Activist Christine Sleeter is white, from a community with very little diversity, and admitted she knew almost nothing about her student’s background when she began teaching in Seattle.
Sleeter, an author and a teacher in addition to activist, spoke about how the teaching of ethnic studies, or the lack thereof, can be improved. Sleeter spoke in the Lory Student Center Thursday night as part of Colorado State University’s week-long Diversity Symposium.
Sleeter emphasized the importance of having multicultural education and an ability to think critically about what other groups have to go through. She said in doing so, people will start to become agents of social change.
“I mean, we have a president who can’t even figure out how to get resources to Puerto Rico,” Sleeter said.
Sleeter said changes in teaching styles and curriculum can be an effective way to get students to think more critically about their culture and the cultures of others.
School textbooks that are heavily focused on white perspectives are just one problem, according to Sleeter. Of those who teach K-12, 84 percent are white, Sleeter said; the combination can lead to classes that leave out important topics regarding multiple ethnic groups.
“The fragmented inclusion of people of color in the dominant curriculum leaves students of color feeling like, as Caroline Turner put it, guests in someone else’s house,” Sleeter said.
She said ethnic studies can give people the ability to address social problems. Sleeter said she wants to implement several strategies to create positive change in classrooms. Teachers need to treat students as intellectuals and develop strong relationships with them, according to Sleeter.
“Teaching involves collaboration with students, co-construction with students,” Sleeter said. “It isn’t just sage on the stage giving knowledge to students.”
Sleeter said classroom curriculum should focus on examining real social problems in student communities. Students should examine the roots of these problems, collect data and ultimately propose solutions to offer to their community.
Freshman biochemistry student Matthew Funk said he could relate to a lot about what Sleeter talked about, as he went to an elementary school where the majority of students were Latino. He said these topics should be articulated more at CSU where the demographic is dominantly white.
“These are issues that are important to understand and to be able to talk to each other about,” Funk said.
Funk said he agreed with a lot of the strategies Sleeter suggested regarding curriculum changes in K-12 schools, but thinks the logistics of implementing these changes could prove challenging.
Sleeter ended the evening with the idea that ethnic studies is not limited to one subject within a curriculum. She told a story of a former colleague, who wanted to infuse ethnic studies with his biology course. Her colleague wanted to examine how different world views influenced health and an understanding of science.
“It takes somebody looking at their discipline through an ethnic studies lens,” Sleeter said. “If you can make biology and ethnic studies go together, you can make everything go together.”
Collegian reporter Ty Betts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TyBetts9