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Immersion helps prepare future teachers for diverse classrooms

| Judy Berthiaume

With aspirations of teaching high school choir in the Twin Cities, Abbey Monreal jumped at the chance to spend part of her UW-Eau Claire winter break getting to know a diverse population of students who could someday fill her classroom.

“I’m extremely interested in teaching in or around Minneapolis, so I wanted to get a feel for some of the many diverse cultures in that area,” says Monreal, a junior music education-choral major who also is earning a certificate in fine arts administration.

The Grafton native was among the Blugolds enrolled in UW-Eau Claire’s “Embracing the Somali Experience in Midwestern Public School” Winterim immersion program.

The program immerses students in the Twin Cities’ Somali community, where they spend a week volunteering in schools that serve primarily Somali youth, talking with community leaders and activists, visiting Somali businesses and sampling local foods.

The Somali population in the Twin Cities numbers between 25,000 and 30,000 and an increasing number of Somali immigrants also are settling into small communities in western Wisconsin, including places like New Richmond and Barron.

Many UW-Eau Claire education majors come from smaller communities with few opportunities to interact with diverse people, says Dr. Frank A. Watkins, an assistant professor of choral music education and the faculty lead during the 2020 Somali immersion.

However, many Blugolds find teaching jobs in regions with growing Somali populations, he says.

The January immersion helps future teachers expand their cultural competencies and gain a better understanding of Somali culture, traditions, languages and lifestyles, all of which will allow them to better meet the needs of the Somali youth they may someday teach, Watkins says.

Hopefully, he says, the students' new understanding and experience interacting with an immigrant population also will encourage greater understanding and acceptance of other minorities.

Monreal says the immersion was a powerful experience that helped her learn more about a population that she is likely to interact with if she finds a teaching position in the Twin Cities area.

Throughout the immersion, Monreal says she was impressed by how kind and welcoming everyone in the Somali community was to them during their visit.

For example, they were treated much like celebrities when they visited the Somali Mall, Monreal says, describing the reception they received as an “unforgettable experience.”

“Everyone was so kind and open to talking about their values,” Monreal says.

By spending time in the community as well as in schools, the Blugolds began to understand the complexities of urban immigrants’ lives and the experiences of first-generation immigrants, Watkins says.

“When our students visit and interact with people in the Somali community, they gain a level of knowledge and understanding that can’t be achieved through traditional classroom teaching,” Watkins says.

The hours spent in the Twin Cities’ classrooms also help future teachers become more aware of how learners’ race, experiences, culture, religion and gender impact their experiences in school, Watkins says.

“This immersion helps break down barriers and foster an understanding of diverse cultures, which helps us prepare future teachers to meet the needs of the diverse students they will find in their classrooms, Watkins says. “Our students also learn that they can be confident and comfortable teaching in an environment that differs greatly from the ones they experienced growing up.”

Monreal agrees, saying that her time in the classrooms during the immersion was especially meaningful.

“I really loved working with the kids,” Monreal says, noting it was interesting to see the different teaching strategies.

Being in these classrooms reinforced for her how critical it is to design lesson plans that are adapted to the students’ culture, and to recognize that not all students’ experiences outside the classroom are the same, Monreal says.

“It gave me lots of ideas of how I would do things if I were in their position,” Monreal says.

The Winterim immersion has added to the already exceptional experience she’s having as a music education major at UW-Eau Claire, Monreal says.

“I chose UWEC for the music education program,” Monreal says. “I heard so many great things about the program, and I have not yet been disappointed. The faculty and environment built in this program are unlike any other I've seen, and there are so many opportunities for leadership experience."

Photo caption: Future teachers spent time immersed in the Twin Cities’ Somali community, helping the Blugolds better understand a diverse population.