“It’s worth our time”: a model of culturally and linguistically supportive professional development for K-12 STEM educators
Professional development on issues of language and culture is often separate from professional development on issues related to STEM education, resulting in linguistic and cultural gaps in K-12 STEM pedagogy and practice. To address this issue, we have designed a model of professional development in which we work with educators to build cultural and linguistic competence and to disseminate information about how educators view the relevance of language, communication, and culture to STEM teaching and learning. We describe the design and facilitation of our model of culturally and linguistically responsive professional development, grounded in theories of multicultural education and culturally supportive teaching, through professional development workshops to 60 K-12 STEM educators from schools in Maryland and Virginia that serve African American students. Participants noted that culturally and linguistically responsive approaches had yet to permeate their K-12 STEM settings, which they identified as a critical challenge to effectively teaching and engaging African-American students. Based on pre-surveys, workshops were tailored to participants’ stated needs for information on literacy (e.g., disciplinary literacies and discipline-specific jargon), cultural conflict and mismatch (e.g., student–teacher miscommunication), and linguistic bias in student assessment (e.g., test design). Educators shared feedback via post-workshop surveys, and a subset of 28 participants completed in-depth interviews and a focus group. Results indicate the need for further implementation of professional development such as ours that address linguistic and cultural issues, tailored for K-12 STEM educators. Although participants in this study enumerated several challenges to meeting this need, they also identified opportunities for collaborative solutions that draw upon teacher expertise and are integrated with curricula across content areas.
KeywordsAfrican-American education Sociolinguistics Culturally supportive education Culturally responsive education K-12 education STEM education Multicultural education
In order to address persistent inequalities in US education, and in particular in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, scholars dedicated to both research and application have sought to increase the participation, engagement, and success of African-American students. Many programs are targeted toward students themselves (see Valla and Williams 2012), while others are targeted toward the educators who serve them (Loucks-Horsley et al. 2003). Educators are often students’ first contact with formal STEM education; as such, it is necessary for them to be able to effectively teach students from cultural backgrounds that may or may not be similar to their own.
The fields of multicultural education (Banks and Banks 2007) and culturally responsive teaching (Gay 2000) aim to prepare educators for this task. It is well attested in the literature on US multicultural education and culturally responsive and supportive teaching that understanding the dynamics of race, ethnicity, and culture is essential for student engagement and success (Ladson-Billings 1995), as African American and students from other traditionally underrepresented groups must be better supported in K-12 and higher education (Banks 2013). This process entails educators and schools becoming familiar with and building on the prior knowledge and the family and cultural traditions that students bring with them to school (Banks 2013), as well as their linguistic practices (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011).
Educators who adopt comprehensive techniques of culturally responsive teaching and multicultural education promote the engagement and achievement of underrepresented students in all content areas. In the STEM fields, culturally responsive teaching techniques have been successfully used in the areas of chemistry (Collins et al. 2012), computing (Eglash et al. 2013), and general science (Emdin and Lee 2012). But such approaches are more common in the humanities than in STEM (Reddick et al. 2005). One challenge is that the terminology of culturally responsive teaching/multicultural education remains relatively unfamiliar to many STEM educators, who may not immediately see the application to their own teaching (Reddick et al. 2005). Within professional development settings, however, educators have the time, space, and opportunity to learn new information and rethink classroom practices (Brown et al. 1999) and to refine ideologies, beliefs, and perspectives, including their multicultural awareness and understanding (Gipe et al. 1989). Accordingly, a clear need is to create professional development opportunities in multicultural education/culturally responsive teaching that STEM educators find relevant to their pedagogy and practice, in order to develop the repertoire of tools necessary to serve all students, especially those from historically underrepresented groups.
In this article, we report on our professional development workshops designed to help 60 K-12 STEM educators understand and reflect on the dynamics of sociolinguistics, literacy, and culture and to marshal this information in the service of teaching predominantly African American student populations. Our model avoids a top down approach and focuses on collaboration and reflection (Mensah 2010). In K-12 STEM education, as in all content areas, issues concerning language, identity, culture, opportunity, and achievement are critical to eliminating longstanding and persistent inequalities in the US educational system. As Carolyn Temple Adger, Walt Wolfram, and Donna Christian (2007) note, on the one hand, communication with students is at the heart of effective teaching; on the other hand, communicative differences can be a significant mechanism in the perpetuation of structural inequalities and opportunity gaps (also known as achievement gaps) in education (DeShano da Silva et al. 2007). Culturally and linguistically diverse students do not leave their language patterns at the door when they enter STEM classrooms, but STEM educators may not realize linguistic issues are just as critical in their classes as in the language arts (Lemke 1990). Such bifurcation in teacher education and professional development widens linguistic and cultural gaps in K-12 STEM pedagogy and practice (Villegas and Lucas 2002).
As Sonia Nieto (2002) points out, all educators need a fundamental understanding of language and should receive training in “literacy, bilingual and multicultural education” (p. 94). Yet existing professional development that seeks to build educators’ cultural and linguistic competence often is tailored for English language learner/emergent bilingual student populations (e.g., Hakuta 2014) and/or focuses largely on language arts or other humanities-based educators (see Wolfram and Reaser 2007). There remains a critical need to equip all educators to understand linguistic and cultural variations within English language patterns due to differences in students’ regional, racial/ethnic, and social class backgrounds. Abha Gupta (2010) investigated elementary school teachers’ linguistic beliefs and their preparedness to address the linguistic needs of their African American students. More than half of the educators in her study agreed that students who speak the variety referred to by linguists as African American English will have communication problems, including reading and writing problems, in the classroom. At the same time, respondents stated that they had never been offered any professional development that would provide them with teaching strategies to address these challenges. Without such training, there is abundant evidence that many speakers and listeners, including educators, can hold opposite, negative linguistic views and biases (Adger et al. 2007) that can interact with other racial/ethnic stereotypes and biases in ways that directly perpetuate educational opportunity gaps (Labov 2008). With training, however, educators show increased positive ideologies about language (see, e.g., Craig and Washington 2006) and report positive impacts on their pedagogical practices (see, e.g., Sweetland 2006).
The position that STEM educators must be prepared to serve culturally and linguistically diverse student populations (Lindholm-Leary and Borsato 2006) is also supported by STEM education organizations including the National Science Teachers Association and National Science Education Leadership Association (Rhoton and Bowers 2001). Because STEM content as well as STEM teaching and learning are socially and culturally embedded, STEM teacher professional development and STEM educational reform must be designed and carried out in ways that build upon this premise, in order to help educators develop the skills necessary for working with diverse student populations (Lederman et al. 2001). As Brenda Wojnowski (2001), former president of the National Science Education Leadership Association writes, “We [educators] must develop mindsets that allow our students to understand and be sensitive to the intricacies of cultures that are very different from our own” (p. ix).
Well, for me, when we did disciplinary literacy, the biggest focus was being able to write text dependent questions. And there’s such a broad array of ways to write them, but when they taught us, they didn’t give us concrete examples… We kind of get the surface idea and we get all excited and we go running away like we’re gonna be able to do that, and then when we actually sit down to do it, we’re kinda like the kids, we’re like- wait, where do I start?
This type of pre-judging of students happens all too often. Students from poor and poorly performing school districts, students who wear sagging pants or speak slang or with accents, students that may not make good grades, students from single-parent/multi-generation homes—these kids are denied an opportunity to participate at the gate. … Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people (n.p.).
In our model of culturally and linguistically responsive professional development, we seek to address such gaps in STEM teacher education by providing workshop-based information and dialogue on language, literacy, and culture. As our evidence suggests, when attuned to issues of cultural and linguistic diversity, STEM educators are able to build on their strengths as dedicated teachers to engage in culturally and linguistically responsive education. Our work further suggests the need to provide more K-12 STEM educators with more opportunities to receive professional development grounded in multicultural education/culturally responsive teaching, so that they can develop the skill—not just the sentiment—necessary to most effectively serve students from underrepresented groups and close opportunity gaps in U.S. STEM education.
Collaborative workshop development
Questions asked in pre-surveys, post-surveys, interviews, and focus group
What types of language variation have you noticed in your school and classrooms?
What kinds of professional development have you attended lately. What have you liked and not liked about them?
If possible, provide an example of a text or assignment that a student with language differences may struggle with.
What challenges concerning language variation do your students face—the use of different languages and/or varieties of English (if so, which)?
What topics would you like to see covered in this workshop?
What types of language variation have you noticed in your school and classrooms?
What challenges concerning language variation do your students face—the use of different languages and/or varieties of English (if so, which)?
What strategies or techniques would most help your students?
If possible, provide an example of a text or assignment that a student with language differences may struggle with.
Using strategies that you learned in the workshop on language variation and STEM education, how would you now approach your teaching?
What role do you think that language plays in STEM education?
Do you think language is a challenge that African American students in particular might face in STEM classes?
What challenges related to language do your students face? Is STEM related jargon a problem for any of your students?
What do you remember most from our workshop on language variation and STEM education? How did it affect your teaching?
Have you made other changes to your teaching following the workshop? What strategies have you used that other teachers might benefit from?
Have you ever felt that a teacher had different expectations for students from a different language background?
What role do you think language plays in STEM education? Do you think language is a particular challenge for African American students?
Have you used awareness of language variation or specific strategies to help your students? Are there any linguistic challenges that your students still face? How might you continue to help these students?
How do you think culturally and linguistically diverse students interpret STEM-related standardized test questions differently?
Participants were recruited from our STEM educator contacts throughout Maryland and Virginia, targeting the greater Baltimore (MD) and Hampton Roads and Richmond (VA) areas, where schools serve sizable populations of African American students. About 60 % (37) of our participants were from Virginia and about 40 % (23) were from Maryland.
Participants spanned content areas and grade levels, and in fact they often taught more than one grade and/or content area. For instance, one participant taught 3rd and 5th grade; another taught 10th grade Geometry and computing. This instructional breadth made it difficult to tally participants by grade or discipline but increased the likelihood that they would find the content of the workshop relevant to their teaching. All names of educators and students in this article are pseudonyms. All details that could potentially identify participants, such as their school district, grade level, etc., have been omitted or disguised to further ensure confidentiality.
As workshop designers and facilitators, we felt it was important to apply principles of culturally and linguistically supportive education and community-based research to the design and implementation of our workshops. Accordingly, within a collaborative, community-based research framework, our participants’ perspectives and goals for the workshops were built into our model. In order to gauge participants’ interests, before each workshop, we sent them a brief, confidential survey via SurveyMonkey. All 60 participants completed the pre-survey, which registered them for the workshop while collecting basic demographic data; in addition, open-ended questions were designed to give us information about participants’ background knowledge and level of interest in our workshop. Fifty-one participants (85 %) answered at least one open-ended question. Responses to questions #2, #4 and #5 are the most relevant to this article, as they shed light on what concerns K-12 STEM educators have when approaching topics related to language and culture.
Twenty-nine of our 60 participants (48.33 %) answered optional pre-survey question #2, regarding previous professional development. Echoing the findings of Guskey and Yoon (2009), 10 of those 29 participants (34.48 %) stressed their desire for professional development to give them applicable knowledge, strategies, or other “real ideas” in an active approach. Only one participant noted having received prior professional development that was culturally oriented. This educator noted that s/he had attended a three-part series, “Introduction to Cultural Proficiency, Use of Data, and Barriers to Cultural Proficiency.” While it contained “new information,” the educator wrote, it “could have used more information on direct use of Cultural Proficiency for classroom instruction. Not many examples provided on how to engage students using their culture as a vehicle for learning.”
Twenty-one of our 60 participants (35 %) answered optional pre-survey question #4, regarding students’ challenges concerning language variation. Twelve of these respondents responded with conflict and mismatch (both student-educator and student–student). Six cited literacy, including comprehending STEM jargon as well as reading for content. Three identified issues of assessment, namely test design and bias. Twenty of our 60 participants (33.33 %) also answered optional pre-survey question #5. Five of these respondents indicated interest in language mechanics: spelling, grammar, and vocabulary; communication, including texting language; specifics of language variation, including how to help students code-switch and overcome “language barriers”; and wanting to learn information to help themselves and others become more culturally competent. As one respondent wrote, “[We need] strategies that prepare teachers for dialectally diverse classrooms.”
Responses to our optional pre-survey questions #2, #4 and #5 established two main categories of interest for participants: (1) culture and communication (including conflict, mismatch, bias, stereotyping, cultural competence, culturally responsive teaching, student engagement) and (2) the language of STEM teaching and learning (including reading, grammar, vocabulary, code-switching, texting language, test design, other assessment). In other words, participants registered for our workshops wanting to learn more about how language and culture can cause challenges in the classroom but also be a bridge for understanding. Their responses to question #2 about professional development further suggested that these educators had received little to no prior training in multicultural education/culturally supportive teaching. With this information we were able to tailor the content of our workshops to participants’ needs.
Teaching about language and culture to K-12 STEM educators
Our workshops were conceptualized based on conversations with educators who felt they needed more information or confidence to work effectively with culturally and linguistically diverse students; they proceed from a framework of multicultural education and integrate sociolinguistic information into educational approaches to diversity (Mallinson et al. 2011). To adapt our general workshops to STEM-specific audiences, we included specific topics that took into account participants’ answers to our pre-survey, and we incorporated a collaborative component into the workshops themselves. During pre-workshop discussions, while eating lunch together, and throughout the workshop, we sought information from participants about their interests and encouraged them to share any questions or concerns. We incorporated this information into subsequent workshops, in order to better connect with educators’ specific goals and needs.
Our workshops covered six main topic topics. (1) Conflict between school and student culture. (2) Biases against non-standard varieties (dialects) of English and students who speak them. (3) Linguistic/cultural mismatches and student achievement. (4) Confronting standard-English texts. (5) Structural linguistic issues. These five topics are theorized to be primary cultural and linguistic mechanisms that contribute to longstanding opportunity gaps in education (Labov 2008). Our sixth topic related to application: (6) Building linguistic and cultural competence.
Linguistic and cultural mismatches in schools: communicative burdens, microaggressions, and linguistic insecurity
To address the first three topics that our workshop covered—the relationship between school culture and student culture, potential biases against students who do not match the linguistic culture of their school, and effects of linguistic and cultural mismatches on student achievement—we sought to help educators frame how they think about the complexities of culture, communication, and education within a STEM context. Because our communicative norms and expectations shape, and are shaped by, our culture, we introduced the concept of communicativeburden, following the work of Rosina Lippi-Green (2011). In a communicative exchange, if parties take on equal responsibility for understanding each other, then they share the communicative burden. But in situations where there is a perceived language barrier, the person with the so-called non-mainstream accent is often expected to do more conversational work to help the other person understand. This concept means that people with nonmainstream accents can carry more than their fair share of the communicative burden (Lippi-Green 2011).
Disproportionate conversational burdens can be particularly challenging when they involve hierarchies of age and status, such as between teachers and students. Some students may feel a duty to take on a heavier conversational burden and strive to solve communication problems with no questions asked. Others may feel shame or embarrassment. They may be offended when an educator or a peer claims, “I can’t understand you,” as they may feel that their language is being devalued and, by proxy, their identities. Negative messages about language can be experienced as linguistic microaggressions (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2014). The term microaggressions refers to everyday biases and indignities faced by members of marginalized groups that can result in damaging psychological and social consequences, such as feelings of powerlessness, a sense of inferiority, and pressure to assimilate (Sue 2010). While racial, gender, and sexual orientation microaggressions are frequently discussed, linguistic microaggressions occur as well. For instance, “I’ve never heard an intelligent person talk the way you do” is a common linguistic microaggression; it suggests that the person in question isn’t expected to be smart and implies that others with that accent aren’t thought to be smart either (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2014).
We discussed these language ideologies with our participants. Many of our participants immediately related this information to situations involving students who are English language learners/emergent bilinguals (see also Janzen 2008). We then made the parallel to students who natively speak varieties of English that are considered non-standardized, which include many African American students (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011). Although the last 100 years of linguistic research have demonstrated that language variation is a normal process, language differences are nevertheless often mistaken for deficits, errors, mistakes, or confusions; they are also the subject of much prejudice, bias, and discrimination (Labov 1972). Moreover, listeners unfortunately routinely perceive speakers of standardized English as being smarter, of a higher status, and as having more positive personality traits than speakers of nonstandardized English varieties (Lippi-Green 2011). Accordingly, in our workshops, we focused on the foundational sociolinguistic principle that language differences are normal and natural. We taught participants common elements of standardized English and “School English,” as well as the non-standardized varieties of Southern English and African American English, showing each to be a full linguistic system and not a result of language impoverishment or impairment (Labov 1972). These two varieties are highly relevant, regionally and culturally, to our participants’ predominantly African American student populations from Maryland and Virginia.
Related to the concept of microaggressions is the concept of stereotype threat, identified by Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson (1995), which we discussed in our workshops as being a significant factor that affects the achievement of African American students in STEM. According to Steele and Aronson (1995), negative social stereotypes can severely affect test takers from stigmatized groups on a psychological level. For example, conventional testing situations that include a verbal component can cause African American students to become hesitant and taciturn (Labov 1972) or perform less well than their attainment level would predict (Steele and Aronson 1995). Linguistic microaggressions, bias, stereotype threat, and solo status are not intangible; rather, they are manifested in specific linguistic acts. When shaming happens in front of other students, linguistic microaggressions can become larger classroom issues. Speakers who absorb messages that their language is wrong, incorrect, dumb, or stigmatized can experience linguistic insecurity (Labov 1972)—feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and apprehension when communicating—even from an early age. When Anne Charity (2007) studied the language patterns of 4- and 5-year-old African American children in several US cities, many of them were worried that just talking with her would somehow cause them to be held back a grade if they did not do a good job in the conversations. Whereas positive messages help students view learning as accessible and engaging, negative messages can cause or add to other school stressors.
I have [mostly African American] kids that come from very different backgrounds from myself, so when they speak, they speak very different than I do. And I was really big at correcting them, all the time. They’d be like, ‘I ain’t got my homework.’ I’d be like, ‘You mean you don’t have your homework.’ I would always do it in front of other kids, constantly, and I didn’t realize what type of effect that could have on someone. Basically it’s saying that their language isn’t the right way that they should be speaking, even though their parents speak that way and friends speak that way.
Culturally and linguistically diverse students may internalize the notion that they should suppress part of their linguistic identity to operate within mainstream culture and may feel that the culture and language of their home communities clashes with that of their classroom or school (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011). In addition, students such as Joshua who are critiqued for their language without sufficient explanation as to why and how to address the issue may become overwhelmed, confused, and discouraged. Not only do students generally not understand why their language use is being marked wrong, Ann McCormick Piestrup (1973) also found speakers who were corrected when using non-standardized English features used more, not fewer, of them over time. These students may also lose confidence in the learning process, their own abilities, their educators, and school in general (Labov 1995). They may begin to feel disconnected from education, which can affect their ideas about achievement and the opportunities they seek in life.
Cultural and linguistic variation in school language and STEM language
The fourth and fifth topics covered in our workshop involve the standardized English used in texts and on tests (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011), particularly in relation to student assessment. For many participants, our workshop was the first time they had been exposed to the idea that culture and communication are factors that can affect not only educator-student interactions, but also the teaching and learning of STEM content. As one participant wrote in a pre-survey, “People always say that math is a universal language, but sometimes if students have trouble understanding the teacher, this language is closed to them. I know this is true for me when I have a professor who is perhaps Russian or Chinese. I wonder how it is for students for whom English is not the first language when they try to learn from a person with a strong Southern or Midwestern accent.” This educator highlights a common concern among our participants: how to reconcile the common belief that STEM jargon and subject matter are more objective or universal, as opposed to the humanities or “soft” sciences, when in fact educators themselves notice cultural and linguistic differences in STEM content, teaching, and learning.
In order to illustrate the concept that STEM teaching and learning is ideologically, culturally, and linguistically situated, we taught participants about register, which refers to the different ways that language is used in different social situations and contexts. In educational settings, students are often not aware of the finer nuances of register, and they may use words and phrases that seem too informal for school (Biber and Finegan 1994). These situations are especially significant in STEM disciplines, which abound with unfamiliar and difficult content area-specific terminology and jargon (Schleppegrell 2004). Such language can be a barrier for culturally and linguistically diverse students (Wellington and Osborne 2001). Additionally, STEM educators may not explicitly teach students about contrasts in vocabulary words. Structures that contain nominalization may be difficult for students to parse, as in “The first increase is by five” (Morgan 1998) and that have high lexical density, as in, “The model rests on the localized gravitational attraction…” (Halliday and Martin 1993). The research literature on how language differences impact STEM for African-American students is limited.
In math and science, you have to learn a lot of new technical terms that aren’t necessarily a part of your everyday use. In the same way that if someone said, ‘Oh, talk in the past perfect tense,’ or something—you do it all the time, you just maybe don’t know it’s called that. I feel like math brings attention to that issue. If you don’t know a word, if it’s saying ‘find a function’ or ‘which one is a function,’ if you don’t know the definition of that word, you can’t do the problem. And so I don’t think we focus enough on the vocabulary.
Cultural differences in vocabulary can also pose difficulties, as reading passages may be based on particular regional or cultural experiences and may use seemingly “everyday” vocabulary that is unfamiliar to students who have not had those experiences. In workshops, we related this knowledge and experience to the privilege that certain students have when they enter STEM classrooms: students who come to school already speaking and writing in standardized ways and knowing the norms, conventions, and rules of School English (including STEM registers) have several advantages and privileges, whereas those who do not already know the norms and conventions of standardized English are at a disadvantage (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011). Participants therefore learned that issues related to literacy and reading fluency may be separate from STEM ability and that the challenges that their students face are more than simply jargon- or writing-based; rather, they have complex sociological, cultural, and linguistic dimensions.
As participants learned that a complex relationship between culture and language affects STEM teaching and learning in their classrooms, we also showed how the language of STEM can be taught systematically, so that educators can help balance the burden of communication for students in their classrooms. For instance, children often struggle to map numbers to words; we therefore presented a technique based on the research of Michael Ramscar, Melody Dye, Hanna Muenke Popick, and Fiona O’Donnell-McCarthy (2011), which involves changing how students are taught about numbers. To study elementary school children’s numerical sense and how it can be improved, Ramscar et al. offered training sessions that used two different sentences, “Look, there are three bears” versus “Look at the bears, there are three!” After one short session, children trained with “Look at the bears, there are three!” showed a 30 % improvement on their ability to distinguish small sets, whereas those trained with “Look, there are three bears” showed no effect. We also discussed with participants that, in early grades, students may not be aware without being taught that terms such as “solve for,” “find,” and “evaluate” may be synonyms. This concept resonated with one elementary math educator from Maryland: “There are a lot of important things that we set the foundation for in the elementary grades. Language is so important. We need to talk about wording like ‘Five more than a number is seven’ and terms like ‘more than,’ ‘less than,’ ‘same as,’ or ‘twice as many.’ Those are key things.” As this educator identified, because reading for meaning is critical and can be a challenge for her culturally and linguistically diverse students, it is important to explicitly teach contrasts in vocabulary words. Such techniques have been found to support student learning in STEM (Feasey 1998).
about structuring questions and how subtle changes in the wording of those questions could make an impact for some students in how they were able to understand the question and how they would be able to respond to that question. …[M]aybe I was not being as effective because of what I was doing. Not necessarily anything they were doing but maybe there were things that I could change with how I presented questions, how I asked questions or gave directions that would make my message clearer to them. With mathematics we all use language, whether it’s in the directions we give or the handouts we use.
As our participants discussed, language variation is often a lingering challenge for culturally and linguistically diverse students when it comes to writing and standardized assessments, even if these students are otherwise proficient or strong in STEM. Accordingly, we ended our discussion of this topic by showing specific examples from STEM assessments that are relevant to the grade levels that our participants taught, and we asked them to analyze where and how linguistic and cultural challenges might crop up for their students on these assessments.
Applications: strategies for culturally and linguistically supportive STEM classrooms
In the final segment of our workshop, we guided participants to think about sources of linguistic and cultural inequality in their classrooms or schools and how to address these issues, on individual (educator and student) as well as institutional (school) levels. The allocation of time in our workshop to discuss and work toward application was critical to our participants’ goals; as noted earlier, over one-third of our pre-survey respondents sought professional development that would give them applicable knowledge, skills, and strategies. Application was also important to us as workshop developers and leaders. Whether or not educators are able to successfully implement what they learn is a primary marker of the effectiveness of professional development (Fullan 2007). Moreover, successful implementation—that is, when educators change their behaviors and practices and see improvement in student learning—has been found to directly and effectively change educators’ own attitudes and beliefs (Fullan 2007).
To inspire our participants to think about application, we discussed two main strategies for how to encourage written and oral expression among students who speak non-standardized varieties of English (Charity Hudley and Mallinson 2011). First, to provide students with the communicative space to speak up, we taught participants about the strategy of increasing teacher wait-time in class to allow for both linguistic and content reflection. Communication is a critical pathway to participation and engagement (Emdin 2010), which is necessary for the persistence and success of African-American students in STEM (Brown 2006). But when teachers ask questions, they often connect with students who closely mirror their own ways of thinking and speaking. We thus examined through a linguistic lens the strategy of implementing a “take a minute and think” strategy in the classroom, so that students have time to plan their answers and so that educators can call on a wider variety of students (Cazden 1990). A parallel tactic is to provide students with time to linguistically “think, pair, share,” a process in which students think about the question, reach a conclusion in their heads, share ideas with a partner, and then discuss responses with the group (Lyman 1981).
There was an incident on a final exam last semester. The students were supposed to learn categories of different phyla. On one question, the teacher made a substitution. Instead of the word fungus, she used the word truffle, which is a fungus. She just wanted to change up the way the problem was written to make it more interesting. Part way through the final exam, a large number of students asked, ‘Are we supposed to know these words?’ Some of them were lengthy words, like cyanobacteria, and yes, that one you’re supposed to have learned. But a lot of students were like, ‘What’s a truffle?’ And that’s a test question worth 20 points. You could lose 20 points because you don’t know what truffle is. Science teachers should be aware that a word can make a difference, and you might not be getting a good gauge of what students know about science. It might be a really obscure word to certain students, and the whole question is based on that.
As Ashley recognized, it was not only the unfamiliar word that her colleague used, but also her cultural and social assumptions, that became barriers to accurately assessing these students.
These simple strategies—increasing wait time and being mindful of educators’ own use of language, both in conveying material and in interacting with students—are concrete practices that can have direct effects on the engagement and therefore the learning of African-American students and other students from historically underrepresented groups. Our participants were able to take these three strategies back to their classrooms and use them immediately, with their new perspective on how issues of language and culture are relevant within STEM contexts. Finally, at the close of our workshop, we encouraged participants to think about and map out ideas for how they would develop longer-term action plans for additional strategies or practices to implement in their teaching. Although a full discussion of these action plans is outside the scope of this article, a description of a vignette written by Marley appears in part 6 below.
Post-workshop data collection
To assess the relevance of our model of culturally and linguistically supportive teacher professional development, we sought to answer two main questions: First, what specific linguistic challenges are identified by K-12 STEM educators from public and independent schools in Maryland and Virginia who teach culturally and linguistically diverse students, particularly African American students? Second, how can these K-12 STEM educators integrate awareness of linguistic and cultural variation into their pedagogy and practice?
To determine how participants applied what they had learned during the workshops to their own pedagogical beliefs and practices, we collected a range of follow-up data. When seeking to evaluate complex attitudes, beliefs, knowledge, and skills, particularly in the context of teacher professional development, research methodologists recommend using combinations of complementary data collection techniques (Desimone et al. 2002). Our diverse data set included informal feedback (gathered during workshops, in conversations after class, and over email) as well as formal information collected from the pre- and post-workshop surveys, follow-up semi-structured interviews, and focus group.
After each workshop ended, we emailed participants a link to a post-workshop survey. This survey was an expanded version of one that the Anne Charity Hudley had developed for her 2009–2011 NSF Minority Postdoctoral Research Starter Grant, which helped educators report on linguistic interference in learning. Twenty-eight of our 60 participants (46.67 %) took the post-survey, which was optional. Post-surveys were also anonymous, so that participants could feel free to provide honest responses; therefore, the results from the pre-surveys are not correlated with results from the post-surveys. Responses to the post-surveys give further insight into what aspects of our workshops the participants found most applicable: how to approach laboratory investigations that require written work, how to help students interpret multiple choice style questions and word problems, and how to teach discipline-specific STEM vocabulary.
Several months after the workshops ended and post-surveys had been collected, we conducted interviews and a focus group. We selected participants based on who had shared interesting insights during workshops, demonstrating that they were thoughtful about issues of language variation and STEM education. In addition, we took into account the educators’ demographic diversity, their experience having taught diverse STEM subjects, and their availability to participate in the interviews/focus group.
We conducted 20 semi-structured interviews, lasting one to two hours each. The interviews were conducted three to nine months after workshops had ended, to give participants time to think further about linguistic and cultural challenges in STEM, integrate information they had learned into their teaching, and consider the successes and challenges of their pedagogical strategies. Our set of interview questions was broad, allowing the participant and interviewer to flexibly follow the course of the conversation and thereby maximize the interviewees’ comfort level. We also conducted a focus group with eight participants, which falls within the optimal size for encouraging active discussion and participant involvement (Morgan 1996). The focus group participants had teaching experience in biology, mathematics, and physics, ranging from elementary through high school. It was held in Maryland, was conducted by Christine Mallinson, and lasted approximately two hours.
In our analysis, we triangulated the data from the interview and focus group data and analyzed them following a grounded theory approach (Glaser 1992), in which we engaged in substantive coding—a qualitative procedure that involves first open and then selective coding procedures (Holton 2007). As such, each author began by open coding the responses to the pre- and post-workshop surveys. Two broad themes emerged from this process: culture and communication, and the language of STEM teaching and learning. The open codes within these themes consisted of: conflict, mismatch, bias, stereotyping, cultural competence, culturally responsive teaching, and student engagement; and reading, grammar, vocabulary, code-switching, texting language, test design, and other assessment. Following the initial process of open coding, we conducted a selective coding of the interview and focus group transcripts, in which codes were refined and/or collapsed as necessary to capture the dimensions of the data. We engaged in line-by-line, iterative comparison of indicators to ensure that the properties of each category had fully emerged within and across the data; the process ended when we felt that no new properties had emerged and thus theoretical saturation had been achieved (Holton 2007). Per grounded theory technique, to ascertain reliability in each author’s coding techniques, we compared how codes had been applied across segments of the transcripts, using the “constant comparison” method in which codes are inductively refined (Glaser and Strauss 1967).
“We’ve got to get everybody in the room”: infusing linguistic and cultural materials into K-12 STEM education
We start, unfortunately, at elementary schools where all that tracking begins, and so I think training is needed all the way up. It starts with the identification of a student who speaks with a non-standard variation, who’s put into Special Education as a kindergartener. And then that begins, ‘Well, I don’t know how I feel about school, because I feel wrong all day. And I don’t know how I feel about books, because they’re not like me. They don’t sound like my family. I don’t like math because I can’t figure out what the question asked me to do.’ So I think about the need for training. It’s needed by the people who make up the tests, it’s needed by the people who help students prepare for the tests. And then there really is a need for higher education STEM professors to have training in it. I think our first task is to close this gap in STEM classrooms in terms of populations, and then we’ll definitely need some training for those professors. But first we’ve got to get everybody in the room. (From an interview with Rebecca, a mid-20s White female first grade educator in Virginia public schools)
Participants who attended our workshops found language and culture to be relevant to them as STEM professionals, and their concerns about and interest in language and culture run deep. One educator wrote on a pre-survey, “As an elementary teacher, I teach all subjects. Language and culture have important considerations across my curriculum.” Another said, “I’m a computer teacher. I see every class as an English class; it’s just the content that differs.” From conceptualizing language variation as part of cultural diversity to understanding opportunity gaps in STEM, participants were adamant that attention to language and culture is critical when teaching diverse students.
When I’m preparing for the AP test, the biggest thing is, I say, ‘You just need to figure out what this question is asking. You have the skills to do it.’ And everyone is like, ‘Well, yeah, that’s any math problem.’ And I’m like, yeah, but it’s the vocabulary. So when the words say this, what is it asking you to do? And that skill was something we really focused on, up until the test. That’s that first step you have to do, and it’s all vocabulary. I feel it’s really helpful for math and science teachers, who tend to be in math and science because that’s what they liked, and possibly weren’t the biggest fans of English and reading and things like that. Even though there’s a huge science terminology bank, and the same thing for math, I think that neither of those subjects really focuses on language and vocabulary in the way we focus on it in other subjects. But I became a better teacher as a result of learning that I needed to also focus on language.
Shivonne, a 25-year-old African American female high school educator in a STEM magnet program in Maryland public schools, similarly suggested that even if STEM educators aren’t inherently interested in non-STEM material, they should be. As she put it, “Every STEM educator should make sure they educate themselves on as much as possible, because how are you going to make the connections if you’re totally oblivious?”
We do a lot of professional development now on eliminating the achievement gap but its not usually directed toward linguistics or cultural understanding. It’s more directed towards brain based learning, differentiated instruction, which is interesting because differentiated instruction directly relates to their [students’] cultural background but we’ve never—none of the professional development I’ve ever been to or been a part of have ever focused on understanding culture first.
Meanwhile, Lola, a 35-year old White female environmental science and biology educator in rural Maryland, described how she tried tackle her students’ reading challenges without training: “It’s not something I’m certified in. It’s not my specialty. So I’m doing the best I can. I’m asking reading teachers, I’m asking the reading coach to tell me things I can do, but am I doing it the best way? With as much fidelity as they need?” Even if STEM educators prioritize language, literacy, and culture, they may not have the resources to translate intentions into pedagogical realities.
A third and related challenge, which nearly every interview and focus group participant mentioned, is workload: even if training on language and culture exists and is available to K-12 STEM educators, they may still feel that there is not enough time to learn such additional material or enough space in their curriculum to incorporate it. As Ashley, a mid-20s White female high school biology educator in Maryland public schools, said during the focus group, “[Most educators like me] would say we don’t have time to teach that because we’re teaching the basics. … There’s not enough time to do things other than what you already have scheduled and what you need to convey to these students for standardized tests.” She continued, “I also think there is a general sentiment, ‘It’s not my problem.’ It’s really easy to point the finger and say the teacher before you should have taken care of that problem.” Although Ashley felt that, given the scarcity of time and resources, it would be difficult to “squeeze in a formal course on language, or even a unit” into teacher training, she offered that it should at least be possible for STEM educators to “keep in mind that a linguistic detail could completely derail a student, and they won’t be able to tell what [students] really know about science based on that.” In response to Ashley, another focus group participant—Sonya, a mid-30s White female math teacher in a public Maryland high school—concurred, “The biggest challenge is that so many kids read on a 3rd grade level in 12th grade. As a math teacher, you always expect English teachers to fix that somehow. … It’s hard to even think about it being our responsibility to teach that.” As Mary Ehrenworth and Vicki Vinton (2005) similarly identified, “There are many high school teachers who look at basic language issues in their students and say to themselves, ‘I would never teach that lesson in secondary school—students should have had that lesson in second grade!’” (p. 20).
Outside of a culturally and linguistically supportive framework, it is far too easy to view instruction relating to reading, literacy, writing, and communication as being beyond the purview of a STEM educator’s job—even as STEM educators routinely assess students formally and informally on linguistic aspects in ways that can lead to inconsistency in expectations and evaluations. In contrast, while our educators recognized the pervasiveness of and in many cases sympathized with the “not my job/not my problem” mentality, their perspectives on teaching reflected a key ideological difference: rather than offloading the communicative burden, they instead knew they need to take a comprehensive approach to helping culturally and linguistically diverse students succeed. They further knew that this approach depends upon helping students build on what they already know, without devaluing it, in order to learn new concepts.
Perhaps for this reason, some educators saw the inherent interdisciplinarity of culturally and linguistically supportive STEM education not as a content area stumbling block or a workload challenge, but as an opportunity to find collaborative solutions. On post-surveys, one educator noted that the language classes in her school could be viewed as an asset for educators across content areas: “We offer Spanish, French, German, and in the last few years Chinese and Arabic. I believe the last two are EXTREMELY important for those in STEM fields who may want to enter national security fields as well as participate in the global economy.” As this educator shared, building connections between foreign language faculty and STEM faculty would be a good place to start, when trying to design professional development on language diversity. Similarly, Mira, the 35-year old Asian American female high school math teacher in Maryland, pointed out in an interview that bringing teachers together could help solve linguistic and cultural gaps in STEM professional development. She described: “I don’t feel like I should have to be going through administrative internship and have to review someone and randomly choose my friend who teaches foreign language, for that to be the first time I see, ‘Oh! This is how you do a vocab review!’ I would like to see that shared more. Everybody share one thing that they do to build vocabulary or something like that.” Susan, an early 20s White first-year math teacher in Virginia, elaborated, “I think a school would be made a lot stronger if teachers were treating the kids consistently, so that it isn’t just in STEM classes that we’re being respectful of this sort of thing. We need a full school collaboration instead of just subjectized.” Indeed, research has noted the success of interdisciplinary partnerships that connect educators from the humanities/arts with those in STEM, in K-12 (e.g., Sunstein et al. 2012) and in higher education (e.g., Busch-Vishniac and Jarosz 2007).
The minute anyone starts talking about language differences based on culture or background, they immediately start going, ‘Ugh, race.’ You can’t discuss race [in many schools], and I’ve gotten frustrated a time or two with colleagues, suffice it to say. I say, to ignore race is wrong too. You can’t pretend it’s not there. But I had one person in particular say to me, ‘Well if you start talking about language, even going into language acquisition and background and family and how they talk at home, then you’re getting into personal issues that you shouldn’t be going into. You need to teach them how to speak at school with academic language.’
Students notice. They’re looking around at each other, and in 5th grade, they’re creating their identities. And they’re realizing, you know, the differences and almost the hierarchies in life. I had a student come to me, he was a very quiet Latino male, he comes up to me and he goes, ‘Miss F… did you ever notice that during math, all the white kids leave?’ And I said, ‘Well, no.’ And he goes, ‘No, Miss F. There’s something going on.’ And I go, ‘Okay, well what do you think it is?’ And he said, ‘They’re all so much smarter, they have to take them out.’ [Sigh] This was like, the second week of school. And it was like a dagger in my heart, because [at my old school], I taught gifted, and it was very diverse.
Our school social worker came in, he came in and did team building with my class during science for a whole month. He came in twice a week. And he set the groups. It’s so funny ‘cause he started by letting them choose their groups. He would say, ‘Okay, I want half the class over here, half the class over here.’ All my gifted students went over there, all my non-gifted went over there… And all the gifted kids were socially after school, on the weekends, they were friends. It had a snowball effect in my room. And by the end of the year, it was hard because I never did find that niche of how to make it- there were too many divisions and too many dividers that we put in as adults. We gave them those classifications, we separated them, we told them you’re not smart enough for this class and you’re too smart for this class.
From the second nine weeks on, I started equipping those [non-gifted] kids. During language arts and math when the gifted kids weren’t in there, we talked about, okay, you have a voice, you have opinions. Even if an answer is not the textbook answer, that doesn’t make it a wrong answer, that just means it’s more for us to discuss. So I built their confidence as much as I possibly could when the gifted kids weren’t in the room, and then when we were all mixed, you know, I became quite a tyrant during science. Like, no one spoke unless I called on them. And that really hit it on the head, because for first nine weeks they [the gifted kids] had been running science. I had felt like I wasn’t even running science, I was like, what’s going on?
As Allison notes, students do not ignore racial, cultural, and linguistic differences, and neither should educators or school systems. In a culturally and linguistically supportive framework, careful attention must be paid to the specifics of curriculum, classroom, and teaching, so that differences are not viewed as deficits, sensitive topics are not simply ignored, and the outcomes of lower expectations, labeling, and tracking do not falsely govern students’ opportunities.
Despite the barriers and challenges that can make it difficult for educators to integrate new information into their pedagogy, we close by reflecting on one participant in particular—Marley, a mid-20s White public middle school science teacher in Virginia, also quoted earlier in this article—who was inspired by what she learned during our workshop about the value of language and culture to change how she taught culturally and linguistically diverse students. Marley was an unusual participant in the extensive degree to which she applied the insights and information she learned from our workshop. Indeed, she connected so profoundly with the material we presented that, after our workshop ended, she drafted new goals for her teaching, with the goal of redesigning her curriculum to more fully engage her African American student population in the science content she teaches. When Marley re-contacted us after the workshop to share how she had restructured her teaching, we invited her to write a vignette to share what she learned from our workshop and how she implemented a range of strategies—both ones we had shared and ones she developed—in her classroom. We have provided the lengthy vignette in full on our website, http://charityhudleymallinson.com/resources/stem/. In the vignette, Marley lays out her comprehensive strategy in which she aims to balance the burden of communication in her STEM classrooms. She writes that she now strives to connect more closely with her majority African American student population, clearly explain her linguistic expectations, and avoid correcting any use of non-standardized English in front of other students or without explanation. Marley also now focuses on language in her science teaching and student assessment, by directly teaching key vocabulary to make terminology and jargon more accessible and by designing study tools to help students practice the language of standardized tests. Finally, Marley explains how she redesigned her labs to make the content more culturally relevant to her students. As she learned in our workshop, when culturally relevant examples and scenarios are incorporated into educational materials, student engagement increases (Delpit 2012), as does student learning (Eglash et al. 2013). Following these models, Marley sought input on which topics students find most interesting and found that cultural buy-in helped promote student engagement with science labs. She concludes her vignette with a plan to implement these strategies in her teaching and to share these ideas and tools with educators at her school. Marley’s experience reveals the depth to which culturally and linguistically supportive professional development training can directly, broadly, and deeply impact an educator’s STEM pedagogy and practice. Through follow-up with educators such as Marley, scholars can thereby learn which parts of professional development educators find most applicable and most sustainable in their practice.
Our workshops were designed to build educators’ cultural and linguistic competence for working with traditionally underserved students; we also gathered information about how educators view the relevance of language, communication, and culture to STEM teaching and learning. Participants came to these workshops with the prior insight that language, communication, and culture mattered to STEM education. Within that framework, they sought deeper information about specific sociocultural and sociolinguistic dimensions involved in the education of culturally and linguistically diverse students, particularly African American students, in STEM.
In similar perspective to Bianchini et al. (2002), Bryan (2003), and Bianchini and Cavazos (2007), we have analyzed the merit of connectivist-type approaches to K-12 STEM professional development in which the perspectives and identities of educators themselves are taken into account and in which issues of language, culture, and social justice are centrally positioned. In our model of culturally and linguistically supportive STEM professional development, as educators develop robust cultural and linguistic competence, they learn to view students’ rich and varied identities not as a deficit but as a resource. With this knowledge, educators are prepared to support and incorporate the backgrounds of students who speak non-standardized varieties of English, who also are typically members of groups that are historically underserved in education, as part of giving students the social support and academic tools to succeed.
Critically, our model relies on educators who want to participate and learn. The cultural norms of politeness that govern social situations in the Southern region of the United States, particularly among female teachers, combined with the degree of research permissions required, might have hindered dissent from being raised in our workshops, interviews, and focus groups. Nevertheless, the insights from this study are important as we develop materials for those who want to learn more. An additional challenge is to disseminate information about cultural and linguistic variation to all educators, not just those who seek out extra information via a research workshop. We have taken the first step through an initiative with the Virginia Department of Education, which has approved a set of video modules based on our workshops (Charity Hudley 2015) that can be used in more widespread school-based professional development.
To bridge linguistic and cultural gaps as part of mitigating structural inequalities and closing opportunity/achievement gaps in US. STEM education, models that focus primarily on student performance are not enough. Educators themselves must also develop their repertoire of tools for serving all students, especially those from traditionally underserved groups, so that they can best educate and advocate for them. Though participants in this study enumerated several challenges to meeting this need, they also identified opportunities for collaborative solutions that draw upon teacher expertise and are integrated with curricula across content areas. With future research into how models of STEM professional development intersect with models of culturally and linguistically supportive teaching, scholars and practitioners can continue to create relevant professional development opportunities that advance the goal of promoting STEM educational equity for culturally and linguistically diverse students.
This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant #1050938/1051056. Anne also recognizes the support of the National Science Foundation Grant #0930522, the US Department of Education Teachers for a Competitive Tomorrow Program at the College of William & Mary, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs Preparing Inclusive Educators Program Improvement Grant #H325T090009, the State Council of Higher Education in Virginia SURN Visible Teaching, Assessment, Learning, and Leading (VTALL) Grants (2011–2015), and the Community Studies Professorship at the College of William and Mary. Christine further acknowledges the UMBC Dresher Center Summer Faculty Research Fellowship (2013–2014), the UMBC Special Research Assistantship/Initiative Support (2010–2011), and the UMBC Alex Brown Center for Entrepreneurship Course Initiative Grant (2008). We thank all of the educators who participated in our professional development workshops, as well as our current and former students Erin L. Berry, Merci Best, Rachel Boag, Jerome Carter, May F. Chung, Inte’a DeShields, Adryan Flores, Aureanna Hakenson, Heather Hoskins, Mark Jamias, Rita J. Turner, Daniel Villarreal, and Adom Whitaker for their invaluable research assistance.
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