Last summer 2019, I taught a course called Diversity and Social Justice, as part of University Beyond Bars at Monroe Correctional Center for men. Despite my graduate degree and decades of teaching in ethnic studies, I struggled to find my footing inside the prison. I worried that I wouldn’t connect well with the students.

Valerie Ooka Pang’s Diversity & Equity in the Classroom saved me and the class. Pang’s book grew out of her deep experiences as an elementary school classroom teacher and in her current roles as a research scholar and professor in San Diego State University’s College of Education.

The book is framed in chapter 1 with an analysis of the roots of multicultural education, including the emergence of intersectionality and building upon earlier models of multicultural education to account for the globalized world. Pang achieves a balance between theoretical and practical so that teachers examine educational theories while also applying the information to themselves and their pedagogy. Chapters include interactive sections such as checklists with prompts to explore “learning about students” or “how culture influences my views,” case studies, teaching tips and taking a stand (my personal favorite because these explore difficult topics such as bullying, human mascots, gender stereotypes, transgender identity).

The book is organized by themes: The Power of Culture; Culturally Relevant Teaching; Race: Historical Oppression; Race and the Struggle for Civil Rights; Social Oppression: Classism and Sexism; Human Diversity: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity; Social Biases: Discrimination Based on Religion, Immigrant Status, and Exceptionalities; Prejudice and Bullying; Language development and Acquisition; Diversity and the Achievement Gap.

Pang situates each theme in a socio-historical context with concise examples that draw upon a broad range of experiences. Chapter 3 on Culturally Relevant Teaching does not abstractly prescribe the cultural groups to include in the curriculum, but instead challenges teachers to learn about their students and communities in order to be grounded and connected in the “multiple cultures that students bring to the classroom.”

Chapter 5, Race and the Struggle for Civil Rights, weaves together struggles of Native Americans and self-determination; Latinx and fighting for labor unions; African Americans struggling to abolish slavery and gain full equality; Japanese Americans and incarceration during World War II; and advocacy by progressive whites and Jews through the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. Pang’s approach facilitates a wholistic understanding of the struggle for civil rights in different settings lead by different groups.

As parents, we want our children to gain the knowledge, skills and behaviors to stand up to oppressive structures, if not dismantle and change them. As teachers, we learn that our degrees are not endpoints, rather they are new beginnings because each group of students will teach us many new things about ourselves and our changing world. Pang’s book is an excellent reference book to guide our teaching, and especially to reflect deeply about our students’ experiences, as well as our own.

Some of the students at Monroe have already been in prison for many years, and the world outside has changed greatly, not only in terms of the ubiquity of internet but also social norms such as same sex marriages and non-binary language. Our unit on the spectrum of gender identities was challenging, and Pang’s Chapter 7 on Human Diversity was especially helpful because of its clear language and explanations. They appreciated the LGBTQ in the U.S. timeline because such history was completely new to them. Within prison culture, LGBTQ persons are often subject to harassment and abuse because of the hypermasculine environment.

The class also found Chapter 8, Social Biases, specifically religion in the United States and the rise of Islamophobia helpful in understanding current issues. Diversity & Equity in the Classroom – including a prison classroom — provided a wealth of information from theories to practical applications that inspired new insights and ways of understanding and relating to one another. In a time of heightened polarization and propaganda, this is a book that empowers teachers to educate themselves and their students to be open-minded, a fundamental quality of civic engagement.

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