Changing classroom culture

Educators changing with increasingly diverse student population

When Michigan teacher Jackie Dzedziula began her career, she never imagined needing to say “Don’t cry your mom is coming” in Bengali.

Twenty-seven years ago, most of Dzedziula’s students spoke English. Now, eight different languages are spoken in her class of 34 children, half of whom don’t speak English at home. “I am not anywhere near fluent but have learned key phrases in several languages,” the preschool teacher in Early Childhood Elementary in Hamtramck, Mich., said. “They speak Yemini, Urdu and Bengali, for example.”

Dzedziula’s class is not unlike a growing population of public K-12 classrooms in the United States. From 1995 to 2014, the number of first- and second-generation immigrant children in the U.S. rose 51 percent to 18.7 million. That is 25 percent of children in the country, according to nonprofit research group Child Trends. The National Center for Education Statistics projects that by 2023 at least 54.7 percent of public school children in the U.S. will be two or more races.

Even before it became a highly charged political topic, immigration and cultural integration were emerging as critical classroom issues for elementary and secondary schools across the U.S.

For school administrators in places including Dearborn, Mich., increasing numbers of Muslim students means adapting annual calendars to accommodate students not tied to traditional Christian holidays.

However, the population shift has perhaps been felt most acutely by U.S. teachers in the classroom. Teachers work with immigrant students who have limited or no prior education from their home countries, trauma, who haven’t seen their families for years, who are unhealthy due to poor nutrition or previous lack of medical care, and family members who are not involved with their education and, of course, language barriers, explained Beverly Irby, EdD, and Rafael Lara-Alecio, PhD, from the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University. Irby is chair of preK-12 programs and director of Texas A&M’s Education Leadership Research Center. Lara-Alecio is director of the university’s Center for Research & Development in Dual Language and Literacy Acquisition and director of Bilingual Programs in the Department of Educational Psychology.

Bridging language divides

“Immigrant youth force teachers to develop strategies that employ multiple forms of communication, and to think beyond the United States in the curriculum,” according to The Education of Immigrant Children by the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Dzedziula was doing her job for many years before earning Teaching English as a Second Language certification, which she calls “helpful.” Now, at the beginning of each school year, she relies on sign language and visual aids. “We have to have pictures combined with words and rely on a visual schedule.” However, because her students are so young and watch TV at home, she says, they begin picking up English within a few months.”

While teaching the kids English is important, experts say it is equally important to speak to students and provide instruction in their native languages. Unfortunately, Mario Torres, associate professor of Educational Administration and Human Resource Development at Texas A&M University, said, “There isn’t enough time or space in most curriculum to address the issue of language.”

Dzedziula’s Hamtramck school has been able to hire an ethnically diverse staff to assist communication with its multicultural classrooms. “My assistant of 15 years is Bengali so I have learned a few words from her. We can also run to another room to find a teacher who understands and speaks the language we need.”

Escuela Avancemos Academy in Detroit, whose academic population is 90 percent Latino, goes a step farther by not only providing students daily Spanish classes but also offering English classes to parents so parents can help their kids. The school also, through the U.S. Department of Education’s Success for All program, gives the books read in class to the kids to keep. Teacher Lyndsey Norman says letting the kids keep the books helps new language learners remember what the book says and allows them to read the book to a parent who may not yet know the language.

Family before education

Helping teachers understand cultural differences is a priority for Escuela Avancemos Academy founder Ana Ulloa. The El Salvadoran immigrant holds a weekly Spanish language and culture class for her teachers to help them better relate with the parents. For instance, explains Principal Sean Townsin, because English and Spanish literacy levels for Central American families are limited, parents often associate school with documents and signing things which is why they don’t participate in school activities.

Torres added that immigrant families, especially those who are undocumented, tend to think of schools as an arm of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Further, there aren’t just different dialects of Spanish but different values. “Sixty-three percent of our students are first generation Mexican American and 25 percent are Puerto Rican. They have completely different discipline and cultural styles,” Townsin said. Puerto Rican parents tend to be strict while Mexican Americans tend to coddle their children. “As a teacher, you need to understand the cultural backgrounds before you can have a parent meeting.”

A complication to building a school calendar, about 10 percent of Avancemos Academy’s Mexican American families leave the country in mid-December for Christmas vacation and don’t return until February.

“It’s a huge problem,” Townsin says. “Teachers then have to play catch up with the students. We had one teacher who tried to give the families homework packets to take with them. But they are often going places where there is no e-mail and where no one speaks English who can help them do homework that’s in English.”

In trying to find solutions, Townsin’s teachers came up with a classroom attendance competition that helped, because students wanted to win. Still, Townsin says, it’s up to the parents. “We learned you are never going to have a Mexican American family replace education with their family.”

Pride and trust

Another cultural issue is with trust and communication. When an Avancemos student began looking malnourished, teachers brought in the parents to talk about the problem. “The parents said they would work on getting him to eat breakfast,” Townsin said. “Then we caught him stealing celery.

“Our founder taught us that immigrant families have a lot of pride. They are not always going to be forthcoming. They don’t want to admit they can’t afford their food bill.” As a result, educational communities with numerous immigrant students put a lot of resources into building trusting relationships. “Trust does not come easily, especially with undocumented families.” Once the school realized the parents didn’t want to admit they couldn’t afford food, Townsin says a teacher connected the child to Gleaners Food Bank.

Bridging the cultural divide

The Tukwila school district, which borders Seattle, claims to “top the nation in diversity” with more than 60 language groups spoken by students from myriad countries or sects including those in Somalia, Nepal, Burma, Russia, Ukraine, Vietnam, China, Turkey, Ghana, Iran, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Central, South America.

“We have a lot of challenges,” Maria Flack, Seattle middle school librarian, said. “But we try to embrace it as an opportunity.” She said the school district uses games, drawing and social stories to help the kids with cultural communication. “We have community liaisons and some student groups that cater to specific ethnicities and needs.” And the schools have teams that reflect the kids ethnically, she says.

But many of the children located in Tukwila are dealing with more than just language barriers. Some are coming from systemic poverty and others, similar to many of the Syrian students they are now seeing, have fled regions rife with violence. “We see a lot of PTSD [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder] because we have a lot of refugees. Some of our kids come from really bad places and sometimes people bring their ‘stuff’ with them. We have some factions that fought in their native countries and they are still warring with each other here in the U.S. We have a lot of gangs.

“We also have a lot of kids whose parents are gone for months at a time because they travel back home or sometimes a parent is deported,” Flack said. “That disrupts the kids.”

And that weighs heavily on teachers. “If you are a teacher, those are your kids. You want to help them but you are kind of in a helpless position. You can’t do it all for them because you’re not the mom or the dad. It takes an emotional toll.”

The stress of trying to help her students was one reason Flack moved from the classroom to the library. “It’s a good way to burn out because you are super invested and then you feel like a failure.”

For dedicated educators, help is on the way. Universities and other research organizations are watching demographic trends and lending advice to various communities.

“What is taught and how it’s taught has huge implications,” Torres said. “We’re really fighting this with some schools [in Texas] we are working with.”

Universities are beginning to prepare the next generation of teachers by incorporating relevant coursework in their curricula. For instance, Columbia University’s Teacher College offers a multicultural, multilingual classroom course, Stanford offers EDUC 177: Well-Being in Immigrant Children & Youth: A Service Learning Course and Washington State University offers a diversity in education course. Prior to student teaching, Texas A&M’s Educational Psychology department pupils are exposed to education issues surrounding multicultural education and students with limited English proficiency.

Torres suggests schools prepare teachers for culturally relevant instruction. For example, an English teacher may ask students to explore or write about Cesar Chavez rather than George Washington. “It’s a matter that can’t be ignored and needs to be a substantive part of general course work for teacher preparations, preparing teachers to teach immigrant students.”

Seattle teacher and librarian, Maria Flack, utilizes different approaches to connect with Tukwila students. Main photo courtesy Tukwila Staff.


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