Thomas Ultican: Genuine Reforms by Real Education Professionals
Real educational improvement, says Thomas Ultican, comes from actual education professionals. Reposted with permission.
The tragedy of modern school “reform” is that it stopped education improvement. Politicians from the Democratic and Republican Parties agreed that government-run organizations were inferior to privatized ones and market forces were the path for lifting all boats. Their economic theories led to charter schools and vouchers for private, mostly religion sponsored schools. Moguls and legislators, with no education training or knowledge decided that standards, modeled on business practices were, required. It has become a tool for privatizing public schools, controlling classrooms by politicians in capital cities, and is making learning dreary.
It is wonderful to learn of professional educators standing up to this folly and implementing practices promising to undo some of the damage. In Orange County, California, Alison Dover and Fernando Rodríguez-Valls, associate professors in the Department of Secondary Education at California State University, Fullerton, have been developing the Language Explorers program since 2015. The methods they used can be adapted to any classroom or discipline. Their newly published book by Teachers College Press is Radically Inclusive Teaching with Newcomer and Emergent Plurilingual Students Braving Up. With this book when combined with the supplemental materials at Professor Dover’s web site, any teacher’s practice can be advanced.
In 2001, I began teaching in a California school, often being the only White guy in classrooms where the bullring in Las Playas de Tijuana was in sight. Naturally many many of the students were native Spanish speakers and some of them had almost no English abilities. Surprisingly a student’s multilingual abilities were not prized. In fact a state law pushed by software developer, Ron Unz, mandated English only instruction.
Around the change of the millennium, Unz financed legislative initiatives in California and Arizona, replacing bilingual education with English immersion programs, also known as the “Unz initiatives.” They were detested by many teachers, administrators and parents alike and eventually challenged in Arizona. In 2015, the San Francisco-based 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the state rejecting the plaintiffs’ argument that the approach violated the federal Equal Educational Opportunities Act.
By 2004, Massachusetts, California and Arizona were subjecting 40% of America’s newcomer language learners to anti-bilingual policies. After more than two decades of academic failure, these language laws are almost all repealed. However immigrants are still being labeled. Dover and Rodríguez-Valls write, “Instead of amplifying emergent bi- and Plurilingual students’ already expansive linguistic resources, schools routinely frame newcomer students as ‘English Learners’ who lack the communicative skills to fully participate in academic settings.” (Radically Page 4)
Newcomers and emergent plurilingual students are not half-empty vessels that need to be filled with English language skills. The authors share,
“In our work with teachers and administrators, we challenge them to position newcomer students as Emergent Plurilingual (EP) students, who enter our classrooms with unique and expanding linguistic repertoires that are ready to be utilized as classroom resources; in fact, most students whom districts label as ELs are actually already plurilingual, in that they have the ability to use multiple languages at varying levels of proficiency and for different purposes (Council of Europe, 2007). Our challenge, then, is not to address students’ ‘deficits,’ but to figure out how to support all students – including monolingual and plurilingual students – in exploring, playing with, and using their linguistic repertoires as a bridge to complex disciplinary content.” (Radically Page 13)
Central to the education malpractice that Dover and Rodríguez-Valls are addressing is the trust in monoglossic ideologies. Influenced by academic articles like “Undoing Appropriateness: Raciolinguistic Ideologies and Language Diversity in Education” by Nelson Flores and Johnathan Rosa, they share this perspective,
“Monoglossic Ideologies lead educators to shut down students’ use of multiple languages, encouraging them to ‘focus on English,’ rather than consciously stretch their linguistic repertoires by making connections between their existing linguistic structures and new content and concepts. While few educators with a monoglossic ideology see themselves as oppressive, monoglossia reflects the colonial, assimilationist roots of US public education, in which being monocultural and monolingual (in English) has historically been positioned as more desirable than multicultural and plurilingual identities. This is sometimes referred to as one of the ways ‘White gaze’ shapes educational and linguistic policies and practices, irrespective of the racial and linguistic identities of educators and students themselves …” (Radically Page 16)
Dover and Rodríguez-Valls tell us that braving up is about creating alternative, plurilingual spaces that evade restrictive policies and mandates. This “radically inclusive teaching” challenges educators to take a stand and do what is right for their students and engage with this approach:
“As university-based researchers and teacher educators, we see our role not as providing ‘professional development’ per se, but rather as collaborating with school-based educators to reimagine what it means to teach and learn in radically inclusive, plurilingual environments. We use the word ‘radical’ intentionally; one of the first conversations we have with prospective Language Explorer teachers invites them to first define and describe the culture of schooling as it is now, and then participate in a visioning process in which they reimagine school as affirming and culturally robust.” (Radically Pages 29-30)
Rejecting the Banking Model
In 1970, the famed Brazilian educator, Paolo Freire, wrote Pedagogy of the Oppressed, addressing the classroom model in which learning is one-directional; teachers teach and students learn. He labeled this the “banking model” where “knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing.” Dover and Rodríguez-Valls update this observation stating, “Despite movements toward more student-centered pedagogies, ultimately most educational experiences remain structured around the knowledge teachers want to impart to students.” (Radically Page 82)
The book emphasizes the needs and benefits associated with recognizing students’ cultural “funds of knowledge” as assets to the classroom along with their raciolinguistic identities (ascribed to students without their knowledge or consent) and daily languaging practices. In doing so, monoglossic ideologies are disrupted, heteroglossic classrooms emerge and “plurilingual superpowers” are unleashed. (Radically Page 43)
To accomplish this, three core principles are emphasized: modeling, open dialogues, and co-learning. All of these are nuanced and in this piece I will not delve into them in any detail. However here is an example from the core of modeling which is “We do every project first.” (Radically Page 43)
Based on the modeling principles framework, a non-negotiable practice for educators is that “teachers do every single project themselves before assigning work to students.” Unlike classrooms where modeling is focused on concrete skills, the language explorer teachers use modeling as a form of academic disruption in which they use themselves as “models to illustrate principles of vulnerability, humanity, and linguistic experimentation.” (Radically Page 43)
Authentic Teacher Training
For the past 30 years, there has been an effort to privatize teacher training financed by billionaires. For example, Relay Graduate School is a fraudulent effort created by the charter school industry and made possible by billionaire financing. TNTP is an unqualified teacher training organization, spawned by Teach for America, whose training program would be laughable if it was not so harmful. These and many other teacher and administrator training programs have all been lavishly financed by billionaires, with one of three agendas: (1) advance neoliberal causes; (2) implement libertarianism; or (3) realize a religious approach to schooling. Improving public education is not their priority.
In this book we find an authentic effort to improve pedagogy in public schools, full of useful ideas and stimulating insights. More importantly this is how teacher development should be. Fullerton State University is located in Fullerton, California just north of Anaheim in Orange County. The department of Education there hosts teacher training and programs for school districts throughout Orange County and the Los Angeles basin. These publicly supported professionals from Fullerton are improving schools, enhancing student equity and supporting education justice.
One of the partners for the Fullerton team is Anaheim Union High School District (AUHSD). Its 20 middle and high school campuses serve 30,000 students, utilizing 1,200 teachers. Twenty percent of the students are classified as emergent plurilingual with 54 languages spoken in the district. AUHSD takes in on average over 300 students from 20 different countries every year, making it a natural client for the Language Explorer program. (Radically Page 123)
AUHSD is led by Superintendent Michael Matsuda who taught in the district for 22 years before assuming its leadership. He is focused on equity, inclusion and teaching democracy. In 2015, the district turned to Fullerton State for help when an influx of newcomers arrived including many refugees from the Middle East. Matsuda’s team wanted a summer bridge program created for the new students. This situation widened the path on which radically inclusive teaching could travel.
Dover and Rodríguez-Valls forcefully state that the Language Explorers learning is done in academic enrichment classes. They explain,
“They are not remedial programs to meet perceived gaps in students’ academic or linguistic foundation. This framing is both intentional and strategic; within many districts, ‘enrichment’ is typically interpreted as primarily for academically elite and linguistically dominant students. However, by positioning the Language Explorers as an enrichment program – one in which students earn elective credit; go on field trips; access smaller class sizes and mentorship; engage in creative, project-based learning; develop leadership skills; and present to outside audiences – leaders can situate newcomer programming to serve the broader educational mission of the district.” (Radically Page 135)
Language Explorers wants us to brave up our pedagogies and methodologies. Dover and Rodríguez-Valls state, ‘Radical teaching does not happen in isolation; changing systems of oppression is a collective process.” (Radically Page 136)
I was personally impressed by the methods taught in this book.