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Future Teachers Experience Diversity During Excursion Class

RELEASED: April 23, 2008

EAU CLAIRE — Learning to critically examine the complexities of race, class and gender, as well as how these differences may impact a child's experience in school, is an important lesson education majors learn during an excursion class offered twice a year at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, according to faculty.

During winter and spring breaks, students enrolled in "Social Foundations of Human Relations" visit schools in Washington, D.C.; Aldine, Texas; and, most recently, to Sumter, S.C. In these communities, UW-Eau Claire students are immersed in schools that are ethnically and racially diverse.

"Even at Sumter, which is a small city similar in many ways to Eau Claire, the students were nervous that in these diverse classrooms they might not be as effective at teaching," said Dr. Jill Pinkney Pastrana, an associate professor of education who teaches the class. "What they realized after being there is they really can teach kids they perceive to be different from themselves. They come to realize children are children no matter what the racial, ethnic or social differences. They understand that teaching in these settings is a viable option for them."

On trips to Washington, D.C., and Texas the students face diversity differences as well as the difference of working in an urban setting where crowded classrooms, transience of students and teacher shortages are common problems, Pastrana said.

The thing all three locations have in common is a shortage of qualified teachers, Pastrana said.

"It so powerful for our students to realize that the differences are ultimately insignificant and don't preclude them from being effective professionals in various settings," said Pastrana. "In Sumter, the administration was really recruiting our students."

Michael Kremer, a UW-Eau Claire senior, was one of the students on the trip to Sumter and has expressed an interest in returning there to teach following his graduation in May. He said he liked what he experienced.

"You can read about diversity in books and be taught all about it, but it was different being able to experience it for myself," said Kremer, who is waiting to hear from the Sumter school district administrators about job possibilities. "There's a real need for teachers there that is not so urgent in Wisconsin. I think I would like teaching in a more diverse setting — something different from Eau Claire."

In addition to experiencing more diversity, during their travels students also explore the historical context of school settings. In Washington, D.C., they tour sites in the city and see how gentrification of the city has effected the populations that live in there. In Texas, they learn how immigration policies affect students. And in Sumter, Dr. Dwight C. Watson, UW-Eau Claire associate dean of teacher education, took students on a tour of his childhood neighborhood and talked about how desegregation affected the social networks of the black community.

During these excursion trips, university students also get to experience being a minority.

"In Washington, D.C., we walked into a classroom and the students joked, 'It must be diversity day', after seeing the group of mostly white university students" said Pastrana.

Much of what the students learn can be applied here in Wisconsin, said Dr. Tamara Lindsey, associate professor of curriculum and instruction, who also traveled with students to Sumter.

"It's easy to see the racism in these schools," Lindsey said. "It's not uncommon to hear a teacher make a racist statement, but I tell our students it happens here too. Here children are class coded instead of racially coded."

The university students also see people from a variety of cultures and backgrounds in professional roles as administrators and teachers and, in Sumter, to see middle and upper class African American children, which helps them combat other stereotypes they may hold, said Lindsey.

Both Lindsey and Pastrana agree that the students come away from the excursion class richer for the experience.

"What I hope this experience instills is a love and respect for children and the ability to see all children as having possibilities, not deficits," said Lindsey.



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