Many job postings for teaching positions have as a desired qualification the ability to teach a diverse student population. It is certainly understandable given the changing American demographics both now and in the upcoming decades.   What exactly should that qualification entail?

When presented with this issue in graduate school, many in my class had the first instinct to go with the role model route. That is, presenting students with a history of prominent individuals in the field that match the student’s background. My graduate adviser was quick to point out, that does nothing to help a student understand the subject material. And that, after all, is the main objective of a teacher.

As my adviser explained, the key to teaching a diverse class is to understand and integrate their life experiences into the course lesson plans. This places a premium on understanding the backgrounds of your students, preferably as the first order of business at the start of the course. By this, I mean more than a student’s racial background. You’ll want to understand a student’s life history and interests. Is the student from an urban or rural background? What are their personal interests and goals? Why are they taking the course?

In the Buffalo school system, there are many students from Somalia and Puerto Rico. Of course, most of the students are from Buffalo itself. How does one teach to a class with such a diverse background. An example of a possible lesson is below:

The seasons are dictated by the tilt of the Earth’s axis, which in turn, determines the angle of the Sun above the horizon. As an exercise, have the class calculate the amount of solar radiation received per square meter for Buffalo, San Juan, and Mogadishu on June 21 and December 21 at local Noon. Prior to the calculation, have the class discuss their personal experience of weather on those dates at those locations and make a prediction as to what the results of the calculations will be.

Using basic trig and a base unit of 1050 W/m2 of energy received by sunlight when the Sun is directly over head will yield the following results:

Energy per square meter at local Noon – watts per square meter         

City                 June 21                      December 21

Buffalo            990                             420

San Juan         1047                           783

Mogadishu     981                            945

Follow up questions for the class could be, does it surprise that Buffalo receives about the same amount of energy from the Sun on June 21 as Mogadishu? What does the energy difference between the three locations on those dates say about the seasonal changes and compare to the original class discussion.

Have the class find the average temperature for those cities on those dates and discuss the correlation. The students can use a planetarium program such as Starry Nights to see if any of the three cities experience a day when the Sun is directly overhead at local Noon. Keep in mind, this is a simplified model that does not account for variables such as cloud cover, but all scientific models make simplifications to arrive at the core of the issue.

This exercise, of course, should be tailored to fit the background of the specific class. The key point is to utilize the diversity of your class as an asset to the lesson plan.

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