Preparing Teachers for Diversity



The word diversity has become a buzzword these days, a catchall description that may signal differences in race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, age, gender or all of these and more, depending on whom you ask. Diversity, however, moves quickly from an abstract concept to an urgent issue in our nation’s classrooms.

Come each fall, most teachers are faced with 20-plus students who come from varied backgrounds, with different life experiences and knowledge. Teachers are routinely faced with some hard questions: How can we bridge the gap between what students know and what they need to learn? How can we draw on a multitude of backgrounds while fostering a classroom community? How can differences among students be tapped as an advantage?

Recognizing these challenges, the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) prepares teachers to not only accommodate students who are diverse in the broadest meaning of the word but also actually make use of this diversity in teaching academic skills. Two SESP teacher preparation curricula work toward this goal: the Master of Science in Education (MSEd) program and the NU-TEACH alternative certification program.

The diversity difference
“The more diverse a group is, the more different perspectives are brought into the conversation. The more everyone is considered during discussions, the more we are able to generate creative ideas and substantive solutions to problems. Diversity makes a big difference, especially in teaching,” asserts Sylvia Smith-Demuth, founding director of NU-TEACH, which helps attract top teachers to Chicago classrooms by preparing highly qualified career changers.

Marla Shoemaker, a teacher in the NU-TEACH alternative certification program, has students representing eight countries and eight languages in her first-grade class at Passages School in Chicago. A diverse group brings different viewpoints, and creative solutions result, says NU-TEACH director Sylvia Smith-Demuth
Marla Shoemaker, a teacher in the NU-TEACH alternative certification program, has students representing eight countries and eight languages in her first-grade class at Passages School in Chicago. A diverse group brings different viewpoints, and creative solutions result, says NU-TEACH director Sylvia Smith-Demuth.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


Smith-Demuth points to recent work in the sociology of group processes, learned communities and shared decision-making that supports this argument. “Scott Page’s The Difference and James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds, for instance, provide clear evidence for the importance of diversity and the superiority of outcomes produced by diverse groups in a broad range of contexts, including education.”

Sophie Haroutunian-Gordon, director of the MSEd program, adds, “For diversity to really make a difference, you have to first draw out the differences between people in discussions and interactions. Effective teaching must make use of diversity in many situations, such as K–12 classrooms and workplace settings. This is preparation for participating in a democracy — it engages people with the thinking of one another.”

A variety of voices
Both programs offer a welcoming attitude toward diversity and recognition that varied voices make any group project richer and likelier to succeed than fail. In fact, the entire MSEd program is based on an orientation called interpretive discussion that brings disparate perspectives together in the quest for shared understanding. Students are helped to create communities in which beliefs and ideas are shared, respected and developed. The intent is that the students will foster such communities in their classrooms and workplaces.
Students including Jennifer Osei, a first grader in Shoemaker’s class, benefit from NU-TEACH strategies that prepare teachers to make use of diversity for teaching academics. Two ways NU-TEACH prepares career changers are through social context classes and video clubs. The Master of Science in Education program emphasizes interpretive discussion as a way to draw out different perspectives. Third-grade teacher Demetrius Sajous-Brady (MS00) uses the technique with this class at Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln School
LEFT: Students including Jennifer Osei, a first grader in Shoemaker’s class, benefit from NU-TEACH strategies that prepare teachers to make use of diversity for teaching academics. Two ways NU-TEACH prepares career changers are through social context classes and "video clubs." RIGHT: The Master of Science in Education program emphasizes interpretive discussion as a way to draw out different perspectives. Third-grade teacher Demetrius Sajous-Brady (MS00) uses the technique with this class at Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln School.
Photo by Andrew Campbell


All students in the MSEd program complete a master’s project over a three-course sequence. The students meet in groups of eight to 10 each. A coach, typically a graduate of the MSEd program, remains with the group over three quarters and assists the students from many different backgrounds in forming questions they hope to resolve through research and conversation about the meaning of relevant texts.

“Ultimately the group comes to a question of shared concern that members address through further study of the text,” explains Haroutunian-Gordon. “All people read differently and bring a wide range of ideas to their reading. Once the group comes to a question it wishes to discuss, members try to answer it using their different perspectives. They try to learn from one another and value their differences.”

Haroutunian-Gordon points to a successful example in her forthcoming book, Learning to Teach through Discussion: The Art of Turning the Soul, which is due out in fall 2009. In the book she presents research in which student teachers led two separate fourth-grade classrooms — one in the inner city, the other in a wealthy suburb — in interpretive discussions. Eventually, the teachers merged the two groups, with what Haroutunian-Gordon calls “incredible, dumbfounding results.”

These two groups of students who seemed to have little in common jumped right into the task of analyzing a 13th-century text from Moorish Spain. Not only did the fourth graders arrive at a shared question and propose answers based on textual evidence, but they also related to each other in highly respectful, curious and personal ways.

Demetrius Sajous-Brady (MS00) has taught third grade in Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Elementary School for more than eight years and returns to SESP regularly to coach MSEd students. He uses interpretive discussion with his own third graders and finds that it improves their ability to analyze what they read and watch, ask questions, provide evidence for their reasoning and draw out ideas from their peers.

Working on these abilities also brings his students together. “Discussions allow students to be better engaged and understanding in the classroom with those they may not be as social or friendly with otherwise,” he says. “They are able to better appreciate the perspectives of others.”

Haroutunian-Gordon says that experiences such as Sajous-Brady’s testify to the advantages that diversity offers. “Classrooms are communities, not just a group of people brought together randomly. The main resources these communities have are their members, and they need to be connected.”

Strategies for tapping diversity
NU-TEACH also provides strategies that enable its participants to tap diversity as a resource for learning. First, social context classes require participants to hold group discussions about the roles that race and gender play in society.

“We talk a lot about what it means to work in different communities because most graduates of our program will work in urban areas where populations are extremely diverse,” Smith-Demuth says. “We make a great effort to uncover and debunk prevailing stereotypes, so that our students don’t see people from different communities as coming from a deficit perspective. Whether our graduates are going into classrooms with Latinos and Latinas, African Americans or Eastern Europeans, they won’t see them as one monolithic group. Instead, we encourage participants to recognize such differences as institutional assets they can use to enhance learning.”

The goal of these classes and discussions — in addition to encouraging sensitivity among participants — is to allow NU-TEACH graduates to think clearly and devise the best possible solutions for students. “In some of these schools it is a reality that many students may be functioning below grade level. The question for our teachers becomes ‘How do we assess that and provide some kind of remedy so they can more quickly get to grade level?’ Our teachers are trained to find gaps in students’ learning and help them unlearn any errors they have learned along the way, so that students can catch up with their peers as quickly as possible,” observes Smith-Demuth.

Second, NU-TEACH includes what Smith-Demuth calls the “video club” component, in which participants record themselves teaching and then play the videos to groups of peers, who critique their performance. According to Smith-Demuth, “It’s a very powerful tool. The group comments on what worked and what didn’t. Participants can ask questions if they’re grappling with a specific problem. We work to have a trusting, nonjudgmental, supportive atmosphere, so participants can realize if they’re doing something like calling on boys most of the time, and not feel horrible about it but stop doing it.”

Though the challenges facing the use of diversity in classrooms may seem daunting, Smith-Demuth and Haroutunian-Gordon say diversity will benefit us all and make for a stronger, more productive and happier country. “People are born to want to do things,” says Smith-Demuth. “They want to take part in the larger democracy. We can’t afford to lose all that energy and creativity.”

By Lisa Stein