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Immersions help future teachers gain cultural competencies

| Judy Berthiaume

An elementary education major, Annie Klecker is determined that all her future students will find her classrooms to be welcoming and inclusive.

“As a future teacher, being able to make all of my students feel respected and safe in my class, no matter who they are or where they come from, is very important to me,” says Klecker, a UW-Eau Claire sophomore from Oakdale, Minnesota.

To do that, Klecker knows she needs more experience working with diverse learners.

A Winterim program that immersed her and other Blugolds in Washington, D.C., area schools provided the kind of hands-on experiences she hoped to find through her education studies.

“This program gave me an opportunity to work with a very diverse group of students with different backgrounds from my own,” Klecker says. “I gained experience working in a classroom full of kids who were all different from me in many ways, which will help me be more prepared to teach students in my future classroom who have different cultural backgrounds than my own.

“The immersion really reinforced my wanting to be an elementary school teacher, as well as my belief that differences are something we should embrace and celebrate, rather than try to hide, especially in elementary grades.”

The Winterim immersion program is part of the “Social Foundations: Human Relations” class taught by Dr. Eric Torres, associate professor of education studies.

The course focuses on the social and historical contexts of schooling and education, including reflecting on the impact of race, class, gender, language, sexual orientation, disability and other differences.

Students who enroll in the class during Winterim spend time in schools in Maryland and Washington, D.C. During the spring semester, they are in schools in Milwaukee.

In these schools, students work as teacher aides and assume leadership roles in the day-to-day classroom and general school activities.

“These winter and spring events provide students with opportunities to appreciate both the reality of how much is needed to ensure all children’s and youth’s educational success, and the far-reaching consequences of failing to ensure it,” says Torres, noting that more than 250 Blugolds have been part of the immersion programs since he began teaching the class in 2011.

Faculty in the education studies department believe that the deliberate and careful formation of culturally relevant teachers is the best way to promote anti-racist education and the success of all children and youth, Torres says.

“We want our education graduates to have the ability to create and maintain good quality, equitable learning environments,” Torres says. “The intercultural immersion learning experiences in Washington, D.C., and Milwaukee continue to be one of the most important components of our strategies to help students become culturally relevant education leaders.”

Torres says ongoing assessments of Wisconsin youth continue to highlight the need for helping future teachers develop these cultural competencies.

Analysis of data collected from standardized tests taken by Wisconsin youth show that a disproportionate number of poor, students of color do not meet growth expectations, Torres says.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation identifies Wisconsin as the state that offers the lowest quality of education for African-American children, Torres says.

“In addition, other inequitable outcome realities involving First Nations, Hmong, Hispanic and Latino, and LGBTQ communities continue to be serious challenges in the day-to-day professional practice of teachers,” Torres says.

The immersion experiences — and the teaching around them — help the Blugolds begin to understand how systematic policies, teaching practices, stereotypes and organizational models work against children and youth of color and all those who live in poverty, Torres says.

“There is an urgent need to help our student teachers become culturally competent educators,” Torres says. “We need to equip our teacher candidates with cultural competency skills and dispositions that allow them to become reflective and effective practitioners.

“Our teacher candidates not only need to understand the consequences of these systemic inequities but, most importantly, they need to know how they can be eliminated through their own more equitable and effective practices to ensure that all children and youth have the same opportunity for educational success.”

Cassie Oberg, a sophomore elementary and special education from Madison, says the class is an opportunity for students to talk about diversity in a controlled environment, making for more open and honest conversations around difficult topics.

The immersion part of the course took her outside of her comfort zone while also reinforcing her commitment to being an educator, she says.

“I was able to engage with students who have autism, students who spoke very little English and students who wouldn’t let go of my leg when it was time to go to lunch,” says Oberg, who assisted in a kindergarten classroom. “During this immersion, I was reminded of my passion for teaching children.”

Hannah Nennig, a senior chemistry-secondary education major from Wisconsin Rapids, signed on for the Winterim program to immerse herself in a learning environment completely different from her own.

She also wants to understand how other states' education systems work and what challenges they face compared to Wisconsin.

During the immersion, she talked with high school students about motivation, successes, and their college opportunities and aspirations, says Nennig, who plans to go to graduate school to earn a doctorate in chemistry.

Those conversations helped her better understand how different learning environments can influence how students see their potential for future educational success, and how quickly even very bright students can abandon plans for college if they do not have the right support systems.

“The whole situation really just made me think about how important it is not to let students, exceptionally gifted or not, lose heart from pursuing higher education,” Nennig says, noting that she will use the lessons learned during the immersion in any future teaching.

While many of the students who participate in the immersions are future teachers, students with related majors also enroll in the class and participate in the immersion program.

Talia Jaskulske, a communication sciences and disorders and Spanish major, was part of the immersion program in January, an experience she says helped her see her future a little more clearly.

“I was paired with the speech-language pathologist in an elementary school and I was eager to work with her,” says Jaskulske. “I had a great experience, and gained valuable knowledge leading activities and learning about what being a SLP in a school setting would entail. This experience has sparked my interest in becoming a SLP in a school setting.”

The classroom experiences leading up to the immersion also were helpful, Jaskulske says, noting that class discussions focused on racism, whiteness, sexism and discrimination.

“I was forced out of my comfort zone and was forced to analyze my own biases toward the world,” Jaskulske says. “I feel as though I have grown as a person and will be a better professional as a result.”

Now in its 14th year, the immersion programs continue to grow because the partner schools are committed to providing Blugolds with quality learning experiences, Torres says.

UW-Eau Claire faculty traveling with the students also provide professional development workshops to teachers at the hosting schools, Torres says, noting that the students are part of these workshops.

In addition, Blugolds also work on service-learning projects near the host schools. For example, during the January immersion, students were guests at a vocational fair where they talked with high school seniors and their parents about scholarships and other financial resources.

Torres also offers a Diversity Forum every semester at UW-Eau Claire, an event that is open to the entire campus community, not just students enrolled in his course.

Photo caption: Future educators spent time during Winterim immersed in Washington, D.C., area schools with diverse student populations.