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TNLI: Action Research: Policy & Practice: Lumps in the Melting Pot: What Happens When Diversity Isn't Enough?

Jeremy Copeland and Jen Dryer
School of the Future—Manhattan

Research Question
How do racial and cultural tensions between students impact classroom dynamics?
How can teachers help students break down barriers formed by differences in race and culture?


“Yo, I don’t wanna sit next to Ariella. She’s racist.”
“Yeah, she’s a nigger hater.”

These comments exploded into our respective ninth grade Humanities and Spanish classrooms one week in November of 2003. A verbal melee ensued and all teaching for the remainder of the class was thrown out the window in an attempt to address this palpable racial and cultural tension that had been brewing in this one class since the beginning of the year. It started with comments as early as September, such as, “Hey, everybody’s favorite Puerto Rican is here!” and “Why do you think I’m rich? Because I’m White?” (The answer was “Yes”).

If integration is the goal of the landmark case Brown v. Board of Ed., then School of the Future (SOF) is its utopian vision. A small public school in Manhattan’s tony Grammercy Park, SOF serves students in grades 6-12 from all five boroughs of New York City. SOF is part of New York City’s Region 9 schools, and was formerly part of Manhattan’s Community School District 2, renowned as one of NYC’s wealthiest and highest performing districts, and one that invests time and finances in extensive professional development for teachers and administrators. Although most students reside in District 2, which extends from Chinatown to the Upper East Side and from Greenwich Village to 59th Street on the West Side, many come from other parts of the city. Most SOF students stay from middle through high school, although some leave and are replaced by new students who apply and are interviewed before earning acceptance to the school.

SOF’s classes usually top off at 25 students, a class size cap much lower than its counterparts in NYC. With approximately 600 students in seven grades, SOF is very diverse, in terms of race/culture, socioeconomics, physical ability and academic ability, and has a strong Inclusion program for special needs students who are mainstreamed into the classroom. Students at SOF travel from class to class in cohorts, so that, with the exception of high school foreign language, in which their class is split in half among French and Spanish and combined with half of another class, they stay with the same class groupings all day. These class groupings are generally given names by the team of teachers teaching them. The class in which the “racial” outbursts described briefly above was aptly named “Fire,” as part of the four classes in the 9th grade, named Earth, Wind, Fire and Water.

The approximate ethnic breakdown of the student population at SOF is 38% White, 22% Black, 25% Latino, 15% Asian, and 10% other (including South Asian, West Indian and Middle Eastern/Arab). Approximately 40% of SOF students qualify for free lunch, while other students have vacation homes outside the metropolitan area or travel extensively with their families. Then, of course, there are many whose socioeconomic standing falls somewhere in the middle.

Whereas many public schools in NYC seem to have become resegregated (Southern Poverty Law Center), SOF is committed to maintaining its diversity, which is central to its basic philosophy. As a result of the small class size, extensive time in the same class groupings, and collaborative work environment, students at SOF know each other quite well and tend to interact with others of different backgrounds regularly. However, although it would seem that all these structures in place at SOF would foster a genuine sense of tolerance and collegiality of students of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, we soon realized that diversity may not be enough.

Our experiences with this one particular class cohort (described above), “Fire,” drove home how crucial it was to step back and take stock of students’ attitudes towards and perceptions of their own and others’ race and culture, and how this impacted the dynamics of the classroom. It also drove home the fact that we needed to implement some type of intervention in order to reestablish an environment in which students could feel safe to learn and in which we could be able to effectively teach our students the required curriculum. We further realized that, as educators, we were never really trained how to deal with racial tensions in the classroom and how to act before those tensions become real obstacles to learning. This study of our students’ assumptions about and attitudes towards others of different cultural backgrounds was just as important to our own development as educators as it was to our students’ development as human beings living in a multicultural world.

Research, Data & Analysis
We collected data through various surveys of students in the class and personal journal entries recording our observations. We began by collecting baseline data around our students’ perceptions about race and culture, and their comfort level communicating in meaningful ways across “cultural borders.” We also asked students to name four to five classmates they worked with best and four to five with whom they were least comfortable working with, and why.

The data collected was analyzed in varied ways. The students’ work partner preferences were collected twice, once in February and once in June, and were analyzed using a sociogram, coding students in the class by both gender and cultural background. We assessed whom students wanted to work with and did not want to work with, using both gender and ethnicity as markers. We chose to separate gender from ethnicity to see if there was any correlation along gender and racial/ethnic background. Twenty-two students, out of 25 in the class, completed the first seating preference survey, and nineteen completed the second survey in June, as the result of three absences and three students who had moved away or gone on vacation before the end of the year. Twenty-four students completed surveys on their perception of and attitudes toward race and culture in the school and classroom.

The data collected was surprising at times and gave a great deal of insight into the way that students saw and understood themselves and their colleagues. There was a distinct disparity between the way students defined others in the classroom and the way they defined their own cultural background. Most students tended to see others in “cultural clumps,” such as “Caucasian” or “Black,” whereas when they self defined, they tended to be more ethnically specific, describing themselves, for example, as “Polish” or “Jamaican.” This idea is supported by research, such as that by Laurie Olsen, which suggests that school is the place that “racializes” white students. Based on their survey responses, students also seemed to feel more culturally isolated in the classroom than they did in the school as a whole, which, we surmised, contributed to the marked cultural tension in the classroom.

Students’ work partner preferences similarly yielded interesting results. When noting why Black and Latino males were unfavorable work partners, many reasoned that they “goofed off” or “fooled around” too much. Some students of color used similar racially coded language, noting that White students were “annoying” or that “we just don’t get along.” After our interventions, we repeated this survey, and there were some significant changes, along with a much lower incident of such racially coded language. The most significant change occurred among Black males, whose popularity as workers rose 9.2%, which was significantly higher than their representation in the class. Asian males also gained 6.3% in their popularity, over 100% increase from the February survey. In least popular work partners, the June survey results were much more ethnically dispersed, as it became clear that students were less prone to use cultural background to determine work partner choices.

Students’ work partner preferences

Policy Implications

  • Teachers need professional development relating to their own assumptions and practices around issues of race/culture.
  • Curriculum pertaining to cultural and racial border crossing should be imbedded in public education (SS or advisory classes), whether in a diverse or more homogenous environment.
  • New York City DoE should actively engage strategies to build a more diverse teaching force.


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