Teaching Profession Ask the Mentor

Teaching Diverse Populations: Part II

December 12, 2007 15 min read
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A “teacher of teachers,” Dr. Kelley L. Costner serves as the Associate Dean for Master’s Programs and Teacher Preparation Programs at the College of Education at Walden University in Minnesota. Since 2000, Costner’s research has focused on training culturally responsive teachers and supporting African American learners in the classroom. She has presented her 2004 co-authored paper “Seven Principles for Developing a Culturally Responsive Faculty” at numerous education conferences across the country and in Canada for both higher ed and K-12 teachers. Costner’s research supports her experience that a culturally sensitive staff is a more unified staff, and one that fosters greater student interest, participation, and achievement in the classroom.

In this final part of a two-part installment, Costner imparts advice on fostering cultural sensitivity in an online classroom, utilizing students’ backgrounds to embrace diversity, and ways in which to promote mutual respect and cultural responsiveness, among other topics.

When teaching an online class, what is the best way to present questions that are culturally sensitive when the instructor does not see or know the students’ varied background, ethnicity, or culture?

I have to tell you that I have had a lot of time to practice my “online cultural sensitivity and responsiveness” as a faculty member and as the associate dean for master’s and teacher preparation programs at Walden University. What I have found over the years is that online communication is a culture in itself, so watching my written “tone” is key.

My advice about online culturally sensitivity is this: Do as you would in the classroom when you are face to face—show value and respect. Always remember, there is a human being on the other end although you cannot physically see the person.

I make an intentional effort to ensure that I treat my online students with respect and value, and the experience would be no different if I were teaching them in person. I have also tried my hardest to avoid making assumptions based on names. For example, a person with the name Mel does not necessarily mean that person is a male (guess how I found that out?).

What I have found to be crucial in an online learning environment is to promote mutual respect. The following is what I post at the start of each of my online classes:

“Welcome. Before we delve into the course, I want to make a few points. Being in an online environment requires that we remain constantly aware that there is a human being, with feelings, attached to the name you see displayed in the class, although you cannot see him/her. The beauty of an online environment is that we will have colleagues from differing backgrounds with varying beliefs and cultures from all over the world! I want to ensure that we all, including me, are cognizant of this and be mindful when communicating with each other. I also request that we stay away from making assumptions about colleagues based on name, communication style, etc. I just want to be sure that we do not, intentionally or unintentionally, offend our colleagues.”

When you say “culturally responsive,” does that mean that a teacher has to know/learn about every culture represented in his/her class? And where does one begin to gather accurate information about someone’s culture? I am an African American educator and realize that knowing your students is important to establishing those nurturing relationships, but how can one really understand another person’s culture without a social connection of some kind?

This is a question that I get all the time, and one I truly enjoy answering because I, too, struggled with this. As classrooms continue to become more and more diverse, I find that it may not be possible for me to know each and every value, belief, and aspect of the students’ cultures represented in my classroom. While it might not be possible for a teacher to be familiar with the culture of every student, it is still possible to apply certain cultural sensitivity rules—respect and value. I suggest reading the Culturally Proficient School, which does a great job, explaining this process.

Something I continue to do is prepare myself with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary to be culturally sensitive online, as I would if we were face to face. My rule of thumb is this: I value and respect all my students and the experiences and strengths they bring to the classroom environment whether I can see them or not. I try to utilize their backgrounds and experiences to move them forward. You asked where would one begin to receive accurate information about someone’s culture? I always go with the source. I feel no one can tell you more about a person than that person! I promote going to the source because there may be some aspect(s) of a culture that the individual may not identify with, and I would not want to assume that they do. When I taught developmental English at a community college, I would always incorporate a lesson on culture during the semester. I would have the students write about their own culture and beliefs. I would also have them team up with a classmate and write about him/her (this can be done with any age group). I would have them not only present who they are, but also who their partner is. This not only helped me learn about my students and who they were as individuals, but it also helped the students get to know each other. We would then have a class discussion about culture and cultural sensitivity. This is information I could never find in an article or book, and it is how I make my connections with my students and how they make connections with each other.

What strategies are most effective in creating transformational change at the district level? That is, in a district adjacent to a large urban center comprised at all levels with primarily (approaching exclusively) white, middle-class women, how can we best begin and succeed in fostering a more culturally sensitive, responsive, and effective teaching and learning environment?

I do truly believe that the first step has been taken. You asked!! The most effective strategy that I found in creating transformational changes is the establishment of the “need and value” of a culturally sensitive and responsive teaching environment, and the need and value of all stakeholders to buy-in. I stress that change is not an overnight process and takes time and commitment from everyone. I also stress that change is an ongoing process, and it can be hard and downright uncomfortable at times, but it can be done!

There are many articles and books that specifically speak to the best practices for transformational change. Please see Part I and Part II of my booklist. Please note that this list is not meant to be exhaustive; they are just a few of my favorite books about culturally responsive teaching and learning and organizational change. Last, I suggest you read my Seven Principles for Training Culturally Responsive Teachers, which offers advice on how to engage the school district as a whole. I hope you find them helpful.

What advice do you have for an aspiring or new teacher who is a member of the dominant culture and has never worked within diverse communities?

My advice is this: Always remain open and committed to learning new things. Ensure you honestly assess your own beliefs about diverse populations. Really be honest with yourself about your expectations, beliefs, and attitudes toward diverse populations and teaching diverse populations. Are you comfortable working with diverse populations? What expectations do you have? What assumptions and preconceived notions do you have, if any?

Make sure that when you work with diverse students and/or colleagues, you value and respect who they are and what they bring to the classroom. Make sure your students feel welcome and supported in your classroom. Talk to your students, talk to them about who they are. Teach them about the diverse society we live in and how to value and respect people even when there are differences. Most important: model value and respect. Read Through Ebony Eyes by Gail Thompson, for starters. It is a very practical and informative book that I would recommend to aspiring, new, or seasoned teachers.

Just know that your willingness to ask advice about working with diverse populations deserves recognition. Thank you for taking this step.

Where should a school district begin to examine its responsiveness to a culturally diverse student population? Are there any survey instruments available for K-12 students and staff that will help determine the perceptions of how well a school district is addressing the needs of its diverse population?

Kelley L. Costner's Booklist on Teaching Diverse Populations, Part II

Sure there are! There are many instruments out there that can help you do this. For starters, the following are a few books that include instruments and information on examining cultural responsiveness: Through Ebony Eyes by Gail L. Thompson; Creating Culturally Responsive Classrooms by Barbara J. Shade, Cynthia Kelly, and Mary Oberg; Preservice Teachers’ Attitudes Toward Teaching African American Students by Rosenna Bakari; The Culturally Proficient School by Randall Lindsey, Laraine Roberts, and Franklin Campbell Jones; Culture in School Learning by Etta R. Hollins; and Culturally Responsive Teaching by Geneva Gay.

When examining cultural responsiveness, I always suggest examining the school’s commitment, the teachers’ attitudes and beliefs toward culturally responsive teaching, and the instructional practices that are being used. Below are instruments and materials that I recommend to get you started. You will find instruments, exercises, classroom assignments, and great research relevant to your question. Also, I suggest contacting these authors (you can probably find them by doing a simple Internet search) or a consultant to see if they will come in and help your school to assess how well you are addressing the needs of your diverse population.

Although I will not name one specific book (they have written so many) by the following experts, I would highly recommend contacting or reviewing the works of: James Banks, Janice Hale, Sonia Nieto, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. (Just a reminder: There are many scholars out there and this list is not meant to be exhaustive.)

Please see Part 1 and Part II of the booklist. Also, read the Seven Principles, which may prove to be helpful also. Please note that going to the library and researching articles relevant to this topic would also prove to be very helpful.

Working with teachers in New Jersey’s urban school districts, my question is: how can we use a student’s own background to help them relate to academic material as well as the adults who sincerely want to help them be motivated to excel?

Thank you for your question. I do believe that the most important step for you and your colleagues is really listening to your students. This will help you to develop a sense of your student’s background. Etta Hollins, in Culture in School Learning: Revealing the Deep Meaning (see book list from Part I) did a fabulous job explaining how teachers can use the knowledge children bring to school to help them make that connection between home and school. I highly recommend this book to get you started.

If you were doing four (three hours each) seminars on culturally responsive teaching over the course of a school year, what would be the title for each seminar? I’m looking for sequence and impact.

If I were doing a seminar on culturally responsive teaching in your school, I would need to know a lot more information about the school before I put together the four seminars. I would need to know the needs of the school, the demographics of the student population, the demographics of the teachers, where the school is located, the audience, whether there has ever been training, if you have school and district “buy-in,” and the size of the school, among other details.

These are just a couple of factors that influence the kind of training I conduct, which includes the sequence and topic(s). There is really no set sequence that I use because each school has its own identity and needs. I really try to stay away from the one-size-fits-all model To get started, I recommend reading the Culturally Proficient School or Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom to help guide you through this process. Or, my Seven Principles to determine what issues your school needs to address.

I have been a remedial math teacher at the college level for the past ten years. I find that the majority of my students are African American. I believe my students notice this; however, no one talks much about it. What can be done to begin a conversation about the obvious or would it be inappropriate to say anything to my colleagues? Why are so many first-time, freshman African-American students in remediation at the college level?

I, too, have taught developmental education (reading and English) at the college level, and I noticed that there always seemed to be an overrepresentation of African-American students in my developmental education courses, and I wanted to know why. Initially, I did not want to make a generalization that this was a problem for all African American college-level students prior to researching it a little more—so I did my homework. I immersed myself in the literature, and read everything I could about the subject.

I armed myself with the knowledge to speak not only about the overrepresentation of African Americans in my developmental courses at this particular college but other colleges as well. I also researched possible solutions to the problem, which I felt were very important. It was during my research that I delved deeper into the utilization and promotion of Culturally Responsive Teaching as a vehicle to address this problem. Fortunately, I worked at an institution where the leader supported closing the achievement gap and poured many human and fiscal resources into this initiative. However, I have to tell you that it was a struggle to get some faculty to really talk about this issue for several reasons. Some were uncomfortable talking about race. Some just thought that this was where these students belonged anyway, so they really did not care. Some just thought I was being “overly sensitive” and making too much out of it. However, there were many faculty members and administrators who were committed to talking about and addressing this problem.

I never find it inappropriate to bring up an issue as critical as this one. If you don’t, who will? But, I have to be honest: some of your colleagues might. The key is to not just present a problem but bring possible solutions. Also, remember that some people may have difficulty when dealing with issues relevant to race, so you may get some push back from colleagues. Just keep moving ahead and stay committed.

I teach in a school with a somewhat diverse population—33 percent or so are FARMS [free and reduced lunch] kids. The “neighborhood” kids are fairly wealthy, mostly white. We also have a trade situation with a less-wealthy, more diverse neighborhood. We serve the third to sixth grades, and all of the kids in both neighborhoods go to the “poorer” neighborhood for K-2.

We are working hard at keeping all parents feeling that they are part of the community as a whole. There is a feeling among some parents and staff that more effort needs to be made to get parents of minority students involved here at the 3-6 school. The feeling seems to be that they are more involved at the K-2 school, but they back off when their kids come to us.

The big question at the moment is whether to differentiate between the African American parents and the Hispanic parents, as has been suggested. It has been proposed that we hold initial meetings separately to give families the opportunity to discuss issues with others “like them,” which supposedly would make them feel more open to giving their opinions and sharing feelings. I am not sure this is the best way to integrate.

Thank you for your question. I am going to say that some of my comments and questions may be a bit uncomfortable, but please note that they are being offered in a collegial spirit. Since this is an online communication, I always try to establish my tone prior to speaking.

There are some things that I want you and your colleagues to ponder as you come to a conclusion on the best way to involve all parents, regardless of socio-economic, racial, or ethnic background. I really want you to pay attention to the assumptions and beliefs held at your school. Terms such as “general population,” “like them,” “separation,” “differentiate,” and “integrate” really send up red flags for me. I have to be honest, the term “general population,” especially, leaves me to question who is and who is not considered the general population.

From what you stated, there does not seem to be an issue with minority parental involvement in the K-2 school. However, when these same parents come to your school for their 3rd to 6th graders, they back off. To be blunt, could the minority parents be stepping back or could your school be pushing them back? Did anyone ask what was being done at the K-2 school? This would be especially important because there appears to be no problem with minority parental involvement there, according to how you have defined the situation.

What would your school be communicating to parents if the school took the initiative to group African American and Hispanic parents together to discuss issues with others “like them?” Did anyone ever consider that the school’s potentially unfounded perceptions and beliefs about these parents could be shaping its actions toward these parents? If your school believes that they should not or do not want to be a part of the “general population,” and just want to be with others “like them,” then you will intentionally or unintentionally treat them like outsiders.

How would separating or “differentiating” African American and Hispanic parents from the “general population” help them feel welcome? You state that some think “that if they are grouped together at the onset, they can more openly discuss feelings and such with each other, and later bring them to the general population.” What is this belief based on? Did the parents request to be separated? Or, did your school staff make the assumption?

You state that the neighborhood kids are “fairly wealthy, and mostly white,” which means that there are children who are probably fairly wealthy and non-white. Were the parents of the fairly wealthy, non-white students separated from this “general population” based on race or ethnicity? If so, why or why not?

I know this is a sensitive subject, and I know that I asked some hard questions. I need to emphasize that the beliefs that are driving some of the thinking at your school should be examined. Please note that I used your language in my responses to your questions in order to underscore what I think might be creating problems of perception. It is my hope that your school will find a way to actively involve all parents equally.

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