Teaching Challenge: Fostering 'Polyphonic Dialogism' in the Diversity Classroom

Author: Renée Hayes


The class is designed to prepare elementary education students for working with children from diverse backgrounds. Based on Bakhtins' principle of dialogicity, I try to enable students to engage in dialogue with real and imagined others (other class members, authors, videos, and myself). Bakhtin argued that relativism renders argumentation and authentic dialogue irrelevant, while dogmatism renders them unnecessary. This class mainly consists of the challenge of creating genuine dialogue without succumbing to institutional constraints that foster monologic imposition of one 'true' view or to the temptation to sterilize the classroom from the hegemonic view of the teacher and other authorities.

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Table of contents

This paper was originally presented at the IALIC/Subject Centre Pedagogical Forum, which was part of the 4th Annual Conference of IALIC (International Association for Languages and Intercultural Learning).


As the instructor of a multicultural education course for pre-service teachers (Cultural Diversity, Schooling, and the Teacher) for several years, I have attempted to guide my University students in critiquing and reconceptualizing the deficit view of children, particularly minority children, endemic to the American school system (Rogoff 2003). Bakhtin provides a framework for avoiding this deficit trap with regard to my own students. Using Bakhtin's notions of dialogism and polyphony (Bakhtin 1986; Bakhtin & Emerson 1999), I analyze some of my design principles as well as some of the challenges I face in the continuous process of teaching reflection and redesign.

‘Cultural Diversity, Schooling, and the Teacher’ is a required part of the University curriculum for pre-service elementary teachers, and the only class specifically designed to prepare students for working with children from diverse backgrounds, that is, different from the white, upper-middle to upper class backgrounds of the overwhelming majority of our students.

Polyphonic voices

Bakhtin, in Poetics of Dostoevsky (Bakhtin & Emerson 1999), argues that Dostoevsky’s genius as a writer in part lies in his ability to construct his characters as full and living personalities, not as an object of the author’s consciousness but as another subject. He criticizes authors who, in contrast, are guilty of finalizing their characters. Bakhtin argued that both relativism and dogmatism render argumentation and authentic dialogue either irrelevant (relativism) or unnecessary (dogmatism). My class design, then, can best be seen as a struggle to foster dialogue, to enable students to engage in dialogue with real and imagined others (other class members, authors we read, videos we watch, and myself). This is not easy for many reasons, and I will present two of these challenges here:

  • How can I bring polyphonic voices into the classroom? I have only one voice, and traditional textbooks are also monologic.
  • How can I ensure that students feel equally free to express their views? Majority hegemony makes some opinions more easy to express than others.

In my own experience, I find the use of a textbook, even an excellent textbook, tends to finalize voices with which the author does not agree. These voices, in the American context, might include those who oppose affirmative action, the English-only movement, the religious right, and anti-multiculturalists. The fact that I, as the instructor, tend to agree with the textbook authors only serves to intensify the finalization process. In order to bring polyphony into the class, I have tapped three main sources: cases, opposing viewpoints, and guest speakers. I will provide an example of each and explain how and to what extent I have found them to be useful in providing polyphony to the class.

Using 'cases'

A ‘case’ is a narrative account of a situation, real or imaginary, that requires students to analyse the situation and provide a solution. Specifically, I recommend cases which are open-ended and complex, that is, that might be solved any number of ways, each of which may be deemed the only or at least most legitimate by different members of the class (including myself). For example, I use a case concerning homosexuality and religion, two topics which have been known to elicit platitudes from my students (often students argue that homosexuals should be treated fairly, and that religions must be respected, without considering fully the real-life implications of these notions). The case is set in a classroom, where during a class discussion, one female student reveals that she is a lesbian and a male Muslim student comments that homosexuality is both a sin and a crime in his country or origin. The class develops into a heated argument and the teacher ends the class period with the issue unresolved, and the students are left to decide what the teacher should do the following day to follow up with the situation.

In this case, opposing dialogic voices are represented by the lesbian and Muslim student, as well as several other students in the case who express their opinion. The benefit of the case is that it provides first a situation that challenges simple platitudes. How is it possible to treat the lesbian fairly and respect the Muslim at the same time? Yet these voices are themselves not fully living, as they are not really engaged in dialogue with each other but merely state their disparate views and then cease to exist. Therefore they simply represent the issues, and it is the students and I who are faced with the task of providing living voices.

Opposing viewpoints

The second type of resource, opposing viewpoints, provides more fully developed dialogic voices because the opinions expressed, while in written form, are voices of people who are aware of and explicitly responding to each other. An example of this is a review written by African American educator and activist Lisa Delpit of the book White Teacher, well-known model teacher Vivian Paley´s autobiographical account of her work with predominantly African American children. Students read Delpit´s review, which is largely positive but brings up one criticism that students usually respond to very strongly: Delpit argues that despite Paley’s obvious skill and sensitivity, she would still prefer her African American child to have a teacher from her own racial background, arguing that it is often difficult for white teachers to avoid stereotyping children of color. This interaction between Paley´s and Delpit’s voices inevitably incites a strong response on the part of my mostly white future teachers, who often emotionally criticise Delpit´s viewpoint as racist. In this case, I can offer my own voice as dialogic opposition, since I find Delpit’s view to be understandable and realistic (if troubling to well-intentioned white teachers, and disturbing in the face of the high percentage of white teachers teaching African American students). Nevertheless, while the fact that Delpit responds directly to Paley provides dialogicity of voices, the voices are still finalized (that is, Paley does not in turn respond to Delpit, nor is Delpit available to respond to the accusations levied by my students).

Guest speakers

The most successful type of resource is guest speakers, which provides students with living, unfinalized voices that, when carefully selected, provide dialogic counterpoint with classroom voices. It is important that guest speakers provide viewpoints that challenge viewpoints and assumptions of at least some students, while at the same time allowing students to feel comfortable to express these views in a non-threatening environment. The most successful example of guest speakers is a panel of speakers from the University gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered student union. Most students express in their written journals before the panel that they believe that people should be treated equally regardless of their sexual orientation. Panel members force students to both consider what it might be like to grow up gay in a predominantly straight world, and to explore the limits and possibilities of what they consider “equal treatment” to be. The group’s education director consciously selects panel members to represent diversity of experience and viewpoints, and students are often surprised to find that members of the community disagree even among themselves. The panel members usually begin with a “values continuum” exercise, where students must stand up and move to a portion of the room designated as “totally agree,” “totally disagree,” and neutral” to a series of questions, including, for example, “gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender issues should be discussed in the classroom.” Since the panel members are their peers, and form a team who regularly give these panel presentations on campus, they are usually skilled at providing a relaxed, humorous atmosphere where students rapidly begin to feel comfortable expressing their views and later, when the panel members tell their own personal stories and invite student questions, ask questions and reveal their own discomforts.

Of course the panel discussion is not only fun and humorous, but also at times uncomfortable and tense. This, I argue, is inevitable in a real unfinalized dialogue about important and controversial issues.

Class 'culture'

Another source of monologism in the classroom, however, is more difficult to manage, and that is the inevitable hegemony of the white, upper middle class perspective in the classroom itself. Students in the elementary education program at the University of Delaware tend overwhelmingly to be fit this description. For example, of the 84 total students I had in my classes this semester, one self-identified as Filipino (born in the US), another was from India (immigrated at age 2), and another as Mexican American (also born in the US). All other students self-identified as both white and born in the US. There were no African-American students in my classes this semester. No student has ever self-identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered (although, statistically speaking, it is likely that I have had students fitting this description who chose not to disclose). While there may indeed be quite a range of viewpoints represented by my relatively monolithic white straight middle class students, the problem is accessing insider perspectives, that is, the unfinalized and living voices of the minority group being discussed. The fact that I share the students’ monolithic profile does not help.

In fact, the few experiences students from marginalized groups have had in my class have not all been positive. Consider the case of Veronica (pseudonym), an African-American female student, who expressed to me in a private written message that she was feeling uncomfortable being the only student of color in the class during the controversial discussion of Lisa Delpit’s preference of an African-American teacher over a white teacher for her daughter:

I would ask the university to incorporate more ethnicity in this class. To be the only black person in the class, most discussions (ones about black culture) are one-sided. Being the only black in the (class), I feel when topics like those come up, I should voice my opinion. It easier when you don’t stand alone. People make comments and I can tell people just don’t understand and like most black people, I don’t feel like I should be the voice of every black person and educate people who don’t know (personal written communication, 3/19/03).

Mayo explains this silencing phenomenon as the discourse of civility, which creates a form of dominant discourse hegemony:

The discourse of civility asserts that teachers, students, and administrators ought to be kind, respectful, and tolerant of others without having to specify to whom they are being kind, respectful, and tolerant. This practice serves to neglect issues that appear to be in themselves uncivil or distasteful. If civility requires leaving unspoken things that would disturb placid social interactions, the practice of civility will necessarily leave out those whose presence disrupts the bias that assumes their absence (Mayo 2002).

This hegemonic class dynamic provides a serious threat to classroom dialogicity, since civility assures that certain voices are not invited into the dialogue even when present (in small numbers) in the classroom. In response, I have tried to provide alternative media for presenting views. One example is an on-line asynchronous “webtalk”, on which participation is mandatory in terms of amount (two postings per week) but content is not graded. Student names and photos are available, so the web discussion is not anonymous, but there is not face to face physical proximity. Further, as an asynchronous medium, students can read postings and respond whenever they like, offering more time to think about and compose responses.


Providing polyphony in a Cultural Diversity class is an ongoing challenge, both in bringing unfinalized dialogic voices to the classroom and in protecting the dialogicity that does exist in real student voices from serious threats of monologic hegemony. This paper reports not about my success in doing so, but about the goals for which I am striving and the challenges I face, as well as a report on the strategies I have designed and continue to experiment with.

A work in progress.


Bakhtin, M.M. (1986). Speech Genres and Other Late Essays. Austin, University of Texas Press.

Bakhtin, M. M., & Emerson, C. (1999). Problems of Dostoevsky's poetics (Vol. 8). Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press.

Mayo, C. The Bind that Ties: Civility and Social Difference. Educational Theory, vol. 52., no. 2 (Spring 2002), 169-186.

Rogoff, B. (2003). The Cultural Nature of Human Development. New York, Oxford University Press.