Celebrating Cultural Differences: Integrating the Language and Cultural of Staff and Students in Campus Life

Aurelio M. Montemayor, M.Ed.

No human being is born a racist or, for that matter, with any other inherent form of bigotry. Our nature is to be cooperative and caring. If this assumption seems to contradict our daily experience, it is simply because we have all been hurt. It takes much work – and adults do the work persistently – to inculcate prejudice and negative judgement, fear and suspicion in young children. Paraphrasing a song from a 1950s musical: children have to be taught to hate, before they are six, or seven or eight… they’ve got to be carefully taught.

All of us have been hurt, consistently, continuously and grow up to feel intense dislike, suspicion, fear and anger toward others. We see individuals as being bad because… And they see us as bad because… One picture of the world is to imagine all human beings forming a huge circle, each clubbing the person in front while being clubbed by the person behind. We are all hurting and being hurt. Racism is one pervasive form of hurt that is passed on socially and requires conscious work to eliminate.

IDRA’s work is most powerful and effective when we create contexts of acceptance of cultural and linguistic differences, rather than forcing educators and adults to look at their prejudices. We strive to uncover the innate feelings of community and acceptance. We also resist making presentations about any particular group or culture. Any presentation that purports to describe, define and explain any ethnic or racial group will too easily fall into stereotypes. What works best is to allow each individual to explore personal experiences that have been important in forming the person as he or she is now.

The investigation begins with sharing such things as personal examples of bravery, fond early memories with family and listing of personal heroes and heroines, especially those who are ethnically or culturally identified.

The typical agenda and objectives of an IDRA introductory workshop include the following:

  • Agenda: What is culture?
  • Objective: To arrive at a working definition of culture
  • Agenda: Levels of culture
  • Objective: To categorize different culture aspects of culture into six specific levels
  • Agenda: Classroom application
  • Objective: To experience and apply cultural topics on campus and in classroom activities

From the personal sharing, a definition by key words and synonyms is constructed by the group. The brain stormed list is then categorized, using the six levels of culture as summarized in Josue González’ dissertation, “A Developmental and Sociological Rationale for Culture Based Curricula and Cultural Context Teaching” (1974). The six levels are: formal, deep, situational, language and communications, humanistic and historical (see box).

As individuals categorize the elements they brain stormed and shared from personal experiences, they discuss how schools deal with culture. Usually schools will focus on more stereotypic, less meaningful aspects of culture and ignore the deeper and more personalized aspects of culture. The discussion analyzes the trivialization of culture and leads to an exploration of culture as an ongoing investigation and as an important context for teaching all content areas.

Schools often will dedicate a day, week or month for “culture” with cutesy, folksy crafts, foods and costumes. Moving away from these stereotypic, superficial activities, workshop participants can discuss ways teachers and children can investigate, compare and draw on each other’s family background and history as a source of information for teaching language arts, math, social science, art, etc. Participants then experience activities that reflect an ethnographic and constructivist approach to culture and apply them to daily school activities.

When the group is open and willing, it can continue with deeper levels of personal cultural investigation. The participants form a panel and each panelist responds to four questions from a particular perspective selected (x):

  • What is great about being x?
  • What is hard about being x?
  • What don’t you ever want to hear said again about x.
  • What do you expect from your allies?

The rest of the participants listen without interaction. After several panelists have responded, all participants form “think and listen” pairs and take turns sharing whatever came up for them. This process is very powerful. It allows individuals to share how they have been hurt and allows others to listen empathetically. The “x” can be race, ethnicity, class, age-group, gender or any other class or group identification.

It is important that each panelist be allowed to speak without being questioned or evaluated. Participants may not bring up anything shared afterward unless the speaker brings up the topic. The purpose is not to focus on victimization or making anyone feel guilty, but to allow individuals to listen to each other with compassion and understanding. The economic and social underpinnings of racism and bigotry can be removed with individuals listening to each other, developing compassion, understanding and friendship, experiencing that it is inherently human to cooperate, collaborate and accept each other’s dignity and worth.

Almost any curricular objective and classroom activity can be integrated into the workshop with concepts and themes that validate the language, culture and traditions of the children in the classroom, on the campus and in the community.

For example, an activity that begins with children reporting, listing and comparing how rice, potatoes and beans are cooked and eaten at home can then be made into a regional, national and international study and comparison of dietary habits.

Or, it can be a language arts, social studies and science activity. Each student can begin a family tree and trace the family back to great grandparents giving as much history as the family can help the student put together: e.g. country of origin, tracing any migration and how the family dispersed or didn’t, language(s) spoken, jobs or professions.

On a deeper level, students can explore the concept of beauty by initially describing the most beautiful woman in his or her family and explaining the reasons she is so beautiful. External physical beauty is compared to internal beauty. A discussion, followed up with written essays, on what each student’s mental image of what is beautiful, leads to a discussion of the inherent beauty of each person and how social judgements and images constrict our self concept and the judgement of others.

In IDRA workshops, a variety of classroom activities are explored that illustrate ways to draw on the resources of each student, his or her family, language, culture and traditions to teach most content areas. The interest and critical thinking that result not only enhance self concept but also further the cognitive skills that all our students need.

Capitalizing on cultural diversity is not a feel-good carryover from the 1970s but a necessity for the survival and academic success of our students and our teachers. As we continue to explore cross cultural understanding, we find that all human beings ultimately want to understand and be understood. No one is inherently in conflict with anyone else. We can all live together and cooperate. We do not have to live as if there are limited resources available that we have to compete viciously for. The children we teach expect to be accepted and validated for who they are, what traditions they bring from their families and curious about those of the other students and of the adults in school.


González, Josue. Unpublished dissertation, “A Developmental and Sociological Rationale for Culture Based Curricula and Cultural Context Teaching” (1974).

Aurelio Montemayor is a senior education associate in the IDRA Division of Professional Development.

[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Every effort has been made to maintain the content in its original form. However, accompanying charts and graphs may not be provided here. To receive a copy of the original article by mail or fax, please fill out our information request and feedback form. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]