Promoting Racial and Cultural Awareness in the Classroom: Creating a Plan for Evaluation

“The specter of color is apparent even when it goes unmentioned, and it is all too often the unseen force that influences public policy as well as private relationships. There is nothing more remarkable than the ingenuity that the various demarcations of the color line reflect. If only the same creative energy could be used to eradicate the color line; then its days would indeed be numbered.” — Dr. John Hope Franklin

In teaching graduate students I like to use methods that encourage self-identification about race and culture through interpretation and constructive analysis of behavior. Interpretation speaks to one’s individual perceptions, and constructive analysis serves to examine students’ meaning-making of these issues (Abes, Jones & McEwen, 2007).

This is consistent with Dr. Cyrus Ellis’ (2004) workI Shall Not Be Moved: Teaching Race in a Multiethnic Classroom.” Ellis sees an individual’s paradigm or personal method of operating in the classroom as a way of extrapolating meaning from various layers of the world. In the world of higher education, racial and cultural awareness are significant underlying factors in understanding how colleges and universities promote diversity. I see racial and cultural competence as an essential component in this development. As such, addressing these issues is a priority in every subject I teach. And, the meaning-making process regarding these issues from semester to semester is critically important to the evaluation of my teaching. 

So what’s my plan for evaluating the promotion of racial and cultural awareness in my teaching? 

First, I present concepts of racial and/or cultural awareness as learning artifacts critical to developing professional competence in graduate student development. Graduate students in higher education often seek to become specialists within one functional area of the college/university environment. Case study activities focused on race and culture engage students in analysis of the relevance of these issues as they might be presented behaviorally within college and university environments. Introducing seminal racial and cultural concepts used in scholarly research tend to enhance their practical applicability. 

Second, I incorporate principles designed for building Intellectual Community (IC) in classroom discussion like the Critical Friends Protocol (CF). Recently, scholars in graduate education have discussed how this protocol serves to facilitate critical thinking among students in the classroom. In my class the CF Protocol introduces a specific structure for classroom discussion, especially when issues of racial and cultural awareness are being explored. Adhering to this protocol serves to facilitate the note-taking of my observations and the racial and cultural artifacts being discussed. Later, these notes can be reviewed for follow-up observations and evaluation.

Third, I commit to using the Critical Friends (CF) protocol for at least three sessions during a 15-week semester for classes meeting once a week. Research on classroom management strategies often suggests that a mixture of lecture, small group discussion, and one-on-one student discussion enhance classroom discussions. Therefore, I don’t recommend using the CF protocol for every class; rather, it should be introduced as a special class feature of the course.  

Finally, instructor notes of the case study discussions can be developed into themes according to the learning artifacts presented. These notes can be examined using scholarly literature on the topic and developed into a teaching narrative that is highly individualized and self-evaluative. Subsequently, narratives could be discussed within group formats with other faculty members, particularly with colleagues who are passionate and dedicated to promoting racial and cultural awareness. 

The teaching narrative is not the only way to evaluate the use of racial and cultural concepts in one’s classroom. Perhaps this commentary will encourage others to think about how they are planning to evaluate their racial and cultural awareness in the classroom on a consistent basis.

Dr. Pamela Felder is a lecturer in the higher education division of the graduate school of education at the University of Pennsylvania. Her professional background includes teaching experience at Teachers College, Columbia University and Camden County College, Camden City Campus.