Language, Culture, and Teaching: Critical Perspectives for a New Century

March 2002 — Volume 5, Number 4


Language, Culture, and Teaching: Critical Perspectives for a New Century

Sonia Nieto (2002)
Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Pp. xvii + 295
ISBN 0-8058-3738-8
US $29.95

When the issue of serving language minority students in United States schools is raised, issues of race, gender, sexual orientation and other forms of diversity sooner or later become part of the conversation. In her new book, Language, Culture and Teaching: Critical Perspectives for a New Century, Sonia Nieto brings the domains of TESL/Bilingual Education and Multicultural Education together as two, traditionally separate professional communities that are linked by common historical roots and complementary goals (p. 84). In order to serve all students equitably, Nieto proposes transforming the way multicultural education is viewed and implemented in K-12 teaching, and in teacher education.

This book is set up as a textbook for teacher training, to be used for either preservice or inservice teachers. Nieto has previously published the chapters as either articles or book chapters over the past ten years. There are four sections to the book: I. Setting the Groundwork, II. Identity and Belonging, III. Implications for the Preparation of Critical Teachers, and IV. Praxis in the Classroom. The approach of the book is constructivist, with chapters being arranged for readers to take in the material, and then process it through three types of activities: Critical Questions, which encourage readers to apply the material to their experience and extend their understanding; Activities for Your Classroom, which outline ways readers might use what they have read in their practice; and Community-Based Activities and Advocacy, which outline ways readers might advocate for change in the larger community. Along with these sections, Nieto includes detailed references for each chapter and short, annotated bibliographies of other works readers can use to extend their knowledge of the material presented in the chapter. In the Preface, Nieto said the textbook is intended to stimulate readers to do four things: first, explore the connections language and culture have to teaching and learning in educational contexts; second, to examine the sociocultural and sociopolitical context of language and culture and determine their effects on student learning and achievement; third, to analyze the implications of linguistic and cultural diversity for school reform; and, finally, to reflect critically on their classroom practices and how they relate to linguistic and cultural diversity in light of the material she presents (p. xiv). [-1-]

The first chapter, Multicultural Education and School Reform, proposes a transformational understanding of what it means to address multicultural issues within K-12 schools. Nieto asserts that multicultural education is not a panacea for all problems in public schools. Instead, when implemented in a context of social justice and critical pedagogy, she says, it becomes a source of hope for substantive change within school cultures. She defines multicultural education itself as “a process of comprehensive school reform and basic education for all students” (p. 29), characterized by seven basic characteristics: antiracist education, basic education, important for all students, pervasive throughout the curriculum, education for social justice, a process, and critical pedagogy. Honesty and critical reflection are themes throughout the chapter. Nieto asserts that no child from any culture is served by the traditional “heros and holidays” approach to multicultural education, because this approach does nothing to address underlying feelings of guilt, shame and exclusion. She also calls for honesty and inclusiveness in the presentation of history from all points of view, including the working class as well as minority cultures, and the consideration of minority figures in history as whole people rather than as sanitized symbols. In short, Nieto states that all children need multicultural education to be prepared to participate in the projected diverse world in which they will eventually become adult citizens.

Chapter 2, Cultural Difference and Educational Change in a Sociopolitical Context, analyzes the disenfranchisement of students from minority cultures within schools today. It outlines the concepts that minority students often reject the molds of success pushed on them by schools because students from minority cultures are often seen as a liabilities rather than assets to classrooms. Nieto asserts blaming teachers is not helpful in addressing this issue because teachers often lack the preparation themselves to be able to feel comfortable living with cultural differences. She discusses a study by Troyna in which he concluded that “although teachers may indeed collude with a racist system, blaming teachers alone was an unproductive basis on which to develop effective change in school.(p. 68).” Instead, Nieto said, all aspects of society, including students, parents, families and wider communities need to be involved in decisions to make school communities more inclusive.

In the introduction to Chapter Three, We Speak in Many Tongues: Language Diversity and Multicultural Education, Nieto says,

The field of multicultural education has been slow to embrace linguistic diversity as a central focus of its work. With the exception of a few scholars who have attended to language issues, most treatments of multicultural education do not consider the significance of language in teaching and learning (p. 79).

From here, Nieto goes on to establish the language minority population in the United States as a reality in all United States schools, from rural to urban areas. She asserts that these students too are now part of the mix of children all educators need to be prepared to serve, and are assets to classrooms. She also introduces the concept of “linguicism,” which Tove Skutnabb-Kangas defined in 1988 as being “ideologies and structures that are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and nonmaterial) between groups that are defined on the basis of language (p. 82).” In this chapter, Nieto calls for better teacher training in the areas of serving linguistic minority children and an additive rather than a subtractive approach to bilingualism in school curriculums.

On Becoming American: An Exploratory Essay, is a chapter in which Nieto explores her own dual identity as a Puerto Rican and as an American. She discusses duality’s implications on her life and the lives of her children. She also notes the importance of school communities scaffolding students from minority cultures as they create for themselves identities which incorporate both their inherited and their adopted cultures.

In Lessons From Students on Creating a Chance to Dream, Nieto calls for the inclusion of student voices as schools seek to reform curriculums to be relevant to all members of the school community. She included excerpts of interviews with students from many cultures exploring how included the students felt in their school communities. An important overall theme in this chapter is that curriculums in many United States schools today are perceived by students as being irrelevant to their lives and experiences. As a result, these students become disengaged from school. Nieto suggests educators need to examine the “hidden curriculum” reflected in bulletin boards, extracurricular activities, and other messages given to students about their abilities and talents. She notes that such practices as tracking can be problematic, and that teachers should consider what practices work well with the cultures of the students they teach. Nieto specifically mentions group work as a technique that serves many students from minority cultures well. In the chapter, Nieto asserts in many ways that a monocultural education disempowers students. [-2-]

Chapter Five, Writing for Real: Exploring and Affirming Students’ Words and Worlds, gives five guidelines for teaching writing with a multicultural perspective. Nieto begins the chapter by suggesting that minority students may not attempt to write because they do not see their lives, stories, and words as appropriate material for literature as it is currently taught in United States schools. She advances these guidelines to help include multicultural students into the literary world. First, she says, teachers should avoid simplistic and formulaic approaches to diversity and writing. In her discussion of this guideline, Nieto once again notes educators should examine the way heros from minority cultures are portrayed in texts, being sure that an honest representation of the figure, rather than a sanitized, idealized version be represented. Second, she says, teachers should connect writing assignments to students’ lives. Third, she says, teachers should focus on what students can do as well as what students can learn. She adds here that teachers should encourage students to reflect on how they can use their writing to empower themselves and their communities. Fourth, Nieto says, teachers should believe and act according to the belief that all students are smart and deserve a chance to dream. In the discussion of this guideline, Nieto again brings into question the value of tracking, testing and gifted and talented programs as opposed to having high standards for all students. Finally, Nieto says teachers should listen to their students, seeking out their suggestions to build a curriculum that is grounded in their experiences. Nieto also included five reasons Jordan has concluded that minority students don’t write: material not being related to students’ lives; emphasis on definitions; lack of appropriateness of course content; difficulties with universalizing visual literacy; and inappropriateness of evaluation (pp. 170-172). “The major lesson I would encourage teachers to think about is that curriculum and pedagogy can either reproduce the inequality with which students are confronted everyday, or they can have transformative power for both individuals and institutions,” Nieto says (p. 172).

The third section of Nieto’s book is aimed primarily at teacher educators. In Chapter Seven, Diversity: What Do Teachers Need to Know?, Nieto encourages teacher educators to examine their own practices to see if they encourage teacher candidates to address such issues as their own biases, institutional racism and discrimination, and teacher and parent involvement. In this chapter, Nieto again stresses that multicultural education is for all students, both from minority and majority cultures, and that in order for students to be served appropriately, transformation must occur on all levels of the education, including teacher training programs.

In Chapter Eight, Bringing Bilingual Education Out of the Basement and Other Imperatives for Teacher Education, Nieto discusses the urgency of preparing all teachers to serve language minority students. She asserts that all practicing teachers needed to develop knowledge in the areas of: first and second language acquisition, the sociocultural and sociopolitical context of education in the United States; knowledge of the history of specific cultural groups they are serving in the United States; adaptation of the curriculum for English language learners; competence in pedagogical approaches suitable for different cultural groups in United States schools; experience with teachers of diverse backgrounds and the ability to work collaboratively with colleagues; and effective communication with parents and families of diverse language backgrounds (p. 208). For ESL and bilingual teachers, Nieto recommends these additional areas of expertise: fluency in at least one language other than English; knowledge of the conceptual and theoretical basis for bilingual education; knowledge of specific pedagogical strategies that scaffold language development; cultural mediation; and knowledge of alternative strategies for assessing students’ language proficiency and academic progress (p. 209).

In Conflict and Tension, Growth and Change: The Politics of Teaching Multicultural Education Courses, Nieto reflects on her own experiences teaching a particular section of a multicultural education course at her university. In the chapter, she notes that all teacher candidates, regardless of background or experience, bring with them a need to learn something about relating to people of different cultures, and to identify and reflect upon their own emotions and biases in the area of diversity.

In the final section of her book, Nieto explores what the implementation of authentic multiculturalism would mean in United States Schools. In Affirmation, Solidarity, and Critique: Moving Beyond Tolerance in Multicultural Education, she introduces three schools at different places on a range of response to multicultural reform, beginning with a monocultural model, and ending with a model in which all students are served equitably within a school setting. In What Does it Mean to Affirm Diversity in Our Nation’s Schools?, Nieto reaffirms that today’s educators need support in preparing to deal with diversity in school communities and that in order for equitable education to take place, all educators from the university to the preschool will have to take a critical look at their own biases and practices with an aim toward transformation of the system.

The central idea of this book is that all children are capable, and should be treated as capable, of learning at high levels of achievement and that all students, regardless of culture, are receiving inadequate preparation to be participants in our increasingly diverse society. Nieto calls for multiculturalism to be an overt part of current school reform movements on today’s scene. Nieto’s work would make a good textbook for teacher preparation, or a book for study groups of educators to use to examine their own practice. It would also have value for individual teachers who wish to reexamine their own stand on multiculturalism and how they practice it in their classrooms.

Lisa Bauer
<eslgal38@hotmail.com>

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