Can We Be Bilingual and Diverse?
Teacher Education 8-23-05
By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas
The luxury of summertime contemplation disappears in the approaching rush of a new semester's beginning. It's time to put away my reflections on the sojourn at the ATE conference in Bismarck and return to the university classroom.
On Language, Culture, and Standards.
Three themes emerged from the five days of my participation in the Association of Teacher Educators (ATE) summer conference in late July and early August.
President P. Rudy Mattai's overarching theme for ATE is "Advocacy Through Engagement: The School-Community Collaborative Imperative in Educating ALL Children."
The supporting theme for the ATE Leadership Academy was embedded in our required reading of the text, Widening the Circle: Culturally Relevant Pedagogy for American Indian Children.
The last theme arises from my own inquiry. It centers on the connection of the first two points to a personal thread woven into two of my research interests.
A Move toward Cultural Competence.
First, all children should have the opportunity to become bilingual. Learning another language broadens our points of view, connects us to other cultures on a fundamental level, and makes us better communicators across cultures. Learning another language increases our cultural competence. Why do we neglect to provide this benefit to our children?
Second, pre-service teachers should have a foreign language component built into the curriculum. Many students in public schools enter the classroom speaking languages other than English. Pre-service teachers should have the opportunity to become familiar with at least one of the home languages of their diverse student body.
Of the 1,565 students who speak other languages in Northwest Arkansas, 1,140 enter the school community as Spanish or Spanish Creole speakers (2000 U.S. Census Bureau website -- www.census.gov).
My elementary preservice students have expressed an interest in learning Spanish. None of them, however, wish to pursue the Spanish language as a major. Rather, they are interested in a course of study designed especially to help them with communicative skills in an elementary setting.
Communicative language training would be a beneficial and worthwhile initiative by school districts as a component of continuous professional development.
How to Ensure the Best Education?
Throughout my participation in the Bismarck conference, I sought sessions related to my search for ways to ensure the best education for all children.
How do we encourage and support more diversity in the profession?
Why do ethnic-centered curricula work better for minority populations and what implications arise from this success as it relates to teacher education programs and public education at large?
How does high stakes testing relate to diversity in the profession and to the success of diverse populations in the public school system? (ASIDE: I'm uncomfortable with the term "high stakes," but I hear it everywhere. It's a mundane metaphor of the casino. Does that mean we're gambling with our students' expectations and achievements by basing their success or failure on one event, which becomes the winner-take-all academic jackpot, otherwise known as the benchmark or end-of-course exam?)
How attainable is culturally responsive teaching in a multicultural setting?
Let Us Encourage Diversity.
The first presentation I attended related to a pressing concern in the profession: how to encourage and support more diversity in teacher education programs.
I could probably count on two hands the number of preservice teachers in my classes during the last two semesters who were not white, middle-class (and probably Protestant) females. Other demographic and ethnic groups just aren't well represented.
Where are the African-, Hispanic-, Hmong-, Laotian-, and Marshallese-American preservice teachers? I want to know. Where are the males of any of these ethnic groups? Where are students from the extreme ranges of the socio-economic levels?
Are they absent because the profession isn't appealing to them? If so, why would the profession not appeal to a larger representative group of students? Perhaps dissatisfying experiences in the public school system discourage students from viewing teaching as a desirable profession. Snared in a system that does not work to their advantage, and then released upon graduation to a greater world, members of minority groups naturally would not desire employment in a system that has disrespected them.
I Feel Like K. in The Castle.
Pondering these questions, I feel like K. in Franz Kafka's The Castle. Each inquiry in the bureaucratic maze leads to another office and one more exercise in pencil-pushing. Rules and regulations become legion.
Do we have pupils per administrator, or is it administrators per pupil?
As a doctoral candidate, I presently have the luxury during my brief sojourn in the loftier regions of academia to pause and consider pressing topical issues, but if I were teaching again in K-12, the time for reflection would be sorely restricted. Public school teachers are forced to react again and again to the protean character of regulatory agencies, which are intent on measurement and standardization.
Education programs stress "teaching for understanding," problem-based learning, and inquiry-based learning (to toss out a few catch phrases). State and federal governments mandate standardized testing -- and these tests come at earlier and earlier ages, more and more frequently, and with dire consequences for those schools, teachers, and students who do not meet the corporate test criteria.
In Benchmark Testing.
Last week I heard about new state regulations in Arkansas that pertain to eleventh graders and their levels of expertise in literacy and mathematics. The new rules stipulate that a student who earns an F in his literacy or math course, but scores proficient on the benchmark test, shall be determined to have passed the course! Conversely, a student who passes the course, but scores below proficient in literacy or math benchmarks, must have a remediation plan and cannot be advanced in grade until the plan is completed. This is a curious development given the fact that grades have already been posted to transcripts. What might happen to grade-point calculations?
Good-bye to graduation in 12 years.
My immediate question was why should teachers even bother to assess their students if success or failure in high school English, algebra or geometry courses depends solely on one-time benchmark exam scores? One teacher remarked that we should turn over our grade books to ETS or other testing services.
Any answers out there, dear readers? I'm stunned.
A Measure of Mediocrity?
Here's another consideration. Our government representatives are intent on standards. What is a standard but a measure of mediocrity? Would consumers rather buy the standard model of x, y, or z, or would they prefer a "high-end" model with a special name?
Standardization harkens back to the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century industrial models of education, models created by another age to serve the demands for a minion-like work-force trained for the rote and repetitive nature of a factory floor.
A colleague in a Northwest Arkansas middle school tells me she is required to "teach to the bell." The intent is to maximize instructional time. Instead, I interpret "teach to the bell" to mean more training for the minions of tomorrow, who must exhibit optimal efficiency in the corporate workplace. Seats are already reserved for students soon to graduate.
If we truly wanted to teach for understanding and inquiry, bells would fade into silence in light of the realization that effective learning (as prescribed by theorists in education programs) cannot be controlled by arbitrary time constraints.
A Novel Approach to Teaching Teachers.
But I digress.... The first presentation I attended at the ATE conference aligned perfectly with President Mattai's theme of school and community involvement.
Debbie Barnes, Kendra Duncan, and Terry James from the University of Central Arkansas in Conway have developed a teacher training partnership with Mid-South Community College (MSCC) in West Memphis, Arkansas. The two-year community college serves a region of rural Arkansas that is desperate for teachers. The community college surveyed area superintendents, who suggested that the demand for teachers could be assuaged by offering a teacher education program provided by the community college. Students supported this suggestion. Thus, the partnership was formed to offer middle-level (grades 4-8) instruction for teacher candidates. Fifteen students compose the first cohort of future teachers.
The Story of Sankofa Schule.
In another presentation, Elizabeth K. Davenport and Marian Smith from Florida A&M University related the story of the successful launch of Sankofa Schule, a public school academy (a charter school) with an "African-centered" curriculum. The success, the presenters stated, was inspired by a clear mission statement that included the key idea of developing responsible adults in families and involving the entire community in becoming active participants in the school.
Parents at Sankofa Schule became part of the site-based management and took part in all aspects of the school community: tutoring, mentoring, advising, and other duties that evolve in a school setting. Dr. Davenport described one vital component of the program that drew from culturally relevant pedagogy: the creation of the Rites of Passage, a "metacognitive program" of ten strategies to help students deal with the real world. All activities in this program were conducted by adult role models to teach young men and women that responsible people love themselves, support and care for their families, and plan each step of their lives in order to stay on the path to success.
All Teachers are ESL Teachers.
A fortuitous introduction led me to another presentation that connected to my background in German and ESL. Ellen G. Batt from Albertson College of Idaho (Caldwell, Idaho) shares my background in German, Spanish, ESL, and teacher education. Her premise is that all teachers are in fact ESL teachers. Idaho data about English Language Learners is similar to Arkansas data in that eighty percent of the ELLs in the northwestern state are Latino.
In a survey she and a colleague conducted with 102 teachers in 2003-2004, a Spanish language class was ranked third on a list of needs for professional development. Like my students, the teacher candidates in Idaho also perceive a need for Spanish language training.
I'm a Conference Aficionado.
I'll be frank. Conferences just inspire me. I leave with newfound enthusiasm for more investigations into a broad range of topics.
In the compressed time frame of a long weekend -- or, in this case, a luxurious five days in the North Country -- listening and sharing comprise a large part of the communal and intellectual atmosphere. Each conference is unique, but each also shares a common structure for professional and personal development. The various sessions of roundtables, panel discussions, workshops, and individual presentations offer participants a choice of styles and time frames to select themes and threads of interest.
But that was yesterday. The fall semester has begun in Arkansas. Grounded firmly now in the present demands of academia, public education, and private interests, I am grateful for memories of my summer interlude in Bismarck, North Dakota.