Move from Lower Risk to Higher Risk Activities During the Semester
From a teacher's perspective, there are a number of things that can go wrong in teaching about diversity-related issues. Students may be silent, unwilling to discuss the issues. Students may also react emotionally and verbally attack other students, and at times students can vehemently argue with each other, with neither hearing the words of the other nor relating their utterances to the concepts or content of the class. Classes discuss diversity-related topics more and more appropriately when students acquire needed content and concepts and the class becomes accustomed to talking about diversity-related issues before moving to "hot button" issues.
When students perceive that there is a safe classroom environment , they are more likely to participate. Student perceptions of how safe the classroom is for open and honest discussion can grow during the semester, leading to discussion of more highly charged material later in the semester.
The instructor can start soliciting student input in ways that provide anonymity (and therefore safety) for students. Students can write questions or reactions to readings/class exercises on 3x5 cards. The instructor then reads the question or reaction without knowing or revealing the name of the student. Discussion during the first part of the semester can be pairs or small groups, where students are often feel freer to participate. Whole class discussions, often perceived by students as more risky, can be added as the semester proceeds and students feel more comfortable with each other.
The topics for consideration in the course can also be sequenced so that less controversial topics are covered first. In one UW-Whitewater diversity course, students were asked to indicate how far they planned to live from their family (however they defined it) five years after college graduation: a) within 25 miles; b) within 100 miles; c) between 100-250 miles; and over 500 miles. Students are also asked to rank how important this proposed distance from family is to them. This exercise inevitably yields large distinctions apparently unrelated to race, ethnicity, and socio-economic status, and students generally have little trouble discussing why living close to their family or moving far from Wisconsin are so important to them. By the latter part of the semester, it becomes easier for students to engage each other on more controversial topics such as racial equality, economic oppression, and sexual identity.