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March 1, 2015
Vol. 72
No. 6

Perspectives / Our Schools, Our Selves

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      On the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, I read the words of Anna Ornstein, an 87-year-old psychiatrist and concentration camp survivor. "The most researched horror story in the world—the Holocaust—was just the beginning of the century of genocide," she tells the Washington Post ("Voices of Auschwitz," Jan. 26, 2015). "Armenia, Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda. … I only know we did not learn from the Holocaust that we should stop killing, because we did not."
      These are haunting words to introduce an issue devoted to examining how educators can help students from different cultures acquire an education, communicate with one another, and lead productive lives. But I could not think of any other words that would better highlight our tremendous need to address our cultural conflicts about race, religion, and gender differences, and to tackle such divisive issues as immigration (pp. 48, 54, 66) and economic disparity (pp. 28, 42). For, although educators cannot save the world, they see the world reflected in their classrooms. And they are often the ones who open the minds of their students to new perspectives. Here, our authors share their insights and strategies for teaching respect in a divided world.
      Appreciate variance. Patricia Gándara notes that one of the ironies of U.S. culture is that although we love our history as a "nation of immigrants," we are conflicted about the changes it brings. With the sweep of diversity that is beginning to transform the nation, the United States can no longer be a "graveyard for languages." Instead we need to acknowledge the cognitive, social, and economic benefits of a multicultural and multilingual society. More than one-fifth of the population now speaks a language other than English (most speak English as well), but schools often fail to nurture students' heritage language, she notes. Schools must reinstitute bilingual classes, add dual language programs, help students maintain their home language, help parents gain fluency in English, and offer IB and AP courses that recognize the competency of biliteracy.
      Differentiate and individualize. To teach any student, Hilary Dack and Carol Ann Tomlinson tell us, you have to know that student. In today's culturally diverse classroom, that might mean getting to know students with vastly different values and ways of life. Or, if you teach in a culturally monolithic classroom, it may mean the challenge is to avoid stereotyping and the presumption of agreement. Students in both types of classrooms need to expand their appreciation of others as well as become more aware of attributes and needs shared across cultures. These authors spell out how to differentiate instruction on the basis of a continuum of differences, but they note that getting to know individuals is the educator's first step in engaging students in learning.
      Teach the facts of history. In "The Story Behind Ferguson," Richard Rothstein explains why low-income black children are likely to live in desperately poor neighborhoods for multiple generations. The concentration of poverty is growing; so is the number of schools segregated by race. Rothstein shows how housing policies of the past help explain the persistent failure of educational policy to spur the upward mobility of low-income black youth. "Avoidance of our racial history is pervasive," he writes, "and by failing to give our students the facts, we are ensuring that avoidance will persist."
      Cultivate civility. Bárbara Cruz describes "the problem we still live with" as our lack of ability to broach and manage discussions about race and class. Many are afraid to voice their opinion for fear of being misunderstood, labeled, or vilified. Her careful way of opening discussions allows students to confront deep-seated attitudes. See also how principal Tom Hoerr laid the groundwork for such conversations at his elementary school and how Stephanie Teachout and fellow teachers guided students in respectful dialogue (online).
      Consider the whole child. Preparing kids for tests has preoccupied schools for at least a decade. Yet the social and emotional needs of today's students are enormous. Poverty embraces about half of all U.S. public school children; schools may not even know which children are experiencing living "doubled up," and are, in effect, homeless (Vicki Dill). Just this school year, Susan Zimmerman-Orozco reports, a Maryland district saw its school population of ELLs go from 3,000 to 4,000, many coming to school lacking academic background and facing difficult cultural transitions. She reminds us that school may be many children's only refuge—the place where they find friends and teachers who respect and care for them—and the place where they discover the persistence in themselves to make their lives most meaningful.
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      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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