As teachers of diverse learners, educators must understand how students’ circumstances, including cultural differences and economic challenges, affect their ability to engage at school and succeed academically. To work effectively with these students, teachers must celebrate differences, provide opportunities for students to strengthen background knowledge and maintain realistic expectations for each student.
Celebrate Cultural Differences
Most ELL (English Language Learner) students bring a variety of experiences and cultural backgrounds to school. It is important that teachers not only acknowledge but also celebrate these differences. In many instances, the families of these students left their native countries in pursuit of new opportunities. Although they eventually acclimate to, and even possibly embrace, the new foods, holidays and dress, these families may long for the customs and traditions of home. In classrooms that include a diversity of native languages, it can be challenging to acknowledge every difference. Yet, by showing interest in these differences, and by discovering similarities in our cultures, teachers can show diverse learners respect and instill a sense of cultural dignity.
Students living in poverty also bring a different sort of culture with them. Ruby Payne describes these differences as “hidden rules.” For example, when parents work two or three jobs just to keep up, children often care for themselves and live by rules for their own safety and survival. The street rule is most likely “when you are hit, hit back.” But at school, the rule is “we work out our differences without violence.” According to Payne, to diverse learners living in poverty, education is “valued and revered as abstract but not as reality.” For the middle class and wealthy, however, education is key for future success and maintaining connections. Teachers in these classrooms must understand these rules and how they affect students while providing insight into the hidden rules for their students.
Diverse learners, both ESL (English as a Second Language) students and those living in poverty, often lack basic background knowledge, or schema. According to reading expert, ReLeah Cossett Lent, “Background knowledge is not a frill of education, a nicety that simply helps students enjoy reading and learning. Background knowledge is essential to comprehension, to making connections, and to understanding the big ideas.”
There are several ways in which teachers can help students develop schema. Reading nonfiction or realistic fiction aloud provides basic information that can help students better understand science projects or the significance of historical events. Playing informative videos or inviting local experts to the classroom prior to launching science or history units can give students a foundation on which to assimilate new information. Sometimes simply letting discussions go off-topic offers the background information students most need, as they ask their own questions and develop a more personal interest in the topic. Field trips may be a more expensive source of background knowledge, but for diverse learners, these excursions into the real world offer the richest and most authentic knowledge and information.
Maintain Realistic, High Expectations
Educators working with ELLs often feel tempted to relax their expectations. English is a tricky language. Many of the “rules” of spelling and pronunciation require consistent and repeated exposure to learn. Since ELLs are learning not only the language but also content information, the natural tendency of teachers is to lower expectations to accommodate the dual challenge. It is important, however, for teachers to assess student ability, keep careful records of progress and then set realistic goals. If teachers do not challenge students appropriately, the students may conclude that hard work is neither necessary nor expected, which can impede the very learning necessary for academic success.
Expectations for students living in poverty are often lower as well. Just because a student is poor does not mean that he or she needs simplified curriculum. It may be necessary to provide basic needs such as nutritious lunches and school supplies so that students can focus their energy and attention on learning while at school. These students may also need a safe place to complete homework if parents or guardians are not available for support after school.
By maintaining high expectations for these students and creating conditions conducive to learning, teachers can show a high level of respect for diverse learners and inspire them to succeed.