For undergraduate students in the College of Education’s Urban Education Cohort, culturally relevant and student-centered teaching has proven effective in their classrooms, and inspirational on a national scale. Each student in the Urban Education Cohort has an opportunity to create an action research project and test culturally relevant instructional techniques. This year, Joyce Brooks, Madison Bruce, Marissa McCallum and Brynnan Frye presented their findings at February’s National Association of Professional Development Schools Conference — a rare opportunity for pre-service teachers. The four shared their experience attending the conference, highlights from their research and how they hope to continue their research after graduation.
For Brooks, the Urban Education Cohort was not her first introduction to the profound effects of culturally relevant teaching. Her father was employed in the military, and she spent much of her childhood moving regularly, settling in Hawaii for her formative years.
“From kindergarten through second grade, I was in Hawaii,” Brooks says. “My teacher was a male, which was unique for our kindergarten class. He made us portfolios for our kindergarten graduation documenting our year. I recently spent some time going through it and realized he gave us so many broad experiences from attending the Hawaiian Symphony, meeting a group of Japanese educators and even having a Chinese dragon come to our school! I think introducing us to all these cultures really made a difference on how I see the world.”
Brooks vividly remembers her “100 Days Project” where students document the 100th day of school in creative ways. She chose to make a rainbow out of her barrettes. Her project exemplified her culture and showed her colorful personality. She hopes to recreate these experiences in her future classroom.
“I’ve always attended diverse schools and been encouraged to be respectful of others’ cultures,” Brooks says. “I’ve had teachers that encouraged me to be who I am. I remember my third-grade teacher came to my birthday party and brought me a book with a message in it encouraging me to accomplish my goals. I want to be that kind of educator.”
Brooks’ action research project was inspired by an app she has on her phone. The app sends multiple affirmations throughout the day encouraging Brooks to accomplish her goals and be strong. She sought to create affirmations that would make a difference in the kindergarten classroom where she was completing her student teaching. She wrote morning and afternoon affirmations that the students recite together with matching motion cues.
Her morning affirmation states,
“These hands are your hands. These hands are my hands. From milky cream to dark tan, so, let's all love each other, like sister, like brother, who may look different in the colors that we see, but there's so much more to you and me.”
Brooks was amazed at the responses students as young as four shared. They realized that the affirmation encouraged them to value one another, work together and appreciate their differences.
“Even though this semester I am in a different classroom, I’m hearing from my coaching teacher that the students still want to say the daily affirmations.” Brooks says. “She will be having them pack up and they will all remind her to say it!”
Brooks’ words to the affirmation were inspired by what she learned in the Urban Education Cohort. Brooks learned about the importance of rituals in classroom management and how intentional practices can positively impact students’ learning. She wanted to incorporate this ritual into the school day that prepared students to enter the classroom and send them home with positive reinforcements. After her presentation at the NAPDS conference, she realized ways she could further the effectiveness of affirmations in her future classroom.
“I want to explore having my students assist in writing the affirmations,” Brooks says. “When students become part of the process, they increase their ownership and participation. I volunteer with the Boys and Girls Club after school, and I have written a more playful version for that group.”
While Brooks was initially nervous about presenting to experienced educators, she practiced her affirmations on herself to inspire self-confidence. Brooks ended her presentation by having the audience participate in their own affirmation, an experience she will never forget.
Madison Bruce grew up in Travelers Rest, South Carolina. She always aspired to be an educator and hopes to return to her hometown after graduation to reinvest in students like herself. She was unaware of the Urban Education Cohort going into her junior year, but was invited to learn more by one of her professors. She now sees the experience as pivotal on her path to a career in education.
“I’ve learned how important culturally relevant teaching is to classroom success,” Bruce says. “My favorite teachers growing up took the time to build a rapport with me and cultivate those strong relationships. I want to go back and impact my hometown and the people who raised me — completing the circle of education. It is important to me to learn about my future students’ communities and families, and it is something I want to embrace in my classroom.”
In their student teaching roles, the Urban Education Cohort encourages students like Bruce to begin practices they will use in their future classrooms. The cohort meets together to discuss topics from their classes and how they can adapt to boost their students’ success.
“I noticed in my pre-kindergarten class that there were not many books featuring minority students,” Bruce says. “Even though my class was mostly minority students, my students did not have access to mirrors of themselves. I wanted to explore what it would look like to embrace minority excellence and beauty.”
During her classroom observations, Bruce noticed that many of her students struggled with “I can’t” language and negative inner critics. She was curious about how she could change those inner narratives. Bruce knew that these attitudes would be devastating to the future learning careers of these students if they did not gain confidence at the age of four.
“I began introducing stories of people doing great things,” Bruce says. “I would have the students refer to themselves as mathematicians, scientists, politicians and teachers. I began to see changes in their attitudes after we changed the language. The students would be more willing to help one another and more eager to try new things. It was a change in the whole dynamic of the classroom and what they were saying out loud about themselves.”
It was after these findings that Bruce’s cohort leader encouraged their whole group to submit a proposal for NAPDS. Their professor was confident in each of them as student-leaders and wanted them to have an opportunity to share their research with a broader audience.
“Presenting to other educators felt really good,” Bruce says. “Our audience was engaged and wanted to learn about our research projects. Many were impressed that we were engaging in this type of work as pre-service teachers. We even were approached by an educator who wanted to collaborate with us on a book!”
Even though the conference was meant to stretch the students professionally, they enjoyed spending time with one another in Chicago and growing their friendships. Bruce encourages other students to engage with their professors and participate in research projects in their undergraduate careers.
“You only have four short years to get your education,” Bruce says. “The Urban Education Cohort has opened my eyes to so many relevant practices. Every classroom we encounter is so diverse now. It is important to learn how to build relationships with your students, their families and the community. My research did not feel like work to me because I was passionate.”
Bruce shares that presenting at the NAPDS conference grew her confidence as an educator, making her feel stronger professionally.
“Many people don’t see teaching as being a profession” Bruce says. “I think it is so important to recognize that we are doing really important work through our research and as members of the Urban Education Cohort. This experience really put a stamp on my community seeing me as a professional and not just as a teacher.”
Brynnan Frye is the daughter of two South Carolina alumni and is a senior Early Childhood Education student. Attending the university was an easy decision for her, as was her decision to join the Urban Education Cohort.
“It has been the best decision I could have made for myself,” Frye says. “It has taught me so much about being an educator and helped me discover the kind of educator I want to be for myself and more importantly, for my students.”
Frye was excited to be able to attend the conference and was honored to have the opportunity to present her research to a large group of distinguished educators, administrators and professionals.
“Attending the conference was absolutely amazing,” Frye says. “Getting to present was the cherry on top! I feel so lucky to have access to such an incredible program and to have access to these experiences. While we were only at the conference a few days, I learned practices that I will carry throughout my teaching career.”
Frye’s action research project studied the benefits of including culturally relevant topics in interactive read-alouds and group discussions. Frye separated students into different groups based on their reading levels. She built sets of books highlighting subjects of protests, religion and bilingualism. She then had the students read aloud to one another and gauged their attitudes toward the topics before and after the discussions.
“I was amazed at what I found with just three weeks of implementation,” Frye says. “The students learned so much about culture, protests, diversity, justice, linguicism and religion. I can only imagine the progress and learning that would take place if this was incorporated daily throughout their school experience.”
Though she is still a pre-service educator, Frye felt well-prepared by her time in the College of Education to participate in a meaningful way at the conference. Frye was encouraged by being surrounded by like-minded educators from across the nation.
“My professors have prepared me for all types of interactions within the education world,” Frye says. “Because my own professors used culturally relevant teaching in their classrooms, I felt welcomed and really connected to them. I think the best part of the experience was being surrounded by like-minded individuals and educators who care so much for our students. I also loved that every session, lunch, or event that I walked into I knew I would learn something!”
Frye plans to continue her research in her own classroom. She hopes to expand the topics she can share with her students and provide opportunities for her students to see themselves in their learning.
Marissa McCallum lived in Germany, North Carolina and Arizona before settling in South Carolina. Her experiences have undoubtedly shaped how she sees herself and her future students. She knows how important a solid foundation is to a young child — an idea that initially drew her to the Urban Education Cohort.
“I chose to major in Early Childhood Education because I know those years are so important developmentally,” McCallum says. “I believe I can make the greatest difference in those moments. I chose to be a part of the Urban Cohort for similar reasons, I wanted to make a difference and the cohort provides interns with the research and knowledge to do just that.”
McCallum’s experience at the conference solidified her goals as an educator and validated her research ideas to fellow professionals. The experience also gave her a sense of solidarity among other educators working towards the same goals.
“It was a great feeling being able to share research that I’m passionate about with others who are willing to learn and are trying to implement similar strategies into their teaching,” McCallum says.
McCallum used her internship to explore the multilingual learners’ experience in reading and writing. She hypothesized that using multilingual texts would encourage her students to engage with their lessons in a positive way. She asked three bilingual students to participate in her project. The students read and wrote about four different books. The first book was written strictly in English, while the other three included Spanish and English vocabularies.
“When I read the English-specific text, my students were not drawn to the story, and you could see in their writing samples that they had minimal connections to it,” McCallum says. “In the three texts that featured Spanish and English languages, my students were more engaged in the conversations, had better quality writing samples and were excited to read with me!”
McCallum emphasizes that while the students had little exposure to reading in Spanish in the classroom previously, their attitudes embraced the opportunity.
“The students were more willing to try with the Spanish words, repeatedly reading until they got it right,” McCallum says. “It was a really big deal to see this shift because the students often gave up when they stumbled on English vocabulary.”
McCallum echoed the sentiment of her fellow cohort members that it is imperative for students to have representation in their learning process. The research findings did not surprise her. The cohort experience not only gave her confidence in classroom problem solving, it also taught her how to professionally assert herself.
“In our cohort meetings, we’ve discussed how we can represent ourselves professionally on our own terms,” McCallum says. “One of the ideas presented was the differing standards of professional hair and dress for African Americans. Many African Americans in the workplace feel the need to straighten their hair to fit the workplace standards. I wear my hear in its natural state because I know the quality of my work and character determine my level of professionalism.”
In the future, McCallum hopes to expand her research over a longer time period. She also seeks to discover manageable ways for educators with diverse students to implement culturally relevant teaching strategies.
“During my NAPDS presentation, I emphasized teachers don’t need to learn a whole new language to be effective with their students,” McCallum says. “Small changes like diversifying reading materials can make all the difference to students struggling to make connections.”
About the College of Education’s Urban Education Cohort:
During their junior and senior years, early childhood education majors are grouped into cohorts of approximately 25 students each. One cohort is designated as the Urban Education Cohort (also known as the "Urban Cohort" or the "UC"). This cohort develops teacher leaders with expertise in the early childhood curriculum, instruction and assessment through an in-depth focus on equity issues such as race, ethnicity, language diversity, sexual orientation and gender identification, as well as a particular emphasis on countering racial bias in and out of schools.