Written by: Sandra Osorio, Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education at Illinois State University
Recently, I redesigned my science methods course to include instruction on working with students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, developing a unique out-of-class learning experience for students enrolled in this course. Upon completion of the redesign, I developed a SoTL research project to answer the following question: How do the experiences provided in my redesigned course affect pre-service teachers’ cultural awareness? This SoTL study took place in my science methods course with 26 students, all of whom were female. While the majority of participants were White, one student self-identified as Latina. All were preservice teachers.
Participants were enrolled in this course during the final semester of classes before student teaching. As part of the redesigned course and it’s out-of-class learning component, participants visited a local classroom which included Spanish-English bilingual students for a total of twelve times to teach science lessons. After each session in the classroom and at the end of the entire experience, participants completed weekly reflections. The focus of this blog will be on initial findings from the written reflections and final reflective papers with a focus on changes in cultural awareness as a result of this new learning experience.
At the beginning of the semester, participants set personal learning goals they were expected to use as a basis for their weekly reflections. Participants’ goals related to teaching science and working with students from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. Reflection on these goals allowed participants to connect their learning to their prior knowledge and monitor their own learning each week.
All participants’ goals related to working with students from culturally and linguistically diverse background were similar, reflecting aspirations such as:
- becoming more comfortable working with ELL students
- incorporating their cultures and previous knowledge into lessons
- using appropriate accommodations for those ELL learners
- connecting with culturally and linguistically diverse students to make them feel important and included
At the conclusion of all twelve clinical experiences, data were analyzed and interpreted. Initial reflections indicated that participants had some misconceptions related to working with bilingual students. Many of the pre-service teachers made the assumption that bilingual, really meant Spanish only, as can be seen from these student reflections:
- “students might not be proficient in English, so when I was speaking I made sure to speak clearly and slowly enough so they could understand”
- “being able to use my Spanish background if needed to assist them at any time”
In reality, participants were able to see that Spanish-English students were on a continuum between the languages with varying degrees of proficiency and that their assumptions about bilingual language use were not accurate.
As participants gained more experience with their bilingual students, I was able to see areas of growth and change with regard to cultural awareness. An example of such growth is Madison, who demonstrated that she was able to apply course content to her teaching experience:
“While I was working with two of the students, one asked me if he could describe the objects in Spanish. I knew that it was important for the students to practice their English, but this activity wasn’t about the language, it was about exploring the properties of objects. I told the student to try his best to use English, but if he couldn’t think of the word Spanish was okay.”
Similarly, Kacey wrote in the following in one of her reflections, applying the need to use active learning to facilitate vocabulary growth:
“Specifically, hands-on learning is critical for ELL students. By providing ELL children with the opportunity to experience the learning and construct his or her own knowledge, he or she is more likely to comprehend and retain the information. As teachers, it is important to allow ELL students various ways to learn. By using a hands-on activity with Hannah and I’s lesson, we will be catering to the students’ needs.”
Data reflected that participants were constantly reflecting deeply on their experiences. Anna noticed that students were only using basic words such as colors to describe the objects they were given in the lesson. She said,
“Since majority of the students are ELLs they would have benefitted from explicit vocabulary instruction about how to describe and what words to use. When working with the children I noticed that students didn’t use a variety of adjectives to describe objects. Being able to critically reflect and think about this lesson will help me strive to reach the goals that I have set for myself.”
Anna’s reflection actually led to some changes when the lesson was retaught. Participants decided that the first lesson of each unit would concentrate on a wider range of descriptive words. For subsequent lessons, one of the participants developed a reference word list for students which (based on participant reflections) supported not only ELL students, but all students in the classroom, as well.
The most important aspect of this redesigned course was the real world experience. This allowed participants to change some of the common misconceptions they held and also put into practice what they were reading and learning. This was expressed in one of Kacey’s final reflections,
“Throughout college I always felt very unprepared for having ELL students in my future classroom. I felt as though I was having a hard time comprehending the strategies without getting the chance to practice them. Therefore, getting the opportunity to be in classroom with ELL students every week was very beneficial for me. I was able to take all of the ELL teaching strategies that I have learned in my past courses and see them in action.”
Reading the reflections, I found participants still made some negative assumptions about ELL students, but they also made important strides towards their own personal learning goals and those of the course, in terms of increasing cultural awareness. These initial findings demonstrate the effectiveness of this activity within my course redesign. Exposing participants to real-life scenarios working with culturally diverse students was an effective technique to encourage changes in thinking and application of learning. Growth was likely facilitated by having participants write their own learning goals, so learning was differentiated to meet their individual needs.
Overall, data collected for this project helped inform changes for the next time I work with students in a similar fashion. By having students write about how they are working towards their goals and reflecting on their awareness of culture, I was able to see the connections students make to prior learning and how to better support them in the future.