Saturday, November 16, 2013

Cultural Identity & Diversity

This week I stumbled upon a fabulous article entitled Cultural Identity of Students: What Teachers Should Know by Lisa A. Jones. The article discusses many aspects of students' cultural identities including students' self-concepts, school environments, and multicultural teaching. Jones first delves into students' self-concepts and examines the positive impact extracurricular groups can have on students' feelings of belonging. Jones mentions that students' cultures are constantly changing and students who are discovering their identities should be involved in groups that help them define themselves and embrace who they are. Additionally, Jones talks about teachers needing to be cognizant of their teaching practices, making sure that all students' cultures and identities are valued and appreciated. Finally, Jones quotes an author who writes on culturally responsive teaching and says that teachers should use "the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them" (Jones). This is where multicultural education comes in. Educators should strive to empower their students to succeed by providing them with a learning environment that respects their culture, embraces their diversity, and celebrates their differences. 

This article certainly echoes what we have been discussing in EDFI 4080 this semester - especially what we talked about in Chapter 8 of Nieto's and Bode's text. Extracurricular activities beyond academics have been successful in supporting students' learning and skills as well as creating a sense of belonging (Nieto & Bode, p. 306). Extracurriculars help students develop critical thinking and leadership skills, shield against negative influences, and help students feel that they belong and are understood (pp. 309-310). Additionally, in relation to multicultural teaching, Nieto and Bode mention that it isn't so much about a teacher's strategies as it is about a teacher's attitude (p. 318). An educator can create a fabulous curriculum that is multicultural; however, if that teacher doesn't possess the caring, respectful, warm attitude all educators should have, he or she is not truly involved in multicultural education.

I very much appreciate this view on multicultural education. In her article, Jones reminds us that there is more to teaching than a great curriculum. Teachers must remember that things like extracurricular activities that develop and affirm students' identities are just as important. Moreover, educators must possess attitudes that display the value they place on students' diverse cultures and experiences. Assigning projects or reports that have students learning about various cultures isn't enough. I think it's so easy to say, "Oh, yes, I incorporate multicultural education into my classroom because I have students do a project on another culture." That's all fine and dandy, but this semester one thing I have learned is that multicultural education is so much more than that. It is empowering our students, teaching them to respect and appreciate others, helping students understand differences, and implementing practices that value cultural awareness. Multicultural education is a practice that should be incorporated at all grade levels, in all schools, and in all classes whenever possible. Even if curriculum can't be explicitly taught in all settings, multicultural education should be implicitly learned by students through teachers' attitudes, just nature, and willingness to incorporate and appreciate diversity in the classroom.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Ethic of Care: Student/Teacher Relationships

This week I found an article entitled "Caring Teachers" by Heather Davis that discusses the role the ethic of care has in education. According to Davis, research has shown that caring, supportive teachers help their students behave responsibly, take intellectual risks, and persevere in the face of failure. The research cited in this article centers on three themes: caring guiding teacher engagement, caring as a professional disposition, and caring as a quality students perceive in a relationship. First of all, Davis discusses how teachers must view their relationships with students as important. She says that to engage in caring behavior, "teachers must believe that without action their goals (either personal or instructional) might be undermined." Secondly, Davis says it is integral for educators to view caring as something they do rather than something they feel: "Caring is an ethic, or a moral value, that teachers communicate to students through their selection of curriculum, their planning of a lesson, their establishment of classroom norms, and their interactions with students." Finally, the research shows that students' perceptions of their teachers' caring relationships is important. Teachers who truly follow this "ethic of care" are able to make their students feel understood and accepted - and this translates over to their academic achievements.

According to Nel Noddings, the caring actions of teachers are just as important as larger structural conditions that influence student learning (Nieto & Bode, p. 255). Nieto and Bode also affirm Davis' findings that teachers must show students they care - through relationships with their students, high expectations, and respect for students and their families (p. 255). If educators want their students to have a "sense of belonging" (p. 256) in the classroom, they must follow through with these actions of caring. 

Although saying that teachers should be caring and demonstrate this through specific actions might sound self-explanatory or unnecessary, it's important to pay attention to this characteristic of successful education of students. Especially when teachers are working with diverse groups of students who may feel unconnected with the school and/or community, educators must be careful to respectfully care for their students in ways that help them feel connected, capable, and successful - not only in the classroom, but in respect to their diverse values, beliefs, and abilities. As a teacher, I hope to demonstrate this ethic of care through my daily actions, encouraging my students to achieve their potentials and be proud of their accomplishments and who they are as individuals. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

English Language Learners and their Native Tongues

What Price Must ELL's Pay?

It's a sad thing that so many people - educators included - view English Language Learners' native tongues as burdensome or unnecessary to students' language and academic development. I read a great article by Judie Haynes that included the case study of a young Puerto Rican student named Isobel. Isobel's teacher told the girl's parents that they should only speak English to her at home so that her English-speaking skills would improve in the classroom. However, Isobel's parents were only fluent in Spanish, and they knew little English.  As a result, the quality of Isobel's and her parents' conversations at home diminished. Eventually Isobel felt ashamed of her native language; she wished her parents could speak proper English like every other adult she knew. Isobel's parents and her teacher did not realize what they were doing by only allowing Isobel to speak in English. This experience was detrimental to her learning because she was not able to express ideas in English that she could have expressed in Spanish. If she had been allowed to discuss her learning and experiences in her native tongue, this knowledge would have transferred over to English eventually. The bottom line is that what students learn in their native languages will help promote their English proficiency. As Judie Haynes says, "The concepts and skills that students learn in one language will transfer to the second language when the learner is ready."

When the learner is ready. That is key. Teachers can't expect students to discuss in English a concept they barely understand in their native language. If, however, schools take a different approach in certain situations and allow students to learn and discuss concepts in their native tongue, it will generally be much easier for those students to display their knowledge in English. Much evidence supports the idea that emerging bilingual students' native language is a strong foundation for future learning (Nieto & Bode, p. 226). Nieto and Bode state that school policies usually want to transition students to English as soon as they can, steering them away from their native language (p. 226). However, research has shown that bilingual brains stay sharp longer than monolingual brains; and increased attention control, working memory, metalinguistic awareness, and abstract reasoning are associated with people who speak more than one language (p. 226). Aren't these traits and skills exactly the sorts of things we want to see in our students? How is it ever okay to take something away from a student that will most likely enrich his or her academic experience? Moreover, when is it ever beneficial to give students the impression that their culture - who they are - is any less superior or unimportant than the dominant culture? These kinds of attitudes need to stop. Not only are they barbaric and inhumane - they are detrimental to students' learning experiences. 

Although a variety of practices exist to teach emerging bilingual students and certain ones are more effective than others, the fact remains that bilingualism can promote learning (p. 226). Instead of viewing students' native tongues as burdens to overcome and regarding English proficiency as the Holy Grail, educators should view bilingualism as an additive factor. Suppressing students' cultures is never the answer. Not only does the research show this, it is common sense. Any practice that makes a student feel inferior or incapable is never the way to go. As educators, we should be conscious of how our teaching practices affect our students and their families, and we should be careful not to give advice to ELL students' families before we have done our research and analyzed the particular situation. English language learners must not pay the price for schools' lack of awareness. Just as we would not want our own children to be deprived of their culture in another land, ELL students' parents generally don't want their children to forget who they are and where they came from. The business aspect of education likes to refer to students as outgoing products; however, we should be careful to remember the individual nature of each of our students. This means seeing their potential, addressing their needs, and encouraging them to be true to their roots. The educational system doesn't need any more robots or carbon copies. We need students who are proud of their diverse backgrounds and use their varying experiences to open our eyes to what learning truly means. 

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Woes of Standardized Testing


Logical Nonsense: Judging Diverse Students by the Same Standard

Standardized testing. What comes to mind when you hear this phrase? Accountable testing, accurate comparison results, guided teaching, objective evaluations? Or, maybe you think of cruel and unusual punishment, unfair assessments, teaching to the test, and unwarranted stress. 

Although the idea of standardized testing may be of merit, the implementation of it is certainly having detrimental effects on America's students and educators. In Kira Zalan's article "The Problem with Standardized Tests," Zalan provides excerpts from cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman's book Ungifted: Intelligence Refined.

In Ungifted, Kaufman stresses that standardized tests do not provide students with opportunities to express their own unique intelligences. These tests categorize students and label them according to one learning standard. Kaufman states that students need multiple formats through which to express themselves, and if they are not afforded such opportunities, the students may end up being labeled "ungifted" - when, in fact, that is not the case. Additionally, Kaufman discusses the idea of hope being essential to student progress. He communicates that students need multiple pathways, strategies, and alternative routes to reach their potential, and when students are given this freedom, they are hopeful and have a much greater potential for academic success. According to Kaufman, "If we set up schools that...[are] project-based and [involve] inquiry-based learning, and we don't compare people to each other, but we allow students to express their knowledge of the material on their own terms, in their own unique voice, and at their own pace, I think we'd be setting up all students for the future much better, including those students we label gifted now." 

Nieto and Bode point out the negative aspects of standardized testing in their chapter on Structural and Organizational Issues in Classrooms and Schools. They affirm that this type of testing "ha[s] frequently been used as a basis for segregating and sorting students" (p. 115). Additionally, Nieto and Bode specify that little evidence exists supporting standardized testing as a gateway to greater achievement (p. 116). Standardized tests oftentimes restrict teachers' creativity and force them to "teach to the test" instead of focusing on students' individual learning needs. According to the text, "The higher the stakes, the greater the teachers' focus on tested content" (p. 117). This means that the more weight the government puts on these tests, the less teachers are able to focus on their students. The classroom transitions from a place of student-centered learning to a prison of test-focused content that usually has little meaning and real-life application to students' lives as individuals. Students see themselves as takers of the tests - a mere statistic - a category on a piece of paper, a paper that describes to them their ability levels (and oftentimes implies their limitations). 

As a future teacher, the increased use of standardized testing in classrooms frustrates me, saddens me, and disgusts me. Why are we content with leaving so many students behind? Why do we continue to raise the bar for our students and teachers, yet not raise the bar for the effectiveness of our testing strategies? We cannot continue to lump our students into groups based upon how they perform on a series of tests. The tests are generally of a single format, for Pete's sake! Our students are as diverse as wildflower fields; even species that are the same display their beauty in different ways. If each individual student is so unique, why then, are our methods of testing not as diverse? Why do we try to gather all the red flowers into a cluster - when we truly have a mix of scarlet, ruby, magenta, crimson, auburn, and chestnut?

Proponents of standardized testing may choose to ignore its flaws. They may choose to focus on it as a way of gathering data about student learning so they can easily compare, contrast, and analyze test scores. This may seem practical, this may seem logical. However, just because something seems logical or looks promising on paper does not mean it works. Nieto and Bode bring up student scenarios in which individuals have been in tracking programs since the elementary grades due to how their tests categorized them. How is this fair to the student with a drive and motivation to learn, with a passion and commitment to higher education? How is this fair to the student who has great potential but low a self-efficacy due to how he has been labeled by tests? If we allow standardized tests to classify our students, we are doing those students a considerable disservice. Believing in our students means much more than encouraging them and pointing them in the right direction. Believing in our students means continually providing them with opportunities to further their learning and prove themselves to be capable, independent thinkers. How are educators supposed to focused on these goals if they must be concerned with an image? They need those good test scores; they have to prove to the government, society, and school that the students and teachers both are competent. 

However, in the midst of this process, we are losing sight of the meaning of education. Education is not passing a test. It is not stating the right answer. It is not being categorized as "accelerated," "advanced," or "capable." Education is so much broader, so much deeper. It is a tool for thinking, a gateway to inquiries, a means of critically analyzing and discovering the world about us. Real education never ceases. Truly, there is no final accomplishment, for there is always more to learn. Why should an "A" be the standard? Why should an accelerated score be the target? Why are we so busy attempting to measure up to others and prove ourselves through a number that we forget what learning really means? 

Standardized testing is "logical" nonsense. When we begin to genuinely focus on our students' needs and stop trying to fit students into our own limited interpretations of how we believe they should display knowledge, we will see progress in our educational system. 

Friday, September 20, 2013

Eliminating Racism and Stereotypes in Literature

Bill Bigelow’s “Lord of the Lies” article focuses on the racism inherent in the literature still present in today’s classrooms.  Besides his own thoughts, Bigelow discusses educator Michelle Kenney’s and author Jay Griffiths’s reflections on racism in literature and the effects it has on students – particularly in relation to the novel Lord of the Flies by author William Golding.

Bigelow, Kenney, and Griffiths all believe Lord of the Flies clearly pinpoints the racist stereotypes prevalent in our society.  According to Griffiths, the novel “opens with misadventure, as the children are stranded on the island. An odiously racist text, it describes the group of boys who become the cruel killers as a ‘tribe’ of ‘savages,’ hunting, dancing, chanting, and ‘garlanded,’ with their long hair tied back: ‘a pack of painted Indians.’”

The article ends with Bigelow’s call to action for teachers.  He claims that the last types of books we need in our classrooms are those that offer “a cynical portrait of our inner savage.”  Although humans certainly have tendencies to be violent and greedy, Bigelow believes we as educators must focus on the qualities of cooperation, kindness, intelligence, and solidarity. In order to be effective teachers and minimize the feelings of racism in our society, we need to choose literature that nurtures the aforementioned positive qualities in our students.

In chapter two of Nieto and Bode's Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, the authors discuss the importance of combating racism in the classroom (p. 44). Clearly, if Language Arts teachers incorporate works of literature into their curriculum that promote racism and stereotypes, they are not doing a very good job of combating these negative thoughts. 

Now, I have never read Lord of the Flies, so I'm not sure how much I can say about that particular novel; however, I firmly agree with Bigelow in that educators must pay close attention to the types of literature they teach in their classrooms. Let's say an American Indian student is reading Lord of the Flies as part of his high school study course and comes across Golding's references to "savages" and "a pack of painted Indians." How might that make the student feel? Additionally, how might those phrases affect the other students' views of Indians or other ethnic groups? Nieto and Bode also discuss in their chapter how students' limited backgrounds affect what they learn because they are only learning a fraction of the knowledge available to them (p. 46). As educators, we need to focus on introducing our students to the wide range of knowledge that is out there; we should be careful not to further limit our students by what we teach them. For example, if a social studies teacher is teaching about the American Revolutionary War, he/she should not only teach from the American perspective, but from the British perspective as well. Our goal as teachers should be to expose students to the wide range of perspectives available in society in order to expand student awareness of other ideas and the implications of other points-of-view.

As a middle school Language Arts teacher, I hope to instill these types of principles into my students. I desire for them to see that there will always be another perspective; there will always be a contrasting opinion. Just because two people don't see eye-to-eye does not mean someone is incorrect. Through literature and writing, I hope to move my students along a path of open-mindedness, all the while encouraging critical thinking and intellectual inquiry. If I can help my students "understand and empathize with a wide diversity of people" (p. 48), I will be preparing them for a world that is slowly but surely moving in the direction of multicultural understanding and awareness. 

Friday, September 6, 2013

Megan Bomgaars: The Story of a Student with Down Syndrome Challenging Educators to Step Up to the Plate


Energetic, involved, friendly, healthy, cheerful. Many times these words are used to describe students in today's classrooms. Megan Bomgaars is no exception. Although she was diagnosed with Down Syndrome at a young age, Megan was just as involved as her other classmates while in school, participating in cheerleading, striving for good grades, and making friends. Her accomplishments include being the first cheerleader with Down Syndrome in her state of Colorado, winning a sportsmanship award at a national cheerleading competition in Washington, D.C., modeling in a Global Down Syndrome Foundation fashion show, working for the Mile High Down Syndrome Association, and participating in the Bridge Program in Highland Ranch, where she is training to become a public speaker. 

"Don't limit me" is Megan's emphatic cry to educators everywhere. She recently created a YouTube video with the goal of creating teacher awareness about setting high expectations for students - regardless of their abilities. Megan wants teachers to see that she is a person with goals, dreams, and skills, just like everyone else. She wants educators to know that they should raise the bar for their students, teaching them to be independent and fostering life skills they will need once they leave the classroom. 

Independence is the central theme in Megan's message. How can we, as educators, teach all of our students independence? This should be one of the most important considerations that guide our teaching each day. In chapter five of the book "Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education" by authors Nieto and Bode, Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences is discussed. Nieto and Bode stress that students will express different elements of these 8-9 intelligences in unique ways (p. 165). As teachers, we can work to develop each of these intelligences in our students' lives (as they support learning, of course) and specifically pinpoint and encourage students to advance their strong suits and work on other areas. By setting high expectations and creating activities and assignments that focus on fostering independence as well as developing intelligence, teachers can work towards leading a community of learners in the right direction - no matter their abilities, strengths, or culture. 

Nieto and Bode also make it a point to discuss appreciating students' strengths in the classroom. They state, "Heeding what children do and say can make a difference in how teachers interact with them and consequently in how well children learn" (p. 174). The message is clear. WAKE UP and pay attention to your students. See them for who they are, not how everyone else sees them. Do not let their behavior define them. Each student has unique abilities and talents no matter who they are and no matter what community they were raised in. Teachers should be willing to continually make adjustments for their students; however, they should be careful not to lower the bar. As Megan states in her video, she wants to learn and she wants to be seen as valuable. She desires respect for her abilities as a learner. She wants her teachers to push her and help develop her skills. Megan doesn't wish to be placed in a category separate from her fellow classmates; she wants to learn with them and from them.

Just as students should be learning from us, we should be learning from them. By making it a point to become involved in students' lives and listen to their concerns, we are opening the doors to higher learning. When we can see into a student's life and into his or her needs, we can focus on making adjustments in our classrooms that support their learning. Willingness is not an option here - it is imperative that educators are enthusiastic about discovering who our students are and what they need from us. When students see that we are willing to accommodate and support their needs, learning will take place. 

Students are the future. Our duty as educators is to our students. If we are not believing in them, who is? If we are not supporting them, where will they turn? Because so many students don't have other positive examples of leadership and love in their lives, our greatest goal should be to simply believe in our students. We can be the greatest influence of positivity and encouragement in their lives, or we can be the greatest influence of insecurity and disparagement.

We can learn a great deal from Megan Bomgaars, just as we can learn a great deal from the students we teach. 

The bottom line is simple: don't limit your students. They deserve more.