SITE Stories: Diversity Circles

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diversity_circles_template1.pngAt the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence, we're always interested in innovative teaching practices. When we heard about Jennifer Crissman Ishler's "Diversity Circles" activity, we wanted to learn more. Below is a description of the activity and its pedagogical benefits. Jennifer Crissman Ishler is a senior instructor in human development and family studies.

In all of the courses taught by Jennifer Crissman Ishler, students experience an activity called "Diversity Circles." She's been using the activity for 14 years, in classes ranging from 20 to 150 students, and it's consistently mentioned positively in her SRTEs and other course feedback.

The rationale behind the activity is that it helps students deal more successfully with the diversity they will encounter in their classes, their residence halls, and their future careers. Crissman Ishler urges her students to listen and learn when exposed to diversity and to try to avoid making assumptions. While the activity seems like a natural for the counselor-education and human-development courses she teaches, she believes it can be useful in other courses as well, since students in any discipline will encounter diversity throughout their lives.

The activity goes something like this: Each student privately draws a circle, places his or her name inside, and then draws lines connecting to four smaller circles.

In each of the smaller circles, the students write down a trait that expresses who they are as a multicultural being--traits such as gender, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and so on. Crissman Ishler then asks the students to think about one of the circles they felt happy to be part of, as well as one circle where they've experienced awkwardness such as being singled out in a negative way by others. They share their feelings in small groups and, if they wish, with the larger class. Students play "break the stereotype" by stating "I am a _____________, but not a _________________." In the first blank, the students state a multicultural identity they embrace, while in the second blank they state a stereotype that doesn't fit them in relation to that identity.

Often the sharing time includes nervous laughter. Crissman Ishler helps the students process the experience, asking them: "Why are we laughing? What's awkward about this?" During the processing of the experience, students think about how language like "That's so gay" or "That's so retarded" can wound others--often without the speaker even knowing it, since many elements of identity are invisible.

The in-class processing of the activity is crucial. At the beginning, Crissman Ishler tells the students: "I'm going to put you on the spot today. It's about you--your interpersonal reflection. I'm asking you to share, to take risks." The point is to have fun, and also to learn. But she also sets ground rules so that the students can feel safe in their sharing: While there will be a variety of opinions, they must be expressed politely--and students are reminded that the information their classmates share is to remain confidential.

"I continue to use it because I think it's got great value," Crissman Ishler says. "It's something simple they can all relate to. With the right processing, it can lead to an aha! moment. It's the one thing that always stays in my curriculum."

If you'd like more information about the activity and how it might be adapted to your own teaching, please contact Jennifer Crissman Ishler at jxc51@psu.edu.

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