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Dedicated to Teachers

Heinemann Author Q & A Series: Sonia Nieto, Part 1

In today’s post, you’ll get some insight into how Sonia Nieto’s Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds can help teachers become inspired and motivated in these culturally diverse times. In part 2, Sonia will share her suggestions on how we as a society can make positive changes in education, including what she would do if she were the U.S. Secretary of Education.

How do the teachers you interviewed balance teaching the Common Core State Standards and preparing their students for the corresponding standardized assessments with teaching the social, emotional, and academic skills they know are essential? 

The teachers I interviewed, who are committed and passionate about their students, their craft, and public education, have a range of responses to the CCSS and other standardized assessments. Some feel they are already teaching in ways that ensure their students will do well. For Angeles Pérez, standardized tests “are on the back burner.” María Guerrero feels “suffocated,” “policed,” and “being checked on” constantly and refuses to be put in that position: “No! It’s my spirit, I have to be who I am, and I have to say what I have to say when I have to say it. Because I do have a voice and I do have power.” Despite their talent and their resolve, excellent teachers like Angeles and María are being placed in an untenable position and too many are becoming demoralized.

In your book you say, “It is time to take collaboration seriously by making it an explicit part of professional development and providing resources that collaboration requires.” Using Web 2.0 tools such as Twitter and Google+, teachers are able to collaborate with colleagues around the world. Do you think it’s enough that teachers take advantage of Web tools to collaborate? If not, what other kinds of collaboration do you think help teachers and students most?

Web tools are an important way to collaborate and more teachers should use them, but I don’t think they’re enough. There’s nothing like face-to-face collaboration in reading or inquiry groups, seminars, workshops, and conferences. These activities allow teachers to network, to think and rethink together, to come up with solutions to problems they’re facing in their classrooms and schools, and to become recharged and reenergized in a way that Web tools cannot.

In chapter 2, you write, “The best way to be prepared to teach students who embody all of these differences is to develop a social justice approach to teaching.” Do you have suggestions on how teachers can achieve this? 

Throughout the book, I present numerous examples, both from research and in the words and experiences of the teachers I interviewed, and suggest some general principles:

• Engage in critical self-reflection: This means figuring out who we are, what we value, and how we align our values with our pedagogy and curriculum. It also means confronting hard questions about biases we have that might get in the way of  effective interactions with children of various backgrounds.

• Value language and culture: Having a social justice approach to teaching means valuing students’ language, culture, and experiences and using these elements as resources in the curriculum. But we cannot value our students’ language and culture unless we know something about them. This is one of our most important responsibilities: to find out who our students are, who their families are, what they value, what they hope for, and how they live their lives. Learning these things will go a long way toward helping us develop an appreciation for our students’ identities and lives.

• Insist on high-quality work from all students: Loving students is not enough unless it’s accompanied by holding them to high standards and believing in their capabilities. Having high standards is an indisputable message that we care about our students.

In your chapter “I Hope I Can Become That Teacher,” you write, “Imagine if all teachers and all schools recognized what these teachers already know: that no language is inferior, that no culture is ‘a culture of poverty,’ and that students’ identities and experiences are rich resources on which to build.” What can teachers and administrators do to make this happen?

We have to stop listening to deficit messages about children and their families: that because they don’t have fathers, they can’t learn; that because they don’t speak English, they’re not smart; that because they don’t have books at home, they don’t want to learn. Instead, we can approach our students as having assets: the ability to speak one or more languages other than English; resilience in the face of often tremendous obstacles; creativity and intelligence that often go untapped; and so on. I always suggest that teachers who speak only English try learning a second language, preferably one that some of their students speak. Not only will this help them communicate with their students’ families, but also they will experience firsthand how difficult it is to learn another language. The kind of empathy, respect, and admiration they develop for their students as a result is priceless.

Read a sample chapter of Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgrounds: Culturally Responsive and Socially Just Practices in U.S. Classrooms here.


Topics: Education, Teaching-General, Common Core, Finding Joy in Teaching Students of Diverse Backgr, High School, Kindergarten, Middle School, Sonia Nieto

Date Published: 04/15/14

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