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Embracing ‘today’s diverse schoolhouse’

December 16, 2013
Mayra Daniel

Mayra Daniel

Mayra Daniel understands more than many the importance of colleges and universities equipping teachers with the necessary skills to teach and design effective and appropriate culturally relevant instruction.

Daniel, an NIU professor of literacy education and bilingual ESL coordinator, moved to the United States from Cuba as a child.

“When I first came here, I didn’t know any English and didn’t have any help to learn the language,” Daniel said. “It’s difficult for students to succeed academically without that help from their teachers. We now know how to help students become bicultural and bilingual. We recognize there are numerous cognitive and social benefits for the learners who know their teachers embrace today’s diverse schoolhouse.”

Students who enroll in the NIU Department of Literacy and Elementary Education will become those successful teachers who are able to reach all types of children, including English Language Learners (ELLs).

In spring 2011, the department began offering two courses as a part of the elementary education program. Future teachers complete LTIC 301 (Multicultural Education Methods and Materials) and LTIC 420 (Methods and Materials for Teaching English Language Learners in the Content Areas).

The faculty’s work at the department focuses on multiculturalism and multi-literacy. Some professors are bilingual or trilingual. Others were born in different countries. Most are well-traveled.

“These courses are important because cultural and linguistic diversity is increasing at an unplanned and unprecedented rate,” Daniel said. “The courses prepare future teachers to work with and advocate for all learners and their families.”

Photo of a boy reading a bookIn LTIC 301, students focus on becoming culturally aware and being able to really provide what learners at levels K-12 need.

“The course prepares teachers to work in urban areas and respect the home cultures and languages that the children bring to school,” Daniel said. “It exposes them to other cultural norms and encourages them to accept and applaud diversity and not judge others for doing things differently.”

LTIC faculty agree the courses challenge students to go beyond their personal experience and confront issues of race and privilege. “Some undergraduate students think they have to speak the native language of the students in order to teach ELLs, when that is not always the case,” said Chris Carger, coordinator of the Children’s Literature Teaching Collection and literacy education professor.

Carger teachers LTRE 231 (Techniques of Tutoring), which takes undergraduate students into local bilingual programs at Cortland Elementary School, where they help the children practice English language skills and develop vocabulary through playing games, reading storybooks and creating art projects.

“We start by using very simple and visual and concrete aids and stress the importance of vocabulary, which is a basic building block for learning how to read,” she said.

Carger said she believes the undergraduate and graduate courses offered through the department makes NIU teaching candidates more marketable and able to fill bilingual education and English as a Second Language positions, which are in great demand.

“We’ve reached a point where all teachers, even those in mainstream classroom settings, need to possess these skills and teaching techniques that assist ELLs because odds are they will have a few bilingual students in their classrooms,” Carger said.

Chris Carger

Chris Carger

Many future teachers have found success after taking even only a couple of these literary education courses focused on the bilingual/English as a second language endorsement, she added.

“When they do student teaching, they feel more confident and prepared to work with the linguistic minority,” Carger said. “Several students even realized they liked working with ELL students and decided to get their master’s degree and pursue a career in this area.”

In addition to offering these types of courses to students enrolled in the elementary education program at NIU, the courses are also being made available to teaching candidates who are preparing to teach math, science, art, English, biology, music, social studies, history and foreign languages. Within the College of Education, courses are offered to students in programs for early childhood development and special education.

The Illinois State Board of Education now requires that all teacher candidates across the university enroll in at least one course focused on educating English Language Learners.

“This is a different paradigm of teacher preparation, and the board is encouraging universities to acknowledge the needs of our student populations and require such courses,” Daniel said.

NIU will stay ahead of the curve in promote cultural literacy and diversity rights with a new course that will be offered next fall: LTIC 555 is a graduate course designed for students who want to work with bilingual special education learners, an area of high need in Illinois. NIU will be the only university in the state to offer the course.

by Chonce Maddox