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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

Tell Me About … / An Experience That Gave You Insight into Diversity

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Don't Take Understanding for Granted

I remember asking a 1st grade English language learner to read me the words that she had matched to certain pictures. She read them all effortlessly, without skipping a beat: pot, mop, hot, hop. However, she had selected a picture of a car to represent the word pot. When I asked her why, she looked at me, confused, and randomly selected another picture, this time of a cat. I realized that what often seem like simple vocabulary words to a native English speaker may not be so simple for an English language learner (ELL).
This student didn't know what the words pot or mop meant because these words were never mentioned in school, which was the only place in her world where English was spoken. On the other hand, if she'd been able to decode the words cubby, apple seed, or even beluga whale, which she had heard in class, she would have easily matched them to the correct pictures. Experiences like this helped alert me to the need for frequent checks for understanding when teaching ELLs. Just because they can decode it, that doesn't mean they understand it.
Persida Himmele, associate professor, Millersville University, Millersville, Pennsylvania

What It's Like to Be "the Other"

Last year, I traveled with our deaf education level 3 and 4 students to Gallaudet University. I do not sign. All of the students were fluent signers. I learned what it is to be "the other." I was amazed by the power of communication of these young students and their fabulous American Sign Language teacher.
Jennifer Phillips, English teacher, Denton ISD, Denton, Texas

Everyone Has a Story

As a history teacher, my goal is to develop my students into citizens who actively participate in their community. I began using materials created by the Smithsonian and Facing History and Ourselves, including a video about Arn Chorn-Pond (www.facinghistory.org/for-educators/educator-resources/resource-collections/choosing-to-participate/everyone-has-story), who escaped from Cambodia and came to the United States as a child after most of his family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. In the video, Arn describes his struggle to adjust to a vastly different society and how he felt invisible, and he urges students to recognize that "everyone has a story."
I used this video as the beginning of a class discussion. What were the stories in our own classroom? One girl raised her hand and explained how her parents had also escaped the Khmer Rouge. Her classmates, myself included, had had no idea. We are now making collages so all the students can share their stories.
Rebecca Duda, teacher, Richardson Middle School, Dracut, Massachusetts

Sharing Cultural Experiences

In early 2000, I was teaching English in a high-poverty high school of about 200 students in southeast Kansas. After returning from a trip to the Vatican in Rome over the summer, I was telling the kids about the paintings and sculptures I'd seen and I mentioned Michelangelo's Pietà, which shows the Madonna holding Christ. One girl spouted out, "When did Madonna hold Christ?" I saw then and there how the influence of pop music and the lack of other cultural experiences were isolating my students.
I began using more music in my lessons to motivate and teach, and I also encouraged students to create English projects with music and media. Sharing my experiences from trips to Greece with my students translated into Roman festivals in the classroom. I know that sharing knowledge with my students helped them better understand the content, gave them new perspectives, and made learning fun.
Julie Crain, educational development adviser, The American College of Greece, Athens

Picking Up Language Secondhand

For three years, as a math teacher in my previous school district, I had to share my classroom during my planning period with a Spanish teacher. I'd sit at my desk in the back planning my math lessons for the next day while students engaged in Spanish activities with the teacher. At the time, I wasn't happy about this inconvenient arrangement.
Now I'm a middle school principal in a culturally diverse community (35 percent Hispanic). On one of my first days as principal five years ago, the office received a phone call from a Spanish-speaking parent. Our bilingual paraprofessional translator was gone for the day. I picked up the phone and was able to verify the student absence with the parent using the Spanish I had accumulated while listening to the Spanish class. The next day, our bilingual paraprofessional received a call from the parent expressing appreciation for my help. I learned an important lesson that day—even small steps of understanding can break down cultural lines and help build relationships.
Eric Townsley, middle school principal, South Tama County Schools, Toledo, Iowa

Learning from Parents

As principal of a highly diverse elementary school where more than half of the students were English language learners and the staff was mostly homogeneous, I selected a panel of seven parents to teach us about their home lives, parenting styles, celebrations, customs, discipline practices, and behavioral expectations. A focus topic for each parent was, "What do you expect from your child's school and your child's education?"
This inservice session was a turning point for the faculty, giving us insights that we had not had before. The personal stories connected us more than ever to our students and their parents. We felt both compassion and respect for the diversity within our school and community. We knew that even though our families within the school represented more than 20 languages and 30 countries, we all wanted the same things: a safe and accepting school, academic rigor for all children, and high standards for behavior. As a result of these insights, the faculty and I have worked hard to build relationships with our families that extended beyond the school walls.
Angela Robinson, principal, Loudoun County Public Schools, Ashburn, Virginia

This article was published anonymously, or the author name was removed in the process of digital storage.

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Culturally Diverse Classrooms
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