Multicultural Lessons

Dr. Deborah Frison
Deputy Commissioner

I miss Sesame Street.  For years I would watch the lessons taught by muppets and children, Big Bird and Cookie Monster.  But now my children are grown and now that I don’t have little ones at home, I don’t watch Sesame Street, as I once did.  The loss of those friendly faces in my life is kind of a bummer.  Our family watched and were reminded of the importance of some basic skills to be used all throughout life; that we may all look different on the outside but it’s important to remember that deep down we are all very much alike; that we all have similar needs, desires and feelings.  For example, I remember Big Bird trying to fit in by changing, only to find it was best to be himself.  Bert and Ernie taught us that relationships work best when friends balance one another.  It is not lost on me that many of their episodes have focused on the very essence of the Nebraska Department of Education’s mission.

This year Sesame Street introduced Julia, a character with autism.  They have embraced the topics of divorce and bullying, military families, and others.  They had a student explain the parts of a wheelchair and have championed diversity and inclusion. This television series has played an important role in shaping society’s construction of diversity and multiculturalism.

Multicultural education is also an integral and critical component to the work of the Nebraska Department of Education, “to lead and support the preparation of all Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living.”  The values of the department, like television’s Sesame Street, include, “respect for individuals and individual differences.”  By state law, our Nebraska schools are tasked with integrating multicultural education into all aspects of the K-12 curriculum.  According to the Nebraska Revised Statute 79-719, “multicultural education includes, but is not limited to, studies relative to the culture, history, and contributions of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asian Americans.  Special emphasis shall be placed on human relations and sensitivity toward all races.”

Nebraska educators are focused on making our classrooms and schools culturally sensitive and safe for students and people from differing backgrounds.  If you haven’t seen the Nebraska Loves Public Schools documentary, “Seeds of Hope,” I encourage you to find a half hour in your day to watch this impactful film.  You can watch it here: https://iloveps.org/films/seeds-of-hope.  Through English learning programs, schools are responding to the needs of refugee and immigrant families who relocate to Nebraska communities.  However, the idea of multicultural education is much broader than serving these students.  In fact, the need for multicultural education is heightened in communities like Chadron, Lincoln, and Schuyler, which are featured in the film.  Likewise, civility, formal politeness and courtesy in behavior and speech, ensures our schools are safe for all.

These communities, which might be classified as demographically shifting, have changed dramatically in the last few years.  In many cases, the ethnic majority in these communities was historically white.  Today, people from Burma, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, and Sudan, to name a few countries, relocate to Nebraska.  In fact, Nebraska led the nation in resettling the most refugees per capita in 2016.  Large numbers of Hispanic immigrants come to Nebraska each year, live in our communities, and are educated in our schools.  Per the multiculturalism statutes, schools have an obligation to teach all students how to engage with one another and model how to respect one another, regardless of background by placing special emphasis on human relations and sensitivity toward all races.  We at the Nebraska Department of Education have an obligation to work with schools to be successful in this effort.  There are some resources on our website for schools and others here: https://www.education.ne.gov/mce/.

We have more work today.  In the more than 240 year history of the United States of America, the Civil Rights Movement occurred only about 50 years ago.  While the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was landmark in outlawing discrimination in the labor force with respect to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, we continue to see evidence of discrimination in our world.  As we prepare young people in our schools to be college, career, and civic ready, multicultural education must be at the forefront of our teaching and learning process, intertwined and integral.  The Nebraska Career Readiness Standards, found here: https://www.education.ne.gov/nce/careerreadinessstandards/, highlight the commitment of cultural competency through one of the standards, “works productively in teams and demonstrates cultural competency.”  Many resources exist for schools and teachers; and opportunities exist for professional learning experiences for educators to continue to implement multicultural education within and across the local school curriculum.

I challenge school leaders to consider how you are leveraging your resources to integrate multicultural education in the curriculum.  What does multicultural education look like in your school?  What can change with respect to multicultural education in your school?  In this changing world, how can you best prepare students to honor and respect all people; people from different or various ethnicities and different families; people who wear different clothes than one’s own or have a different skin color; yet are people who have the common characteristic of being human beings, with similar feelings, hopes, gifts, challenges, and dreams?  What does multicultural education look like in a high school math class, a first grade reading lesson, a middle school vocal music classroom, on the playground, or on the basketball court?

For some, Sesame Street was considered the most important children’s program in the history of television. No other show has caused us to think introspectively about education, cultural diversity, multiculturalism, and how we treat others, more than Big Bird and friends. We can still learn from those lessons. Our Nebraska schools are for all.  Let us continue to work together to fulfill the mission of the Nebraska Department Education to lead and support the preparation of all Nebraskans for learning, earning, and living; to prepare students, to honor and respect all people regardless of their characteristics and backgrounds.

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