Sonia Nieto

SONIA NIETO

Sonia Nieto, Professor School of Education University of Massachusetts.

For me affirming diversity means uh recognizing, accepting, celebrating, acknowledging, um and and all of those other verbs that we use to um to accept students who are of all backgrounds uh and to learn from them and to make sure that we use their experiences in the curriculum and that we uh don’t ask them to leave their identities at the door as so often has happened.  Um but for teachers affirming diversity means that they don’t um forget about the more difficult aspects of multicultural education.  Uh that is that they take into account those structural issues of inequality that exists in our society and that they grapple with them that they don’t think that affirming diversity simply means celebrating diversity as often happens and that they understand that uh to affirm diversity means to recognize all the worts(?) all the difficulties all the uh all the aspects of our history that’s un-heroic as well as heroic.  Uh because we tend to just glorify the past and even the present and and want to forget about difficult uh issues such as racism and other kinds of exploitation because it’s hard to accept that as part of our history.  But it is part of our history and teachers need to grapple with that and students need to be told the truth uh fairly young uh in a respectful sensitive and age-appropriate way so that when they get to be college students we don’t have the situation that I often have which is that students say why didn’t I ever learn this before, this makes me angry, I never heard of the Japanese internment or what was the holocaust.  Um or I didn’t know that Italians also had been victims of the Klux Klux Klan uh etceteras etceteras and I think that this is all part of our history we also need to acknowledge that.  So affirming diversity means a lot of different uh things that it means attitudes and behaviors and values and it also means classroom practices.

Schools aren’t separated from society uh they they’re really part and ----(?) of society.  And because of that we need to understand that schools both uh reflect uh and perpetuate although they can also challenge the uh the society in which they’re indebted.  Uh and our society has many wonderful things and also a lot of things that we need to work on and some of these are the structural inequalities um based on race, ethnicity, language, social class, uh and and many other kinds of differences.  Um for example it’s still true that women um earn less than men for doing the same jobs.  It’s still true that an African-American man with a college degree earns uh less than a European-American man with a high school degree.  That is part of the structural inequality that we need to look at.  So it’s not just thinking of racism and other biases as personality problems because uh you know I’ve often said that if it were just personality problems we would have a lot of people with personality problems in our society.  Uh it really goes deeper than that at the institutional level.  So we need to look at that institutional level and say why is there a different wage structure for people of different backgrounds?  Why do people of different backgrounds get different kinds of education?  Uh why uh are there um uh differences in the in the um criminal justice system for example?  Uh it’s still true that some people from some backgrounds get uh a worse deal than other people from other backgrounds even though they are convicted of the same crime.  So um you know we need to look at these structural inequalities in term of institutional issues.  Now specifically in terms of the school, the institution that we’re most concerned about this means looking at how some students benefit over other students because of the way that schools are organized.  So it doesn’t have to do with a particular teacher liking uh Johnny more than Jose.  Uh because that may not be the issue at all she may love them both uh but if Jose is discriminated against because the language in which he’s taught uh is not his native language and he doesn’t understand the instruction then that’s unfair.  That’s
something that’s institutional.  Um so it may not be that the teacher is um you know has a problem with uh Maria uh and and that she likes Susan more but it may be that Maria never sees herself in the curriculum and Susan sees herself every single day uh and in the books that she uses.  Uh so again it’s these institutional things that have to do with curriculum, that have to do with um tracking, that have to do with uh the language that’s used in school uh that have to do with uh who’s hired, uh and who is recruited for those schools, for those positions.  So all of those policies and practices are really what are at the core of whether a school if fair or unfair to students of different backgrounds.  Now this is not to say that a teachers attitudes and behaviors and beliefs are not important, I think they’re absolutely crucial and teachers often make the difference in an unfair setting.  They can provide fairness for students who wouldn’t otherwise get in.  uh but I think we need fairness at a lot of different levels and the classroom level is one and the teacher can make a huge difference but the teacher alone can’t make all the difference and so uh we need to look at more institutional issues that a teacher may not have the final authority over and generally doesn’t.

Culture and cultural differences can be very important in how students learn.  And I’ve often told my students that it’s very important to know who their students are and to know about their students and to become students of their students and not to assume that uh education is a one way uh street.  It really is a two way street.  It has to be that way.  Uh this is something that was reinforced for me uh the first time that I read Bou La Frede(?) uh and Pedagogy the Oppressed in which he talked about the student and teacher relationship and of teachers as being students and students as being teachers um and I have seen this many times over the years.  I see it with my own students who take classes with me and every semester I come a way far richer as a result of teaching them because they teach me a great deal.  And I think that we always need to approach out students in that way.  Who are they?  Where are they coming from? What are their experiences?  What are the values that they bring to their learning?  Just just as uh teachers can’t walk into a classroom with out uh all of their identities also students can’t walk into a classroom with out all their identities.  So having said that however I I also think it’s important to say that culture can help define and form a child’s approach to learning but can’t determine it  and that’s a very big difference.  I’ve seen people take this um uh learning styles of literature for example of the research on learning styles and use it to the detriment of children and so I think we need to use it very judiciously and I always say that it’s very important that people started this kind of research twenty, thirty, forty years ago.  It’s really important and I am very grateful that uh people did this research because it showed teachers that there’s not necessarily one way to learn.  There are lots of ways to learn.  Those ways can be influenced by culture.  But they are not necessarily influenced all the time by culture.  Uh because if we used that that simplistic kind of frame work then we end up with what I call these um these lists of cultural traits uh eh defining all students of a particular culture as if they all learned in exactly the same way.  And although those lists can be helpful they can also be very dangerous because then teachers expect all students to behave in this way.  They expect all their Asian students to be good at math.  They expect them to be quiet and passive learners.  And there are many Asian students who are not like that.  They expect all their Latino students to want to work in groups.  And not all Latino students are like that.  Uh they expect all their European-American students to um to want to work on their own and not all European-American students are like that.  So I often tell people learn about the learning styles differences and then forget about them because we can’t impose them on um entire groups of people.  That’s very dangerous.  And I often give the example and ask teachers to think about this, I ask them how many of you have children?  How many of you have more than one child?  And I ask those who raise their hands are they exactly the same, do they learn in exactly the same way.  Those children may have the same parents, may have the same biology, may have the same genes and are raised in the same family in more or less the same way and yet sometimes they are as different as night and day.  So how can we expect a classroom of let’s say thirty Mexican-American children all from different families and different circumstances to be the same.  We can’t.  so I think that we need to take this kind of literature seriously and then uh learn what we can from it and then always allow for exceptions.  Always allow for exceptions.  So what I’m proposing is to look at the um balance between groupness and individuality.  Uh a balance that’s some some times hard but I think if we ---(?) too much on one side or the other uh we’re really jeopardizing the learning of students.

The saying that all children can learn has become a slogan I think in too many places.  It’s become uh sort of mantra that is verbalized but not really internalized.  And so I I believe that it’s really important for teachers to think about how all children can learn uh not if.  Um because we can say it until we’re blue in the face but it really doesn’t mean anything until we demonstrate that all children can learn.  So it means looking for strengths that students bring into the classroom and redefining uh what they bring into the classroom.  For example, uh when I started school I was six years old and I didn’t speak any English what so ever even though I was born and raised in New York City.  Uh we spoke only Spanish at home.  For which I’m eternally grateful.  When I went to school I didn’t speak any English, I was identified as a non-English speaking child.  And uh you know looking back on it now I think that’s a shame that I wasn’t identified as a Spanish-speaking children.  Not that I didn’t need to learn English.  Of course I needed to learn English and I learned it uh you know fairly quickly.  But the fact that my knowing Spanish was seen as a disability uh rather than an asset that I was bringing to my learning is really a shame.  Now obviously the school that I went to didn’t have the resources that te—there was nobody there who spoke Spanish and I had I would hope that our schools now know that it’s to their benefit to have people who can identify with students who can speak the languages of the students and who then can use the resources that the children are bringing into the classroom.  I also give often the example of um uh of when I started teaching and how teachers often valued the experiences that middle class children brought to schools.  I I didn’t teach in middle class neighborhood, I taught in a poor neighborhood in New York City.  Uh but I’ve often seen how teachers in other schools valued things like uh the kids going to the Caribbean on vacation, right.  But a lot of my kids went either down south, right, if they were African-American, or they went to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, um Jamaica, and so on for the summer to visit family and those experiences weren’t valued in the same way.  They weren’t seeing as um a culturally rich experience on which people could draw.  Because the the the children who were having those experiences were seen as low status um and that’s unfortunate because all children come to school ready to learn and all children have something they can bring to their education.  All children, doesn’t matter what their background is.  Now I’m not saying that they come to school uh equally endowed with the kinds of experiences that will help them learn in school, that’s our job, and hopefully working with parents we can also teach them that is their job uh and and how to do that in in a in a effective way at home.  But even if we do that some children will still come to school with out those kinds of experiences.  I was one of those children and uh my parents who who were wonderful people and well meaning and wanted the very best for us and pushed us to get a good education didn’t know how to promote that at home.  They had no idea because they themselves didn’t have an education.  I can’t tell you how pleased and proud they were that my sister and I went to college and we graduated.  They couldn’t have been more proud of us but that doesn’t mean that they knew how to help us get there.  Hopefully we can work with families so that they can help the kids do that.  But even if we don’t reach those parents that doesn’t mean that the kids don’t deserve the education.  You know because I didn’t have books in my home doesn’t mean that I wasn’t smart.  It means that we have to find a different way to reach those kids because they are smart.  It’s how they’re smart and uh that that we need to build on.  So we need to think of our jobs um as teachers as building on what kids already have rather than on shadowing the foundation and starting all over again.

I’d like to address this issue of standards from a an equity perspective because I think that sometimes we um sort of see them as polar opposites.  I don’t think that we can have an excellent uh education for kids uh with very high standards unless it’s also equitable and so when we um when people challenge or criticize standards or the standards based movement it’s not because they don’t want high standards for the kids in the schools it’s because those standards are often arbitrarily imposed.  They have nothing to do with the communities that they say that they’re going to serve.  Uh they’re punitive.  They can lead to uh jeopardizing the education of the students that they’re interested in.  uh and so there’s too many contradictions with the standards movement and yet I understand how the standards movement uh came to be because for too long there have been some schools where there have been absolutely no standards, no expectations that particular children certain children of certain backgrounds would ever amount to anything or learn anything and we have enough anecdotal and research evidence to support that.  Kids who’ve said that their counselor said to them you’re not college material, by sister was one of them.  You know you’re not college material.  She now has her masters in bilingual special education.  Um or uh you know you you won’t amount to anything or do you want to be like those other girls who get pregnant and never uh doing anything with their lives and so on and so forth we have so much of that uh kind of evidence that there are just too many schools that have too few expectations for their students.  So it is right that we have high standards.  But what does it mean to have high standards and who decides, who’s involved in the conversation.  Um so I think if we’re really serious about having high standards it’s not about testing the kids every year.  You know we had two presidential candidates who the only difference was that one talked about testing uh several years during their kids career uh school careers and the other talked about testing every year and I think that’s the wrong approach.  It’s not about testing it is about providing the very best education and having some assessments.  Of course we need some assess--- assessments.  Of course we need accountability.  But we first need opportunity and those opportunities are often missing.  Um so I I think we really need to find a way to promote high standards.  Include others in the conversation, those who are most closely uh related to the kids in uh in their education.  That is their families, their teachers, the people in their community uh and make sure that the standards reflect the interests of the children who are being served.  So if you have for example high standards but very little way of reaching those standards then they’re not really equitable.  If you have uh high standards but uh if you don’t reach those standards you’re held back uh and not really given any opportunity then those those are not equitable.  We need to find uh uh and define high standards for all kids based on uh what they have already and what we think they need in order to get to those standards.

In the standards movement there have been um um sort of um rubrics that we have for different uh developed by different organizations uh for the different subject areas.  So the NCTM for mathematics, NCTE for English, um uh the Tesal for ESL and in multicultural education we haven’t but uh actually as we speak a uh a publication is being um developed right now and and will be published soon called uh I believe it’s called Unity within Diversity.  Um and it’s design principle for multicultural schools.  Uh it’s something that Jim Banks uh chaired this Carnagie commission.  I was part of that so was Jimmy Begay um Lori Lexing-Billings, uh Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and several other people um and we defined what we thought were the guiding principles or design principles for multicultural schools and so I think that that should help a great deal in schools um figuring out if they are uh providing equitable uh and and excellent environment for all students to learn.  When we say multicultural schools and I don’t even think we use that term I think we say schools in a multicultural society because some people could well we don’t have a multicultural school uh but we have a multicultural society and a multicultural world and so all students need to be prepared to live in that world and in order to do that we need to define um our society is a multicultural society which it is in in fact so um so these design principles should help schools and school districts um design schools that are appropriate and that are working toward a more equitable education for all children.

I’ve wrote about the conflict or the the discrepancy uh in students identity development uh and how students who feel really proud of themselves and their backgrounds also face a great deal of conflict.  Uh and I used cased studies in my book from diversity to show that that uh many of the young people of the of the twelve who we interviewed many of them were conflicted about their identities uh and I think it’s easy to understand why because they’re and these were kids of of uh very diverse backgrounds.  Um for most of them they’re ethnic or cultural identity was affirmed at home but not outside the home.  Sometimes in their communities but often not in school and so there was this real uh contradiction between who they were at home and who they were uh at school.  So they felt good about speaking a native language at home and maybe in their community uh they’ve felt uh proud of their accomplishments at home and per—and and in their community perhaps but not in school.  And so it’s not surprising then that they had this pride and conflict.  I even remember very clearly for example when um uh a teacher when I was in junior high school called me to the office and asked me if I was Spanish and and I still remember my response I said no I’m Puerto Rican, which I felt really good about saying but I also put my head down at the same time as if that was something to be ashamed of because I had heard all my life well you don’t look Puerto Rican or you’re not like the others you’re different.  Uh and so when you get this message all the time it it reinforces this negative image of yourself at the same time the teacher or the I forget who it was who had called me to the office cause they wanted me translate something into Spanish.  Now here I was being called on to use these cultural resources that I had and yet I was made to feel uh and maybe not by that teacher but by the entire environment as if um you know there was something missing in my background or something not quite right.  So I think what we need to do as teachers and as administrators in schools and in teacher education programs really is to uh help teachers understand all of those conflicts that kids go through and to try to bridge that gap.  Uh to try to explain to children to their students that school is a place where they belong.  Because if they don’t feel that they belong there they will never define themselves as students.  They will never believe that they can accomplish anything in school so it’s not just a feel good curriculum.  This is not just to make kids you know raise their fists in the air and say I am somebody and I’m proud of myself and you know and so on.  This is to have them uh uh sort of uh seize that identity and use it in the service of their learning and to understand that they’re worthy that they deserve this and that they have a right to an excellent education uh and that their identities will not get in the way of that.  Their identities can help that.  Uh so teachers need to find a way to to build on that and to uh and to help students uh bridge that gap between home and school because a lot of times they feel that there is absolutely nothing in common and that’s a shame because we need to really have students understand that home and school have to be partners in their education.

Yeh I’ve just recently published uh a book that I edited um called Puerto Rican students in U.S. schools and it’s a book that that has been close to my heart because of course it’s something that I experienced as a child going to school in the United States and so um I asked researchers to to write about their research in this area and I also asked uh those who have been or are Puerto Rican students in U.S. schools to write short essays about uh what that has meant to them and so I have a number of essays there including one that my daughter wrote uh and um uh a young man of fourteen wrote one and a woman fifty-two wrote one and so we have the whole spectrum.  Um of positive and negative experiences of Puerto Rican students in U.S. schools that really um emphasis these issues of conflict and pride and shame and uh and and all the things that so many of us grow up with all these contradictory kinds of feeling um trying to fit in yet never quite fitting in and and so on so it’s my hope that teachers and uh administrators and teacher educators will find books such as that one helpful uh because I think there are many other books of that kind that look at particular groups whether it’s racial or ethnic groups, uh whether it’s linguistic groups or of gay and lesbian students but for teacher and administrators and teacher educators to use those books to introduce teachers to um a great variety of students in their classrooms and in their schools and to try to understand the kinds of experiences that they’re having so that then teachers can and schools can figure out ways to uh to make it easier for those students so that they don’t feel like outsiders.  That’s a that’s a uh that comes from a chapter that wrote for another book uh with a colleague of mine, Manuel F---(?) uh and the the chapters called I was an outsider.  It was about Puerto Rican kids um in in uh public schools in Massachusetts and when we interviewed a small number of students that was what one of them said, I was an outsider, I never fit in.  And there are many students who feel that way and so we need to do a lot to to make sure that school is not a place where they feel like outsiders but rather like insiders.  That’s out job to make all students like insiders.

To me multicultural education and any anything having to do with education has to be grounded in learning.  We need to think about the kinds of environments that we provide so that all students can learn.  So it’s not just about helping students feel good about themselves or what’s been called the ethnic cheer leading uh which is one of the one of the um criticisms that’s always hurled at multicultural education.  Um I don’t believe it’s about ethnic cheer leading although I understand why that criticism is made sometimes because sometimes it’s approached as if you know it’s about making kids feel proud of who they are yes that a little part of it but we need to go way beyond that uh uh so that they don’t stop there.  It’s about using what kids have and then building on it.  Uh starting were they are and taking them somewhere else and and grounding them in their identities but not keeping then there.  Um but rather opening up new worlds to them.  I often give the example of when I was a little girl growing up in Brooklyn New York and my favorite book was Heidi.  Now what could a working class Puerto Rican child who’s just learning English have in common with a little girl being raised by her grandfather in the Alps?  Um you know to some people would say well that wasn’t a culturally appropriate or culturally relevant book and I don’t agree exactly.  You know uh I mean one of my areas of of research is specifically on Puerto Ricans in children’s books.  That to me is very important I think we need to have more of those books and we have very few of them.  But it’s not to say that those books should just be for Puerto Rican kids or that Puerto Rican kids should read only those books.  I would have loved to see some of those books when I was a kid but I also would have looked to see other books and so Heidi for me opened up new worlds that I never knew existed.  I’d never heard of brown bread for example she to always you know be eating brown bread and I didn’t even have grandfather uh and I I had no idea what it was like to live in the mountains but this gave me that idea.  I was transported to those places.  Uh I wish I had also read books where I was transported to Puerto Rico which I had never been to.  Um that would have been wonderful but I don’t think that um multicultural education needs to be about keeping kids encapsulated in their own backgrounds.  It means using that and breaking out of that and going back there as a safe haven and and being being very um uh comfortable with your own identity.  So comfortable that you can then venture out.  Uh so multicultural education is about opening up new worlds.  It’s about teaching and learning and defining uh students learning to define themselves as learners as curious as as uh wanting to expand their minds that’s what multicultural education is to me.

I am currently working on a project that is so exciting for me.  I wish I had more time to actually work on it or write about it.  But um it’s a project that I’ve learned so much from.  I was working with teachers in Boston last year and uh I I went out there so I drove two and half hours each each time once a month and met with them and we would meet for two or three hours uh because I wanted to explore further this issue of what keeps teacher going.  And uh and so we’re writing a book called what keeps teacher going in-spite of everything based on the research that I did then particularly I was very interested in working with excellent teachers of linguistically and culturally diverse students in urban setting.  And so the teachers who worked with me are high school teachers who teach a variety of subject from math to English, African-American history, bilingual education, uh and so on.  And um that was very empowering uh because as I’ve often said teachers can’t do everything.  Teachers can’t change everything and and of course that’s that’s true and this was reaffirmed again.  And yet teachers can do so much and the passion and love of these teachers was amazing and and I really wanted to get out to the public to that more people see how excruciatingly difficult it is to be an effective teacher and also how rewarding it is and how much they need to take on even if they know that they alone can’t do everything.

In looking at the data so far a number of themes have emerged as key as significant in in um in keeping teacher going in helping teachers remain strong in-spite of everything.  And when I say in spite of everything the teachers know immediately what I mean by that, I don’t have to define that.  But um these are teachers who stay in who are in for the long haul.  Um one of the --- I worked with about eight or ten teachers.  One of the teachers was uh only in her sixth year of teaching but all the others, one had been a teacher for ten years, all the others were veteran teachers, twenty or more years.  The most veteran was in his thirty-third year of teaching and they were all just inspirational.  And so far what I’m finding are the following things that keep teachers going.  Uh one is their own autobiographies.  That is who they are.  Their experiences that they’ve had.  The values that have formed them and um uh you know how what their parents taught them uh what they did as young people and so on.  And in fact one of the things that I’ve found is that in this diverse racially and ethnically diverse group of teachers uh that there’s a history of social activism for example.  They’ve been involved in anti-apartheid struggles in the civil rights movement uh uh and so on and so forth.  De—in desegregation in Boston uh several years ago.  Another issue that comes out loud and strong and should probably be the first uh I put their auto-biographies first because that’s who they are but something that they all talked about constantly was the kids, the kids keep them going and uh it’s a love for the children who they teach, the young people who they teach and as one of the teachers said a fundamental belief in the lives and minds of students.  Uh this is what one of the teachers described that passion as.  Uh his name was Steve Gordon and he said this isn’t a bad life.  I’ve dedicated my life to children in the Boston public schools what could be more important.  Um and he was the one who was teaching for thirty-three years.  That came out time and again many of the teachers mentioned that they love the young people who they work with.  They have tremendous faith in them and that they know that they can do it uh and so very rarely did I hear uh never actually did I hear them say anything mean spirited about the kids that they were teaching.  They never said they never started a sentence with these kids in a mean spirited way.  You know like these kids don’t know anything like they don’t care like they’re lazy you know nothing like that.  Um doesn’t mean they weren’t angry and that’s another issue that came up.  The third issue was this anger that all these teachers had that was sort of surprising to me until I realized that it was the flip side of the hope that they have for the future of public education.  Uh that public education is not living up to the promise that it’s made.  Particularly for culturally linguistically diverse kids of poor backgrounds and uh particularly of poor backgrounds.  Uh and so there’s a great deal of anger on the part of teachers that at the disrespect with which they’re treated but mostly at the racism that they see around them and the other kids of biases that they see the structural inequalities uh the bureaucratic decisions that are made in schools um the you know their bafflement at a lot of these things that um the lack of professionalism uh with which uh teachers are viewed and so on.  Um they also mentioned uh something else that keeps them going are they are role models.  Where those role models are their peers or their mentors or their students teachers.  In one case you mentioned that her student teachers are just the inspiration for her because when she gets tired she looks to the younger people who have this fire and this passion about what they’re doing.  Uh and and finally the the the fifth theme that is coming out is that what keeps teacher going is uh the intellectual challenges of teaching.   That is seeing teaching as an intellectual endeavor and so these teachers are very active in professional organizations, in writing groups, they keep journals, they subscribe to professional journals, they take part in a lot of professional development, they do some professional development themselves for new teachers, they’re very involved.  They they keep learning uh no matter how long they’ve been teaching they keep learning and wanting to be involved with their peers and so it’s a life long commitment.  It’s not just that you get your degree and then you’re a teacher.  Poof.  You know it’s that that’s uh you get your degree and you begin learning how to be a teacher and then you go on for the rest of your teaching life and you see that as a real long term commitment.  So these these are the things that I’m finding so far.  I’m really excited about it and I’m uh looking forward to to finishing this so that it can get out because I think it might be helpful for a lot of new teachers particularly.