more aware on a deeper level as opposed to just thinking that it’s an isolated incident.

Explicit lessons around Black Lives Matter and their principles help raise students' consciousness to the anti-Blackness present in our society. By learning about a group working towards liberation for all Black people students eyes are turned towards issues of social justice. In addition to the BLM principles, this video also shows students looking critically at our nation's voting history. By noting who could and could not vote when, students are developing a consciousness that our country was build by and for certain groups and not for others."

Developing Social Action

This video shows students working on social justice projects that resist anti-Blackness and celebrate the principles of Black Lives Matter. They used creative forms of expression to showcase values that were important to them and intersected with racial justice like emphasis on Black women or Black families or transgender rights.  In this video , students also looked at quotes by activists who called for direct action. By looking at their words, students drew inspiration on the need for action or "creative trouble" as Bayard Rustin phrased it. Students then worked in teams to create projects that targeted social justice issues they saw in the world around them (e.g., domestic violence, global warming, gun violence). 

She concludes that, "One of the ways that I like to encourage students to take action for social justice is making sure students have that strong identity. They’ve also developed a strong understanding of issues in our world that are happening right now, whether it’s police brutality, whether it’s gun violence, whatever that issue may be. And I find that when students have that strong identity and they have a strong awareness of what’s going on in the world then naturally they feel compelled to take social action. They don’t need that much of an invitation. Sometimes you just have to remind them “hey, you can do this,” and that’s enough to kind of get the ball rolling. And then I found that students would then take the initiative to create their own projects. And I will support them and scaffold them in doing that but I’ve had students that have made blogs about asthma and the consequences of smoking for their community. I’ve had students who have made videos about police brutality to post on a blog of that have made pins about gender violence. All of that was rooted in conversations we had about current events and conversations we had about identity and those combined make it so they want to take social action independent of whether I’m there or not."