Start Early. Start well.

March 04, 2016

Conference Examines Strategies for Teaching Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Children

Omaha, Neb. — Reaching out to culturally diverse children was the focus of a daylong professional development institute hosted March 2 by the Buffett Early Childhood Institute.

Tonia Durden, assistant professor in Child, Youth and Family Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spoke about key research and strategies for responding to children’s cultural and linguistic backgrounds in order to maximize their learning.

She was quick to involve the nearly 200 teachers, caregivers, and other early childhood professionals gathered at the Salvation Army Kroc Center Omaha for the second institute in the Superintendents’ Early Childhood Plan series for 2015-16, peppering her keynote address with call-and-response exercises that were in the spirit of the diversity theme. “Casserian Engeri” is a traditional greeting among the Masai people in Africa. It means “And how are the children?” She said the standard response is, “All the children are well.”

Maybe we should ask this question several times a day as educators, she said: “And how are the children?”


Durden said educators need to create safe environments for culturally and linguistically diverse children that value the knowledge they bring with them. 

Is that happening in Nebraska classrooms? Durden noted the slogan on the state flag: Equality before the law, and the road signs that declare “Nebraska, the good life.” She also mentioned the Buffett Institute’s mission of making Nebraska the best place in the nation to be a baby.

And so, “How are the children?” she asked. Illustrating the hill that diverse children have to climb, Durden noted the index of race and opportunity overall score, listed in the 2015 Kids Count in Nebraska Report: White (non-Hispanic) 89, Asian 79, 2-plus races 63, Hispanic 55, Black 31, American Indian 24. The index of race and opportunity comprises 13 indicators of future success, including health, education, economic stability, child welfare, and juvenile justice indicators.

Durden said there are at least 25 years of research into culturally relevant teaching, “Twenty-five years of what works—we just have to have the will to do it.”

She said educator Gloria Ladson-Billings defines culturally relevant teaching as “pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impact knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

The principles of culturally relevant pedagogy include:

  • Identity and achievement (identity development, cultural heritage, multiple perspectives, affirmation of diversity, public validation of home-community cultures)
  • Student-teacher relationships (caring, relationships, interaction, classroom atmosphere)
  • Equity and excellence (incorporating multicultural curriculum content, equal access, high expectations for all)
  • Developmental appropriateness (learning and teaching styles, cultural variation in psychological needs—motivation, morale, engagement, collaboration)
  • Teaching the whole child (skill development in cultural context; bridge home, school, and community; learning outcomes; supportive learning community; empower students)

The important thing educators need to take with them, she said, “is a belief that our children, no matter what neighborhood they come from, can be successful.”
Reading specialist Jane Fleming led a session that took a closer look at the books being used in the classroom. Fleming, who has more than 20 years’ experience working in urban public schools in Chicago, St. Louis, and Washington, D.C., is co-founder and director of KIDS LIKE US, a nonprofit organization dedicated to research, professional development, and advocacy around teaching with culturally relevant texts.

Fleming said books can be like windows—giving readers a peek into things outside their experience—or like mirrors—which reflect readers’ lives and experiences. Those “mirrors” are culturally relevant texts.

Fleming said research suggests that access to culturally relevant texts, or “mirrors,” can have important effects on young children’s language and literacy development.

She said she’s not urging that educators fill their library shelves with mirrors, just that they consider the balance of mirrors and windows.

Fleming’s work took her to Austin, a predominantly African American neighborhood on the west side of Chicago. She asked the educators in the room to “imagine you’re a 4-year-old in Austin, you’re about to enter school. Think about how you may be feeling as that little kid starting school.”

She said the teacher might be wise to offer the book “Hot City” to her class. “Imagine you turn the page and right there is your block,” the pictures showing the buses, streets, apartment buildings and other things that surround the Austin children every day. Kids can bring their own experience to bear as they read. “If I’m a 4-year-old on the west side of Chicago, I can tell this story,” she said.

As children learn to read, they move from listening to oral retelling to relating speech to print—a tall order. “It probably helps if some of the words in my oral language do show up on that page,” she said.

Culturally relevant literature also has been shown to increase family involvement and improve young readers’ academic self-concept, she said, so kids feel “I am a capable learner; I can do well here.”

Culturally relevant texts can help reduce cognitive overload, she said, saying there’s lots and lots for kids to think about as they read, analyzing and synthesizing information. “For novice readers, there’s a lot of moving parts.”

Culturally relevant texts aren’t easier or at a lower reading level—“we’re not trying to water this down,” she said—they merely are easier for kids to relate to. 

“It’s our responsibility to think about what makes sense,” she said, urging educators to think about cultural relevance in their settings.

Fleming brought piles of books for people to page through, and she left educators with some resources for finding high-quality multicultural literature, listing publishers, distributors, and other groups including KIDS LIKE US that compile lists of multicultural books.

“We need more books that reflect who is in the classroom,” she said.

Other speakers at the event were Nicky Clark and Beth Sechrest with Heartland Family Service in Omaha; Melissa Wolken, dual-language coordinator at Gomez Heritage Elementary, Omaha Public Schools; and Janette Merkel, preschool – third grade program specialist at the Buffett Institute.


The third and final institute in the 2015-16 series is scheduled for May 13 at the Scott Conference Center, on the University of Nebraska Omaha’s south campus.

The May 13 event is entitled “Family Partnerships for Whole Child Development and Learning.” The keynote speaker will be Portia Kennel, who is senior vice president at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, a Chicago-based nonprofit that focuses on helping children from birth to age 5, and also is a senior advisor to the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. Her presentation is titled “Unlocking the Possibilities of Authentic Partnership With Families.”

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