On Thursday October 4, author and educator, Sonia Nieto appeared at Concordia University to talk about her book, Teaching with a Multicultural Perspective: Working to Close the Gaps.  Professor Emerita Nieto said that there are many gaps, not just the academic achievement gap, which seems to be the only gap anyone ever talks about. Impacting that gap is an even larger and more serious gap and that is a social justice gap. The access to good education, nutrition, stable housing and safe neighborhoods is part of the reason that children from minority cultures don’t do as well in school as children from wealthier families.

She told the audience to “follow who has the wealth and who has the power” to understand the prevailing social-political climate. Identity, difference, power and privilege are all interconnected. Nieto talked about the need to ask the hard questions about other cultures.  “It’s not all about food and fun,” she said, referring to the ethnic festivals and other activities that are often used to promote multiculturalism.

On the other hand, multiculturalism is not about creating guilt but is about being anti-racist and anti-bias on a pervasive and on-going basis. It is about talking to students and families about their cultures in order to understand and embrace differences. Nieto emphasized that multiculturalism is fluid and our understanding about others should expand outward becoming ever more inclusive.

We all come from unique backgrounds and we all have unique perspectives on the world. Multiculturalism, she said, is not ethnic hatred or ethnic exclusivity, it is ethnic pride.  She argues that when children know where they came from, they can find a place at the larger table without losing their identity.  She believes that children who don’t know their heritage are angry children who turn against the entire society.

She thinks that while education is critical to society, the specific content of the education is less important. That might be a surprise in this era of test score mania, but her argument is that most knowledge becomes obsolete within five years.  What we know today about science and technology will be superseded or replaced by 2017.  Nieto believes that education should involve teaching students how to think critically and to encourage them to become passionate learners and creative thinkers. These are the tools, she argues, that will be most useful in the future.

She said that the problems with schools are not just teachers’ problems, they are social problems but teachers have been blamed for them. That brought applause from the audience of about 400 people in the Chapel of Our Lord. Nieto said she didn’t know why teachers are being blamed for so many things but she thought that teachers should concentrate on what they can do in the classroom to make a difference. In her view, qualilty education is cause worth fighting for, she said.

Nieto advocates a perspective that looks not just at the academic deficits students from minority cultures might have but also looking at the experiences, talents, strengths and resources they have. She reminded the audience that the majority culture often overlooks these things and we shortchange everyone when we do that. All cultures have strengths and resources but we have to learn about them and we can only learn about them if we talk.

I was charmed when Nieto, in recalling her own teaching days in Brooklyn, said that she told her students they were a gift to the world. When we have the discussions about the achievement gap, we so often forget that children are not just test scores but complete human beings with unlimited potential.

Nieto’s ideas are not popular in the media these days, however. On October 10, the Chicago Tribune ran an editorial about school reform initiatives and concluded that it could all be solved with a longer school day and the demise of the teachers’ union. But it seems to me that what the Consortium on School Research has shown is that there are no simple answers to higher achievement.  Bashing teachers and changing course every year on educational approaches is a lot of noise and movement but little forward momentum. We need more thoughtful and thought-out responses, not knee-jerk reactions.

Research still shows that the classroom teacher is the key to improved student performance. Good pedagogy has not basically changed since Socrates—it still involves teachers asking students to think hard about a problem and to bring both logic and creativity to the solution.  It still involves teachers getting students to become passionate about a subject—any subject–and using that to propel themselves deeper and deeper into the world of ideas. It still involves students believing they have both a right and responsibility to take their place at the table. It means instilling in all children, from all social strata, the idea that they are not throwaways but are instead, truly a gift to the world.

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Helen Kossler

Helen Kossler loves reading aloud to her grandchildren and is not ashamed to admit that she almost always likes the book better than the movie. She has been buying, borrowing, begging and stealing (well—not...