Six NIU students affiliated with the College of Education were among the presenters at the 41st Annual Statewide Conference for Teachers Serving Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students.
Recently graduated master’s student Stephanie Eller and undergraduates Lorena Flores, Autumn Gathings, Christina Poe, Raven Stepter and Amor Taylor joined Department of Curriculum and Instruction professors James Cohen and John Evar Strid in sharing research.
Eller and Flores joined Cohen for “Undocumented Immigrants: Myths and Realities,” which also served as the basis for a featured article in the Illinois Association for Multilingual Multicultural Education winter bulletin with the two students as the lead authors.
Flores then presented for a second time with Cohen and Strid, addressing the question of “Can Paradigm Shifting Occur in a One-Semester Diversity Course?”
Poe and Cohen presented “English Learners’ Writing Needs in the Elementary Classroom” to a full house.
“The room was good for 60 people but well over 80 showed up, with people sitting on the floor and standing in the doorway,” Cohen says. “Christina dominated the room with her wealth of knowledge regarding the research and practical applications of writing strategies for English learners.”
Gathings, Stepter and Taylor came well-prepared for their Thursday, Dec. 7, talk on “Roadblocks to Bilingualism: How Teachers Become Bilingual.”
The three already had gained solid footing during earlier appearances at the National Association for Multicultural Education (NAME) Conference in Salt Lake City and at the Illinois Education Research Council Symposium at NIU-Naperville, where they described their findings on the language-related backgrounds of teachers.
Responses to questions Strid posed to his students in an Applied Linguistics course provided the raw data; Cohen and the three students pored through the 126 essays to identify themes and commonalities and to discern conclusions and recommendations.
“I’m a nerd when it comes to organizing, reading and writing, so this project was made for me,” says Gathings, a junior Elementary Education major from Oswego. “I feel important. I’m using my free time to do something that I know is going to pay off later. This will help me stand out.”
Cohen began working with the trio a few semesters ago.
“I was never able to work with a professor as an undergrad,” says Cohen, who always wanted to offer that chance to those he taught.
So he made his pitch, telling students he was willing to add them to his projects or to lend his expertise to their research. Either way, he told the students, the goal was to get published.
Gathings, Stepter and Taylor chose the former option, learning that research is a long and difficult, but worthwhile process.
“Dr. Cohen is so passionate. He just influenced me in a way that I felt a natural connection to what he was saying,” adds Stepter, a senior Early Childhood Studies major. “Knowing there was someone who believed in me gave me a boost in my confidence. It taught me that I can do more, and how to contribute that into a school setting.”
Taylor, a junior Middle-Level Teaching and Learning major specializing in English, was excited for the chance to publish.
“I said, ‘Oh, I can get something published? I can write something?’ That drew me in. That was intriguing for me,” Taylor says. “I love to write and to read, and this incorporates both of these things. I read the people’s stories, and I get to write a paper.”
Cohen feels like a proud father.
“They were tremendously helpful. They got so good at coding that I said, ‘OK, go on and do your thing.’ We’ve been expanding their role in the presentation every time,” he says. “They’re learning how to analyze qualitative data. How often does an undergrad get to analyze qualitative data? They’re learning how to present at professional conferences. We’ll be writing up the data soon.”
He sees benefits beyond the obvious.
Gathings, Stepter and Taylor have explored second-language acquisition theory and simultaneous versus sequential bilingualism in a way deeper than any textbook can provide.
“They’ve internalized this information,” Cohen says. “When they go and become teachers, they’ll be able to articulate things most teachers aren’t able to articulate.”
“They’ve gotten an insight into the research process,” Strid says. “They did a phenomenal job – going through the data, finding the salient points, putting it together for the presentation, doing the actual presentation. It opens doors for them.”
Sure enough, Cohen and Strid say, the three students were a hit in Salt Lake City, where “the audience just fell in love with them. They’re so smart, articulate and passionate.”
In Naperville, they add, representatives from Elgin’s U46 and other school districts were handing over business cards and encouraging the students to call them after graduation.
“No matter which way they decide to take their careers, it’s a big win all around for them,” Strid says. “They really showed the initiative to follow through, and that really says a lot about them – all positive.”
Meanwhile, at Cohen’s encouraging, all three students applied and were accepted for the maiden voyage of Educate Global and traveled to teach in China during the summer. Eller also participated at Cohen’s suggestion, teaching in Taiwan.
“We agreed to go do one thing with Dr. Cohen,” Gathings says, “and now we’ve gone to China and to three different conferences.”
“I thought we were just going to get published,” Taylor adds with a laugh.
The students say they’ve grown in their confidence in themselves as well as in their belief in the importance of bilingualism and multilingualism.
“We definitely need to advocate for not only bilingualism but biliteracy as well,” Taylor says, “and to replace judgment with curiosity.”
“I learned to advocate for others,” Stepter says, “who can’t advocate for themselves.”
The words are music to Cohen’s ears. “I am sincerely impressed. They got it. They got it!” he says. “They’re hungry for knowledge.”