Action Research to Answer YOUR Questions: Part Two of Two

by Mia N. Small and Lois E. Huffman

In Part One of this post, we defined action research as the informal inquiry that we educators do in our own classrooms to improve student learning. We also shared several resources that provide detailed, practical advice for engaging in teacher research. This second post will focus on an investigation that Mia conducted with her seventh-grade English language arts students.

For the first six years of my career, I (Mia) taught in settings that were racially and ethnically homogenous. In 2013, my first day of school was filled with amazement as I interacted with a diverse population of students ― my students. Unknown to me, four months later, I would conduct research about cultural diversity and its impact on the learning environment. “How can cultural diversity create an atmosphere of care among adolescents?” was my primary question.

My teacher-research question was important to me because it allowed me to investigate the relationship between embracing student differences and creating a caring learning environment for all students. Based on my experiences, I believe students are more likely to engage in content area learning when they feel valued for who they are. When students care about one another, academic motivation increases.

In conducting my teacher research and related-professional reading, I was guided by the following questions: What is cultural diversity? What does cultural diversity look like in English language arts? Why is cultural diversity important? What should students know about cultural diversity? What texts are conducive to teaching about cultural diversity? What are the benefits to teaching cultural diversity?  Do students (in a culturally diverse classroom) have more similarities than differences?

To get input from my students, I asked them to anonymously complete this short survey: 

  1. Please circle your gender:       Male    or    Female
  2. What country do you identify with? (Where are you from?)
  3. Think about a time (or times) when you were around someone who spoke a different language, expressed different values from yours, wore items of clothing that were unfamiliar to your idea of style…What does cultural diversity mean to you?
  4. There are lots of cultures in the world. Think about all the different languages, religions, customs, and traditions people have around the world. Some say it’s a good thing for different cultural ideas to be protected in a country. Others think it makes life confusing and complicated and reduces national identity. For example, in France, some people get very worried that non-French ideas are making it harder for the French to preserve their unique culture. Others say that society is better off when all cultures are able to flourish. Think of diverse cultural places in Raleigh represented in restaurants and arts, for example.

So, what do you think? Is cultural diversity a good thing for the United States? Should we protect and promote cultural diversity? Or, does too much cultural diversity water down what it means to be American? Explain your thinking with some examples. (Prompt written by John Lee, Ph.D., NCSU)

The two open-ended questions gave students the opportunity to communicate their understanding and attitudes about cultural diversity. I also explored Nel Noddings’ notion of care to deepen my thinking on the importance of establishing a respectful and supportive community of learners.

I found that most of the adolescents in my class embrace differences and want to understand them. A significant number of students explained how they learn or can learn from others who are different. It would be “boring” without cultural diversity. One student explained, “I think different cultures should be treasured, they don’t have to be completely isolated from the rest of the world. Especially in America, [sic] America is about freedom and the culture you identify should be your choice.”

Another student wrote, “Cultural diversity makes your country better because you can try new foods and new stuff…it is good for the U.S.” In the opinion of another student, “Cultural diversity is a good thing because it will help people better understand each other and get along.”

Action research allows educational professionals to go beyond the published research in our field.  Teachers have the opportunity to actively pursue answers to their own questions. As Mia’s investigation into cultural diversity shows, action research can be a catalyst for both teachers and students to grow academically and socially.