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Our Worlds in Our Words: Exploring Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Multicultural Classrooms

reviewed by Tema Okun - January 25, 2011

coverTitle: Our Worlds in Our Words: Exploring Race, Class, Gender, and Sexual Orientation in Multicultural Classrooms
Author(s): Mary Dilg
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807751162, Pages: 149, Year: 2010
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Mary Dilg offers us a unique blend of specificity and grace as she shares an account of her teaching practice and what she has come to know about how to thoughtfully teach challenging issues of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in the high school classroom.

Driven by a desire to produce students equipped with “the skills necessary for them–and for our nation–to thrive” (p. 9), she places her practice in a politics of equity rather than the more popular and less critical appreciation for diversity. She firmly pushes her students (and herself) to negotiate the far more complex terrain of power imbalance attached to identity and the constant negotiation between individual and community needs. She argues that traditional curricula are a disservice to students living in a complex and multicultural world. She understands that students spend extensive time on the Internet, making sense of their world often without any context other than that offered by a culture less interested in citizenship than profit. She wants the classroom to be a place where students gain both comprehension and compassion by learning to “read” the “texts of their lives” (p. 15), to think critically, engage with, analyze, and solve problems grounded in an appreciation both for their own experience and for the multiple and complex experiences of others. Her approach is sound, pragmatic, and visionary in our time of obsession with testing for content disconnected from students’ lives and our challenges as a society.

Dilg takes us through an explicatory journey, focusing chapters on gender and race, class, and sexuality. She shares what works, including what she has learned from her mistakes, laying out a deliberative process for teaching these complex topics. Her care and empathy for her students is explicit throughout, serving as the lens she uses to gauge her effectiveness in helping them “untangle the differences between what’s real and … the powerful stereotypes that have surrounded them growing up” (p. 25).

Dilg explains that she chooses texts designed to represent broad perspectives across a range of cultures; she wants her students to experience “border crossings” (p. 26). She notes the importance of providing background and context to “establish a respectful framework for the writer and his or her world and perspective” (p. 26). She also speaks to the inevitability and need to address student resistance by starting with scholars who provide “metaphors and theories” for how oppression works, citing specific authors and offering a broad blueprint for those of us who would like to follow in her footsteps.

She takes us on a “Journey Across America” (p. 29) illustrating her approach to Latino American perspectives, African American lives and communities, the Asian American, Jewish American, and Arab American experience, as well as the lives of those with biracial and multiethnic identities. She both identifies the literature, films, and other resources that she uses to take this journey, and shares how she layers each on the other to illustrate the deep complexity of a “broader America” (p. 44).

Her chapter on social class reinforces this rhythm. Dilg provides stories of students’ struggles with class interspersed with factual analysis punctuated in turn with specific and cogent examples of approaches to reading and writing that support a meaningful examination of the role of class in defining, shaping, limiting, and supporting the lives of both the authors and the students themselves. Because her students have taken in the cultural story that people are poor because they don’t work hard, she describes how she helps her students pierce that fabrication. Her goal is to help students “learn from each other’s divergent perspectives” while they “wrestle out their contrasting assumptions, observations, questions, and confusions grounded in the personal experiences and wisdoms of their own lives” (p. 56).

She extends this rhythm in the chapter on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender (GLBT) lives and her effort to counter invisibility and homophobia. Here again she takes us through her teaching process, offering both grounding and specificity, explaining how she begins with an exploration of LGBT identity development and the often harsh realities facing LGBT students as critical preparation for exploring the texts. She descriptively shares both her choices of literature and the reason for those choices, giving us a window into the complex and thoughtful calculations she makes to help students “put together pieces of the world” so they can live more consciously (p. 83).

Dilg’s last chapters speak to the role of writing to and for a multicultural audience as critical preparation for helping students thoughtfully negotiate the “actual cross-cultural tensions and moments that divide us in daily life” (p. 100). She argues that “learning in [the] multicultural classroom recognizes and honors the cultural capital of all students” (p. 122) and that our historic inability to do this has “created, in part, myopic, shortsighted, self-serving, and dangerous choices and policies on a national level” (p. 124). She reminds us again that the goal is not simply an appreciation of diversity but rather helping students grasp the role of power - their own, that of others, the ways in which power is attached to group identity, and the choices we have about how we are going to navigate our power in service to our relationships with each other and the community.

I appreciate her acknowledgment of context in her chapter on LGBT issues; she notes how teaching this topic in a supportive school in a major urban area is an advantage both to her and her students. I would have liked to hear more from Dilg about how her social location as well as that of the students and the school influence her approach to the curriculum throughout. In her chapter on writing, she suggests teachers have a role to play in “protecting young writers from themselves” (p. 97); I am left wanting at least an example of how she would advise us to respond to a student revealing vulnerabilities that we have a responsibility to address. And finally, because I would like to take advantage of all that Dilg has to offer, I am disappointed that in several places she references an appendix that does not exist.

These criticisms are insignificant in light of the thoughtfulness Dilg has brought to this useful work. Anyone attempting to help students think critically and compassionately about identity, oppression, and liberation will benefit from this passionate and instructive contribution to building not simply a multicultural world, but a just and compassionate one.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 25, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16307, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 1:15:20 PM

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About the Author
  • Tema Okun
    National-Louis University
    E-mail Author
    TEMA OKUN is the author of The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Donít Want to Know (IAP, 2010). She is an Assistant Professor in the Educational Leadership Department at National-Louis University in Chicago. She comes to teaching after 25 years collaboratively developing and implementing liberatory race equity curriculum with and for organizations and communities. She continues to offer facilitation, consulting, and training as a member of the DRworks collaborative based in Durham, N.C.
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