Assistant prof. talks cultural awareness in schools

By: Nilo Exar, Assistant News Editor

Jessica Shiller, an assistant professor of education for instructional leadership in the College of Education, spoke in Cook Library Wednesday about her new book, “The New Reality for Suburban Schools: How Suburban Schools Are Struggling with Low-Income Students and Students of Color in Their Schools.”

In her research, Shiller focused on three schools in suburban areas.  Each school had a varying degree of success in teaching their students of color and low-income students.

One school, which Shiller referred to as “Lanfield,” had a principal who recognized that there was a problem with students of color not being able to showcase their culture in a curriculum geared towards white students in a traditional classroom setting.

However, in this school, the principal said that there was no room in the curriculum to focus on those students’ cultures, a view that many teachers echo because of the lack of time to teach a mandated curriculum and how squeezed teachers’ lesson plans are.

Shiller called on local teachers to be brave and step outside the box and try to prove that teachers can incorporate more culturally-aware lessons in the plans.

“It’s such a great idea and theory, but it has to start so high up in the state and county level that it would be a while before there were any changes, especially in the suburban schools,” Department of Elementary Education adjunct Mandy Dishon said. “I don’t think they feel the need to change as much as an urban school would.”

“I’m not trying to encourage anyone to lose their job, but we need more advocates out there,” Shiller said.

Shiller said that there is a disconnect between teachers and families. She said that if teachers knew the families whose children they were teaching, they would better understand the family’s situation and background and the lesson plan would fall into place.

The racial divide also comes into play here, as Lanfield is a school with a more homogenous teaching staff and more racially heterogeneous student body, Shiller said.

“Oakwood,” a school Shiller called “culturally responsive,” had a community atmosphere that was not present in Lanfield.  Teachers did not act as if they were policing students, reprimanding their every wrong action, but rather were, as Shiller called it, “warm demanders.”

To the students, Shiller described this as teachers who “care enough about me to believe and expect the best of me,” not just teachers who expect high marks on standardized tests.

In the “Oakwood,” school, the teaching staff also better represented and reflected the student body, which helped students better connect with their teachers. Shiller used the example of an African-American teacher being able to work real-life examples and experiences into lectures to engage African-American students in a way that a white teacher could not do.

Shiller provided the example of the Urban Academy, a school in New York where students lead classroom discussions and where teachers entrust them much of the responsibilities that are traditionally given to teachers.  Shiller said this type of “outside the box” thinking is required in order to bring about the change that her talk was centered around.

Shiller said Towson students looking to go into the education field should look at “alternative school models… and to be an advocate for kids and get into the profession because they care about students and not for some other reason.”

“If Towson graduates go out there and advocate for schools that meet the needs of low-income kids and kids of color, then we’re doing great,” Shiller said. “That’s a whole group of people pushing back on school systems in Maryland.”

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