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Spring break immersion in Tucson: Observing leaders in culturally responsive teaching

| Denise Olson

Sometimes the shifts in education policy and practice are obvious, even to the casual observer. From iPads and Chromebooks for every student, to shifts in national policy like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core, it has historically been fairly easy to see the ways teaching has adapted to societal change. The most current sea change in education, the movement toward culturally responsive instruction, will be harder to see, but easier to feel.

The concept of culturally responsive instruction or pedagogy is one that emphasizes a comfortable and academically enriching environment for students of all ethnicities, races, beliefs and creeds.

Dr. Eric Torres, associate professor of education studies, and Dr. Laura Dunbar, assistant professor of music education, created a domestic intercultural immersion experience designed to observe one of the strongest available models of a public school district employing a culturally responsive approach to teaching.

"This was an immersion experience embedded in the ES-385 "Social Foundations: Human Relations" class, and we spent 10 days in the Tucson Unified School District," Torres says. "TUSD has developed a model that has attracted attention from schools all over the world. We are very fortunate that we have been granted access on a regular basis to this very exciting teaching and learning opportunity."

Culturally responsive pedagogy is a student-centered approach to learning in which students' unique cultural strengths are identified and nurtured to promote achievement and a sense of well-being about their cultural place in the world. According to Torres, it has been shown to be effective in developing critical consciousness and eliminating the achievement gap between demographics in diverse populations.

Nicholas Sabin, a senior education studies major from Savage, Minnesota, took part in the Tucson immersion and found tremendous value in the methods the district is using. Sabin, who will be certified to teach broadfield social studies at the secondary level, looks forward to employing the TUSD methods. The Tucson teachers find ways to empower students by increasing the degree to which they see historically prominent figures that look like them and have the same cultural experience; materials are selected based on their relevance to the lives of the students.

"For a district that is predominantly Hispanic and Latino, the materials that they read and analyze reflect their community," Sabin says. "They read books with similar themes to those that I read — family, self-reassurance, emotional adolescence, but the themes are folded into topics like deportation, minority women’s rights and lives, and growing up in low socioeconomic communities in the Southwest."

Blugold students had the chance to observe culturally responsive teaching practices across different student age groups and teaching styles. Sabin took note of the many ways instructors got to know their students, and one observation in particular really stuck with him. 

At the high school level, Sabin observed what he felt was a lax approach to dealing with students arriving late to class at the start of the school day. From what he could tell, teachers were not making any acknowledgement of the consistent tardiness. With his personal experience as his only context, Sabin inquired about the policy for being late to class.

"The teacher responded that some students have to help their families out every morning, and the increased responsibilities can often lead to being late," Sabin says. "I had assumed that these students missed the bus or overslept, when in fact they were late because they had to take care of their family first. That interaction alone led me to start questioning my assumptions and biases; it's something I want to make sure I continue throughout my teaching career."

The pedagogy and practices observed in Tucson are applicable to teaching at all levels, and Chelsea Ennen, an elementary and early childhood education major from Eau Claire, gained a great appreciation for simple tips she learned about ways to model culturally sensitive practices in her future classrooms.

Ennen observed teachers making a point to model respectful behavior they expect from students in class. One teacher, for example, made a very overt and visible demonstration of turning off his phone before beginning class, which is what he expected of students.

Ennen and the group were able to observe culturally relevant classes at Pueblo High School, where a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds are represented. She is happy to have had the chance to see how teachers operate in ways that ensure all students feel that their unique culture is both taught and respected, something that will require a conscious effort from her as a white woman teaching in predominantly white areas like Eau Claire.

"In future classrooms, I will take more initiative to teach about a variety of cultures and through different lenses," she says. "It will be important to understand that I do not know everything about other cultures, so I will need to allow students to share their own personal stories, culture and familial history."

Top image caption: The immersion group at Pueblo High School in Tucson, Arizona (from left): Dr. Laura Dunbar, assistant professor of music education, Chelsea Ennen, Julia Ruohoniemi, Sam Peterson, Maria Sánchez, Nick Sabin, Frank Rostenhausler (principal of Pueblo High School), Megan Nicolet, Lauren Hayes, Maria DeRidder, Emily Solberg, McKenzie Schable, Abby Wieser, Kaitlin Dawson and Dr. Eric Torres, associate professor of education studies.