Opinion: Culturally inclusive tools for teachers

By

Daniel D. Liou

Daniel D. Liou is an assistant professor at ASU's Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

This is the time of year when back-to-school stories fill our newspapers, television news and social media. This year, as in the past, many of the stories address Arizona’s dire teacher shortage. As policymakers and others debate how to crack the economic code of teacher supply and demand, it’s vital that we also maintain our focus on how to help the teachers we have do their jobs more effectively. Part of the formula for attracting and retaining strong educators is making sure we provide them with the tools they need to help students succeed. One of the most important tools we can give our teachers is training in culturally inclusive practices so they can help boost student achievement, improve school discipline and reduce dropout rates.

For the past two years, Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Diane Douglas has convened a group of educators and community representatives to develop a set of culturally inclusive practices. The Culturally Inclusive Practices Committee’s work proceeds from an evidence-based understanding that the cultural and social context that students bring into the classroom affects how those students learn. We’ve long recognized that teachers need to address different learning styles. Effective teachers adapt to whether a child thrives with visual reinforcement, more interactivity, and many other approaches. The committee’s work expands this understanding to include the cultural context of our students and their families.

In 2015, the Center for Immigration Studies found that 28.3 percent of school-age children and teens in Arizona speak a language other than English at home. That was the seventh-highest number among U.S. states (the national average is 22 percent). Each of those languages has customs, norms, frames of reference and other habits of social interaction. All these factors are part of the complex social and physical circuitry of how children learn. This presents real practical issues that classroom teachers grapple with every day.

For example, in 1993, when I was a high-school bilingual administrator, I worked with two new ninth grade students, Long and Vinh, who had just arrived in the United States from Vietnam. These students needed to learn English, but they also had to learn how to read and write. They had no prior schooling. Their challenges involved both language and basic literacy.

A number of people worked to help these students in school, after school and outside of school. Starting from the ninth grade and on, teachers and a team of administrators hired Vietnamese-speaking tutors who provided translation services and drew connections from classroom content to the students’ knowledge base and frames of reference. After school, these tutors taught Long and Vinh how to read and write in Vietnamese as a foundational tool to accelerate their learning. Outside of school, community-based organizations matched the boys, who did not grow up with their fathers, with a college-educated male mentor who spoke Vietnamese. He was able to connect the boys to other high school students who then helped Long and Vinh to see that academic success was attainable.

It was an interconnected system of support. Periodically, we made evening visits to their homes in order to learn about their families’ immigration stories, educational expectations and adjustments to the United States. With this kind of support, the boys’ family members became essential partners in their students’ success, and valuable contributors at monthly parent advisory meetings. Long and Vinh graduated high school within four years and attended community college with the hope of eventually transferring to a four-year college.

Good educators love this kind of challenge and, when they meet it, can change lives for the better. Ultimately, developing culturally inclusive practices and implementing them in schools is about helping teachers engage all students. It’s about helping more of our teachers develop the kind of caring and demanding relationships with students that facilitate the best learning.

Toward this end, the Culturally Inclusive Practices Committee has come up with guidelines for schools. These guidelines address areas of instruction, curriculum and school climate. Put another way, the guidelines ask schools to integrate inclusiveness into what we teach, how we teach, and the communities in which we teach. Holding it all together is a fourth area: professional development. That’s the key piece that will allow educators — teachers, principals, administrators and others — to integrate evidence-based inclusive practices, validated by research, into schools in a manner that has a measurable impact on student achievement.

The guidelines developed by the committee do not constitute the final word on cultural inclusiveness in our schools. They express a goal but don’t order local education agencies on how to achieve those goals. Instead, they represent a strong start to a vital conversation about what works best to help our teachers serve our students. And they are the product of sustained conversations among people with different areas of expertise and points of view, who have come together in good faith to shed light, not heat, on how teachers can work with one another and community members, with empathy and understanding, for the benefit of all children in Arizona schools.

Assistant Professor Daniel D. Liou serves on the Arizona Department of Education’s Cultural Inclusive Practices Committee. For more information on culturally inclusive practices, visit azed.gov/standards-practices/culturally-inclusive-practices.