Maryland Semester: Seeking Ideas for Multicultural Education

Maryland Semester: Seeking Ideas for Multicultural Education

I had a chance to participate in a semester-long Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching (DFAT) program in autumn 2011. The program was hosted by the University of Maryland, and their Office of International Initiatives took good care of the twenty program participants from eight different countries. We had housing, academic mentors and even vans for the first grocery shopping all organized for us when arriving on campus. In addition to the practical arrangements, an excellent two-week orientation made the adjustment to life in the US very pleasant. I don’t know if settling down in a foreign country could get easier than this!

Ideas for Multicultural Education

The main goal during the program was to conduct an individual research or professional development project. My guiding question for the project was: How could we educate our students to be able to live and work in a diverse and pluralistic society and the globalized world? There are various fields within education and other disciplines where research related to this question is done, including, for example, international education, global education and intercultural communication. I think the upper secondary vocational school where I work in Finland is quite strong in international education; it offers students opportunities for participating in international projects, exchanges and on-the-job learning periods. We have also included at least some aspects of global education and intercultural communication into our curriculum. However, after the first months in the US, I started to ask myself whether we have considered enough the ideas from the field of Multicultural Education in my school. The fact is that traveling in other cultures, or living in a multiethnic and multicultural society, does not always lead to increased empathy, intercultural understanding or action for social justice, all underlying values in Multicultural Education. Therefore the goals of my project were to find out: 1) How could we develop our school to promote more the ideas of Multicultural Education?  2) How is Multicultural Education linked to intercultural learning?

Access to Latest Research Findings

In order to advance our projects, the DFAT program included various activities. The most important experience for me was to attend a five-day international conference on multicultural education. There I had a chance to get familiar with recent studies done in the field and to talk to researchers and practitioners in education. Many of the conference sessions were interactive, and they led me to work deeply on the assumptions which inform my work as a teacher. We also had a chance to audit two university courses. One of my courses dealt with how different theoretical and conceptual frameworks contribute to our understanding of what constitutes quality education and teaching. Getting familiar with research related to culturally-responsive teaching was especially relevant to my project. The other course helped me to deepen my understanding of cultural and communication issues that linguistically and culturally diverse students and their teachers are likely to encounter in classrooms.

Seeing it Work First-hand

An essential part of the DFAT program was a number of visits to schools and organizations. One day each week we were also placed at a local school where we had a mentor teacher guiding us. My school was Montgomery Blair High School in Maryland, which is a very diverse school in terms of students’ cultural, ethnic, linguistic and religious backgrounds. The school tries to support the self-esteem and identity of students from the minority groups, for example, through extra-curricular activities. I was positively surprised that this school was making also a big effort to create a safe environment for the LGBTI students who belong to the minority because of their sexual orientation and identity. The school had, for example, a club called Gay/Straight Alliance. I think we should work a lot more with this aspect of diversity at the upper secondary schools in Finland.

A Souvenir of Consequence

Even though the historical, societal and political context of schools is very different in the US than in Finland, I found it very useful to study in the US. Schools and researchers there have worked with the issues related to multicultural education for a long time. For me it was essential to gain deeper understanding on how to create a psychologically safe environment in my classroom so that everyone feels they can express their ideas, thoughts and identity. Only in this way can we create a dialogue which is a basis for intercultural learning. As part of the project I wanted to develop a product that I could use to share my learning when back home. For this purpose I created a presentation which I can use with different audiences in Finland. For my everyday work as a teacher, the most important result of my project was definitely my own development in further embracing the underlying principles and values promoted by the field of multicultural education.

Exchange Period Exceeds Expectations

All in all, the exchange period in Maryland did not only meet my expectations but exceeded them. Apart from the professional development activities, the University of Maryland organized memorable cultural visits, sightseeing tours and weekend trips for our group. The university staff was very warm and in an American way we got to know their families and neighbors through barbecues, dinners and music nights. We also created a special spirit in our DFAT group. Having people from eight different countries allowed us to engage in cross-cultural collaboration and learn about the life, culture and education not only in the US, but in a number of other countries as well! Now I continue keeping in touch with my international colleagues and hope to have a reunion with them one day.

Text: Elina Kast, Distinguished Fulbright Awards in Teaching 2011-2012