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Professor advocates for methods to fight linguicism, produce more empathetic teachers

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

LAWRENCE — Racism is not the only issue educators need to consider in classrooms that are growing ever more diverse. Linguicism, or prejudice based on a person’s native language or dialect, is also a serious issue in the United States, and a University of Kansas professor advocates for use of counterstorytelling as a way to engage students in challenging linguicism and recognizing the interrelationship between race and language, while developing more empathetic and critical-minded future teachers.

Hyesun Cho, assistant professor of curriculum and teaching, has authored an article detailing her experiences working with language minority pre-service teachers and encouraging students to share their experiences of racism and linguicism in higher education. Cho was an instructor at the Careers in Language Education and Academic Renewal, a federally funded program in Hawaii designed to prepare language minority students to become bilingual teachers in that state. Cho and her co-teacher had quite different experiences with their students.

“We found they had different responses to our questions depending on which of us was asking about race,” Cho said. “We thought it would be interesting to find out how they responded to other critical questions on education based on the background of the instructor who was asking those questions.”

The language minority students identified personally with Cho, a native of Korea who learned English as a second language and did not hesitate to contest racism and linguicism when she was leading discussion. On the other hand, the students viewed the co-teacher, a white woman who learned Spanish as a second language, as more of an authority figure or someone they could ask about teaching English, but not necessarily challenge “white privilege” despite her conscious effort.

The teachers employed counterstorytelling as a teaching method to question tacit assumptions of power relations inherent in social structures with the class. They analyzed how counterstorytelling was involved throughout the program via class transcripts, interviews and weekly online class postings. They found that when given an opportunity to share their stories, language minority teachers openly shared experiences of linguicism and being shut out of classroom discussions and experiences in their undergraduate studies. The article was published in the journal Race Ethnicity and Education.

Both teachers shared personal stories of their own as well. Student responses, as well as their inquiries about the teachers’ experiences, differed widely depending on which teacher initiated the conversation. Again, language minority students identified personally more closely with Cho, but they defended their white teachers and offered praise for their helpfulness and open mindedness.

The use of counterstorytelling allowed the students to voice their own experiences and struggles with linguicism, often overlooked in education and society. It also allowed students to learn not only from their instructors, but from one another, and provided an avenue to turn their experiences into racially conscious teaching strategies. That point is significant, Cho said, as classrooms are exceedingly more diverse. When they become teachers, they almost certainly will work with diverse populations, including students whose first language or dialect is not Standard English.

“You can still have empathy without sameness,” Cho said. “Teachers will be working with heterogeneous groups of people, and we need to push students to think outside of their comfort zones. You have to accept that, as part of the process, there might be some frustration, discomfort or even anger. But if you build rapport with your students first and have mutual respect, counterstorytelling can be very effective.”

There have been calls for several years to increase diversity among teacher preparation faculty, and it has been well-documented that language minorities are underrepresented among teacher education faculty in the United States. While increasing diversity would indeed help, Cho argues using pedagogical approaches such as counterstorytelling can help all educators better reach their students, provide them with equal learning opportunities and ultimately prepare teachers who can reach the diverse students in their own classrooms.

“Teaching is not just about delivering content,” Cho said. “It’s about understanding who your students are and finding meaningful ways to reach them through empathetic engagement.”

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