Home / Articles Posted by M. Yvonne Taylor

Discussion during APA Conference

In July, the College of Education’s Educational Psychology Department hosted the 5thBiennial American Psychological Association Division 45 Society for the Psychological Study of Culture, Ethnicity, and Race Research Conference. It is the only psychology conference that focuses entirely on culture, ethnicity, and race and the biases present because of these factors.

“In the current climate, it is imperative now more than ever that psychological research is utilized to help communities of color address these current issues related to immigration and the increase of racial tensions,” said Professor Kevin Cokley, who co-coordinated the conference with fellow College of Education Associate Professor Germine Awad.

Interdisciplinary Collaborations Help Address Complex Problems

The pre-conference opened with a panel presentation and discussion, Fostering Effective and Impactful Interdisciplinary Collaborations. College of Education Assistant Professor Sarah Kate Bearman, a clinical child psychologist, presented.

Bearman’s research focuses on effective interventions for underserved children and their families. She explained how her work within a transdisciplinary space—which involves basic science, translational and intervention research, as well as organizational science, interaction with doctors, nurses, care givers, and health communicators—leads to better outcomes.

“The best way to solve complex social and health problems,” said Bearman, “is a participatory team science framework, which is a collaborative effort.”

This interdisciplinary approach helps her create and implement culturally responsive health care interventions for children and families, such as an e-health parenting intervention that can be delivered during routine well-child visits in pediatric primary care clinics. Bearman stressed that team science and community-based participatory research involves continual input from the community. “The research is done with the participants, rather than on them.”

Racial Biases Create Health Disparities

Keynote speaker Lonnie Snowden kicked off the conference. Currently a professor at University of California, Berkeley, he teaches in the Health Policy and Management program in the School of Public Health.

In his address, The Affordable Care Act (ACA), Racial Bias, and Behavioral Healthcare for African Americans, Snowden discussed how policy has impacted ACA expansion, increased access to and quality of behavioral healthcare for minorities, and how biases and stereotypes have negatively impacted Medicaid expansions.

The current combination of biases, both implicit and explicit, and stereotypes surrounding African-Americans and Medicaid recipients has created the concept of the “undeserving poor,” those who supposedly do not deserve healthcare Keynote Speaker Lonnie Snowdencoverage due to their income, race, employment status, or a variety of other factors, said Snowden.

He explained how the concept of the undeserving poor and misconceptions about Medicaid participants has created consequences for public health, healthcare delivery, and employment. This merging of stereotypes has exasperated underlying racial biases in healthcare policies and has led to coverage gaps.

Snowden encouraged psychologists to increase their roles in policy, stating that “what happens in policy creation and implementation can have either a positive or negative impact on people’s lives. The things that we study effect a lot of people, they matter.”

Psychologists of Color and Public Policy

In addition to presentations of findings and networking for practitioners, researchers and students, a plenary panel presented Using Psychology to Impact Public Policy: The Role of Psychologists of Color.

Rice Academy Affiliate Fellow Luz Garcini discussed how her background as a 16-year-old undocumented immigrant impacts her research. She shared with the audience how she frames the issues surrounding undocumented immigrants in terms that can affect public policy, particularly by focusing on the unaddressed health care needs of the population and the subsequent toll those needs take on them and the larger society.

Awad discussed how her research about how Americans of Middle East, North African descent has helped inform policy discussions of categorization of this population within the 2020 Census. All of the panelists stressed that though policy work is difficult and time-consuming, psychologists of color, and those who address issues related to people of color, need to be in the room in order to improve the health and well-being of diverse populations.

This was the first time the conference has been held at the University of Texas at Austin. Previous conferences were held at the University of Michigan, where it was founded by Professor and VP of Diversity Robert Sellers; the University of Oregon; and Stanford. 

Cokley is the Oscar and Anne Mauzy Regents Professor for Educational Research and Development. 

China’s former One Child Policy had profound effects on the parenting of children in the country. As China promoted the policy, extolling the benefits of “high-quality” only children, parents began to devote extraordinary time, attention, and resources to their single child. The children also felt pressure to be the “great” offspring that their parents and country expected them to be.

It was thought that such inordinate attention to and pressure on only children would create generations of “Little Emperors,” children with an exceedingly high self-regard, leading to egocentric character traits considered negative, especially in Chinese society.

Educational Psychology Professor Toni Falbo has spent much of her career studying the effects of China’s One Child Policy on children. Her latest study evaluated research previously published about China’s only children through a new lens that included what has been learned in intervening years.

Head shot of Professor Toni Falbo

Toni Falbo

Falbo’s research compared how only children saw themselves and how they were seen by others, such as the parents and classmates. The results show that singleton boys had a high regard for themselves, a high level that did not match the assessment others had of them. Meanwhile, singleton girls assessed themselves as others saw them.

Says Falbo, “Gender seems to moderate the self-enhancement attributes of the only children we studied. Whereas the boys described themselves more positively than did their parents and peers, the girls described themselves as positively as their parents and peers.” In fact, says Falbo, the girls’ self-assessment was comparable to the self-assessment of girls with siblings.

“While China’s One Child Policy caused parents to favor boys with some negative consequences regarding their egocentricity, it had a positive impact on girls,” says Falbo. She believes that this is because parents devoted resources and attention to girls in a manner that they would not have prior to the policy. “The One Child Policy opened up opportunities for girls, which created a positive effect for female only children.”

To read more, download “Evaluations of the behavioral attributes of only children in Beijing, China: moderating effects of gender and the one-child policy” and listen to a BBC story about only children that features Falbo’s research.

-Feature photo by Lau keith on Unsplash

Two girls participate in a writing exercise

Young Latinas infuse culture, tradition, and family into their writing

“My students and their families have important stories to share,” says Assistant Professor of Language and Literacy Tracey Flores, “and writing has the power to build community and solidarity.”

That’s why Flores began an afterschool bilingual family writing workshop while she was a second-grade teacher in Arizona. In the workshops, students met in her classroom for 12 weeks to draw, write, and tell stories from their lives.

Tracey Flores works on writing with the students

“At the workshops, I modeled my own writing, we read mentor texts for inspiration, and used writing, drawing, and oral storytelling as tools to share ourselves and connect with one another,” says Flores. “Each week parents sat alongside their children at Con Mi Madre—each penning their own personal stories and working together throughout the entire writing process. In the classroom, students wrote more, began to integrate some of the strategies we practiced at workshops and, for the first time, many infused Spanish into their personal writing.”

Flores continues this work at the University of Texas at Austin. In fact, this summer, young Latinas and their families from across the Austin area participated in a Somos Escritoras writing camp on campus.

The work of infusing the students’ and their families’ culture, traditions, and language into their writing is important, says Flores, because many of the Mexican and Mexican American students in her Arizona classrooms were viewed as deficient and placed in English Language Development classrooms in which they received a different curriculum, a restrictive language and literacy curriculum, than that of their English-speaking peers.

Photo of Fabiola

Fabiola

“As I worked within and against these oppressive and racist structures, I saw how these mandates were silencing and controlling the voices of my students,” says Flores.

Flores says that she’s learned from the girls in this summer’s Somos Escritoras performative space “more about the concerns that are most important in the girls’ lives and the ways that they are defining themselves and naming themselves, through writing, theater, art and other performative acts. This work will inform future workshops for girls and will inform the ways that I plan and facilitate my Language Arts and Community Literacies courses for pre-service teachers.”

Photo of Genevieve

Genevieve

Says Fabiola, a 12-year-old girl who participated in the camp, “I wanted to find a place to fit in. I write a lot of poems in my free time, but I was afraid to share them. I feel more confident in myself as a Chicana and was able to share my stories with everyone. I have been sharing what I do in camp with my family, and they are really proud of me and that makes me proud of myself.”

Genevieve, a 7th grader, appreciated the sense of community the camp provided. “It’s been really nice to have a group that’s so open. I didn’t really get to have that in other places. This place makes me feel comfortable. We are each unique, but we have a lot in common. We were able to talk about both the discrimination we face and our triumph as Latinas. I really like hearing about others’ experiences and relating them to mine.”

Nathaly S. Batista-Morales is a doctoral student who works with Flores. She says that participating in Somos Escritoras fit into her education in the field of Bilingual and Bicultural Education because it offered her a model to see research in a new light. She says, “It showed me how to build relationships in the community, how to conduct research with the girls, and how to design opportunities that benefit my community now rather than later. Additionally, it fit well with my research focus on critical literacy, since the core of the program was reading and writing to speak back to issues of injustice, language, ethnic identity, and sexual orientation as we decentered notions of what young Latina women should look and be like.”

Says Flores, “The end goal is to engage my pre-service teachers in considering the practices of Latina girls and the work of spaces like Somos Escritoras, to privilege marginalized voices specifically, and Latina girls particularly, in their own future classrooms.”

Tracey Flores is an assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction within the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.

Tracey Flores with workshop participants and graduate students

College of Education alumna and advisory council member Jeanne Klein, B.S. ’67, is passionate about public education and is one of Austin’s staunchest supporters of social and emotional learning (SEL). It started in 2005 at an advisory council meeting, when she heard then-Ph.D. student and UT Elementary Principal Ramona Trevino, M.Ed. ’86, Ph.D. ’06, speak about her research topic: SEL in K-12 education.

Through SEL, children and adults learn and apply the skills to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.  “Teachers spend more time with kids each day than their parents do. Kids could be experiencing childhood trauma, including issues such as not getting enough to eat, not having clothes, dealing with parents’ divorce, or not having transportation. Meanwhile, teachers are understandably focused on academics,” Klein says. “But teaching kids that they have emotions and how to manage those emotions, teaching them options like using their words and tools to calm themselves are skills that may be just as important as academics,” Klein says.

Partnership-Driven Effort

Klein became involved in helping Trevino implement SEL into the curriculum and programming at UT Elementary. Trevino introduced the Kleins to Betsy Abell, who had introduced SEL to Austin’s St. Andrews Episcopal School in Austin, and to Carmel Borders.

The women are active volunteers in Austin and philanthropists who support education. “From then on,” says Klein, “it was the three of us supporting SEL at UT Elementary: Ramona guiding us with what was needed, and the three of us contributing to help get it there. We hired someone to write curriculum, hired a new counselor specifically for SEL, and hired a coach.”

In 2012, SEL began to spread when Trevino was offered a position at Austin Independent School District (AISD), specifically to infuse SEL programming into AISD. Says Klein, “Betsy thought it sounded fabulous because we could grow from impacting 300 kids [at UT Elementary] to 84,000 kids across the district. At AISD, we started with three vertical teams, each of which had to apply in order to demonstrate their commitment. Now all kids throughout the district have at least been exposed. We have learned along the way, and what we were able to do at a small school, we are now working to perfect in a large urban district.”

Infusing the Curriculum

The work led AISD to create a position of director of social and emotional learning, which has now expanded to an entire department. It also led to further evaluation of the teacher preparation program in the College of Education.

Says College of Education Interim Dean Sherry Field, “We inventoried our classes in our teacher preparation program to see what activities, readings, and experiences already incorporated SEL ideas and principles. We received a phenomenal response from faculty. We had been very intentional about talking about it in our courses, and elements of SEL had always been part of the curriculum. This expansion in AISD allowed us to refocus our efforts and led to the development of a daylong workshop for students in their final semester, to ensure they are well-versed in the theory and ideas,” she says.

Angela Bailey, ‘B.S. ’04, is an SEL specialist at AISD. “SEL is a huge priority for our district and being able to articulate the importance of SEL skills and how to implement them in a classroom is necessary when applying for teaching positions,” she says. For Klein, this holistic approach is key to SEL’s success. “We want infusion of SEL throughout. We teach the kids, the teachers, the staff, and the principals. Social and emotional learning is about culture change. To change the culture, we need to teach everybody.”

Adds Field, “The University of Texas challenges alumni to change the world. This is a great example. This is transforming education in AISD. It wouldn’t have been possible without the advocacy, leadership and support of Jeanne Klein, Betsy Abell and Carmel Borders.”

UT students at graduation

What is college like?

The media, specifically television and movies, are one way we receive messages about college, college-going, and the experiences and value of college. These images and depictions are created by people who have and haven’t experienced college life. Yet, those similar and repeated images contribute to perceptions of college for the general public.

This summer, Educational Leadership and Policy Assistant Professor of Practice Beth Bukoski and doctoral student Alden Jones created and taught Pop Culture in Higher Education.

Here, they’ve written about what pop culture gets right, as well as where those depictions fall short of reality.

Professors are stuffy, cold, or too lazy to actually teach.

There are, according to TV and film, only a few types of professors. They are generally portrayed as stuffy, mean, out of touch, or silly. They are the background noise to student college experiences in most representations—and most of those representations are of White cisgender, able-bodied, heterosexual men.

Bukoski teaching graduate students

Bukoski teaching graduate students

There they are up at the board, tweed jacket back to the room, lecturing on some obscure mathematical concept. Or maybe they are saying something nonsensical for a laugh. Meanwhile, the range of characters available to students at a university (and it’s almost always a university) is broader—but certainly nothing near exhaustive.

Regardless of the type of professor, the thing to know is that yes, there are those professors at a real college. But they aren’t the norm. Most professors are regular people, trying to do good work. Professors are whole people. The sentiment underlying these portrayals is part of what scholars Tobolowsky and Reynolds call anti-intellectualism. These images, repeated often enough, form a perception of faculty that “devalue scholarship and intellectual endeavors.”

This perception has real effects on what the general public thinks about college, who should go to college and why, and how higher education should be funded.

Students as represented by popular culture, without fail, drink to excess out of red solo cups at a fraternity house with a hard-partying reputation.

UT students enjoying a night, sans alcohol

UT students enjoying a night, sans alcohol

In show after movie after film after episode, college parties are depicted. We see them in Van Wilder, Old School, and Pitch Perfect. And lest we forget, the “quintessential” college party movie is Animal House. In fact, Animal House has become such a touchstone and influence on how students behave that a poster of John Belushi in a shirt that says “college” is still a best-selling item. This poster, however, leaves out the context of the film, which was a critique of the fraternity and sorority system.

Some college students drink, so do non-students. Some college students party, so do non-students. And some college students don’t do any of these things, and neither do non-students. The point is that this stereotype, while based in some students’ reality and experience, is not every student’s reality and experience.

In fact, researchers Lewis and Neighbors concluded that students over-estimated the drinking behaviors of their peers, sometimes by a whole six-pack!

College is just like high school with jocks at one table and nerds at the other.

Revenge of the Nerds and even Monsters University tell us college students fall into several separate groups. Similar to the way high school cheerleaders and jocks might sit together, and the band geeks and artistic types sit together, and the nerds keep to themselves, the portrayal of college students is that they also “stick to their own.” In Higher Learning one character identifies all the groups on the quad, who are grouped by race. For example, “Disneyland” is the group of white students who come from an upper socioeconomic status background. (Not a compliment, but also not inaccurate.)

Two UT students enjoying a coffee break

Two UT students enjoying a coffee break

Researchers Astin and Pascarella and Terrenzini all highlight the importance of one’s peer group in college. In fact, one study (Antonio, 2001) noted that friendships between groups were common, but those students who had interracial or interethnic friendships saw themselves as outliers instead of the norm. Thus, campus is perceived as more segregated than it actually is. We can apply similar assumptions to intergroup friendships between fraternity and sorority members and “nerds” or the debate team and the basketball team.

Making different kinds of friends, living or working with people different than one’s self can be one of the benefits of college. Sometimes this makes it to the screen. “Unlikely” friendships show up in Felicity, Scream 2, and Grown-ish. And that’s our point: they are presented as unlikely rather than common. Yes, college students generally find a group of friends similar to themselves; however, they also make friends who are different from whom they are used to interacting. There is, after all, no one single way to “do” college.

Rape culture is highlighted, but not critiqued.

In media, college women are present for only a few reasons, mostly sex-related: to prop up or propel a man’s storyline (PCU), be an object of lust (Neighbors 2), or to be a prize to be won (see all the Revenge of the Nerds films). Even when women are central characters, their lives are still defined in part or whole by whom they date or have sex with (Legally Blonde; Pitch Perfect) or their lives are not complete until they have come to realize their feminine powers (The House Bunny). These portrayals depict aspects of rape culture, which permeates even the frothiest of media, and few media critique it in any way.

In the most graphic depictions (horror), women are punished for their sexuality and usually only the virgin gets to live to the end (Scream Queens; Scream 2). Let’s note that lesbians are usually portrayed as benign “predators” looking to turn sweet straight girls to the “dark side” of sexuality (Higher Learning; Pitch Perfect).

While few television shows or movies take up rape as explicitly as in Higher Learning, there is a clear message that women are not safe on college campuses. And the reality is that women aren’t particularly safe anywhere in American society. According to RAINN, 23 percent of all women experience rape or sexual assault. But about 5 percent of males experience it, too. And while 18- to 24-year-old women are more likely to be the target of sexual assault compared to all women, non-students are more likely than college women to be targeted (four times vs. three times).

So while documentaries like The Hunting Ground are pretty accurate in portraying the complexities surrounding how rape culture plays out on college campuses, portrayals can also mask how endemic rape culture is to U.S. society as a whole.

College is mostly for White people

College is for White people between 18 to 22 years old who live with roommates and don’t do much other than party, occasionally show up to class, and play hacky-sack on the quad. Almost all of the examples we’ve given so far feature mostly White casts with a few exceptions (Higher Learning), so student bodies are White bodies. And while there are contemporary and complex portrayals of Black experiences in college (A Different World, Dear White People, Grown-ish, Drumline, Stomp the Yard, etc.), portrayals of Asian or Latinx characters in college are usually reduced to caricatures at worst (Revenge of the Nerds) and stereotypical support characters at best (PCU, Pitch Perfect).

UT students at graduation

UT students at graduation

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, as of fall 2016, White students comprise about two-thirds of the college population, 19 percent are Latinx, 13 percent Asian, 13 percent Black, 1 percent Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and 2 percent Other. Pitch Perfect illustrates the issue well. There are 10 Bellas: seven are White, one Black, one Asian, one Latina. While the film provides back stories of over half the White characters, the three ethnic minority women are reduced to tropes: an oversexed lesbian who happens to be Black, a quiet Asian, and an English-language-learning Latina. Even when representation looks about right, non-White students get to show up, but they don’t get a storyline or a realistic personality, and their struggles and achievements are made invisible. The rare exception to this is Ronny Chieng’s sitcom, Ronny Chieng: International Student, which portrays Asian college students attending an Australian university.

Community does this as well but the characters are fuller, which is to be expected in a long-running sitcom with an ensemble cast. This show actually portrays a community college, which is rare as most representations are of four-year universities. Community colleges have about 45 percent White students and tend to be more diverse than their four-year counterparts in other ways as well (first-generation students, veterans, English language learners).

What do these portrayals reveal?

Some truths for sure. Yet those truths, if anything, reveal issues that institutions of higher education are trying to solve, including issues of access, inclusion, diversity in the professoriate, and sexual assault.

But the most important take away is this: while White students can see themselves in college through multiple TV and film portrayals, and Black students can look to some (still limited) portrayals, students with other minoritized identities (Asian, Latinx, indigenous students, yes, but also veterans, English language learners, adults returning for certification or a degree, LGBTQ students, etc.) have few to no possible models that are anything other than a stereotype. And that needs to change.

America is only becoming more diverse, and portrayals of higher education in media influence potential students, shape the attitudes of those with and without college experiences, and may even impact the way politicians view and fund higher education. The purpose of higher education is to be a public good, to produce educated citizens ready to participate in a robust democracy. In this day and age, this mission is more important than ever, despite the red solo cup often portrayed in film and TV.

Bukoski and Jones were featured in a podcast about their research on the socialization of transgender and queer graduate students. Listen in!

Cervantes-Soon’s Juarez Girls Rising provides a counter-narrative to popular conceptions of Juarez, Mexico, and a guidepost for school communities who want to foster agency and resistance in the face of violence.

Claudia Cervantes-Soon, assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, grew up in the border town of Juarez, Mexico. Described on this side of the border, often sensationalistically, as a drug den and killing field, especially of young girls, Juarez also is a place that Cervantes-Soon understands as so much more. As she says, “to many Mexicans, Juarez  … [was] a land where they could get a chance for survival in the global capitalism that had swallowed their country.”

Claudia Cervantes-SoonCervantes-Soon is a faculty member in the bilingual and bicultural education department within the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. She’s interested in ethnographic approaches to studying, in part, what’s taught in the classroom and how identities are used, navigated and presented, particularly among culturally and linguistically diverse learners and young Latina/Mexican women.

Her book, Juarez Girls Rising has recently been selected by the Society for the Study of Social Problems as one of five finalists for the 2017 C. Wright Mills Award. In the book, Cervantes-Soon presents narratives of 10 high school girls coming of age within the backdrop of Juarez. Through their stories, the reader gains insight into how the unique educational experience the girls have in their schooling environment offers them tools, agency and voice that they can use for survival, renewal and resistance.

The girls in Juarez Girls Rising attend Prepatoria Altavista, an urban school founded on social justice principles in the late ’60s. The curriculum of the school is guided by a philosophy called autogestión, “a holistic and dialectical approach to individual and collective identity formation rooted in students’ experiences and critical understanding of their social realities.” This “self-authorship” empowers the young women to overcome barriers and develop meaningful identities within an overarching atmosphere of oppression and violence.

One has only to consider the protests against gun violence all across the United States to see how the stories and resiliency of these young girls, who are soon to be women, translates across and beyond the border on which they live. And, says Cervantes-Soon, “the teacher movements going on around the United States ask us to reflect on the meaning of education.” In that light, Juarez Girls Rising provides a guidepost for educators and students in creating transformative and empowering school communities that foster the strengths, identities, and agency of marginalized students in a complex world.

Cervantes-Soon is currently conducting research into black and Latino coalitions in dual-language programs in Austin-area schools. The project has been awarded the National Academy of Education/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship. Read more about it on the College of Education website.

 

Students and student teachers seated on the floor for a reading exercise.

Including Race in Literacy Instruction Opens Up the World

On a Thursday afternoon last fall, approximately 20 pre-service teachers arrived for class at Guerrero-Thompson Elementary in Austin. They were students in the College of Education enrolled in Literacy Methods, a course on reading methods in elementary school.

Their initial assignment: critically analyze non-fiction texts.

The goal was for the pre-service teachers to experience the same kinds of assignments they might give their future students. As they balanced in chairs meant for learners half their size, they read articles in small groups and discussed and debated their peers.

They were guided by doctoral student Natalie Svrcek, while Curriculum and Instruction Associate Professor Melissa Wetzel provided assistance.

After they finished, they fetched their fourth-grade reading buddies and positioned themselves on a large colorful rug at the front of the classroom. That’s where the read-alouds—and the fun—began.

One youngster shared with her pre-service teacher a new pun she’d learned. She’d been learning and sharing a new pun each week. Svrcek reminded the younger students about the books she’d read and they’d discussed in the last weeks. Each book was related to UT’s tagline, What Starts Here Changes the World.

The students talked about what that meant to them: “What starts in your heart as something small can become a passion that creates positive change for others,” says one.

“Which stories do you like to hear the most?” Svrcek asked the group. “Ones with characters similar to you or ones where the character is different from you?”

One young girl says, “I like to read stories about people who are similar to me because I like to relate to what they did to fix their problem. I can do what the person did and follow in their footsteps.”

Another says, “I like to read about people different from me because I get to learn about different cultures.”

“Reading a book with characters similar to you is like looking in a mirror,” Svrcek says, “while reading one with characters who are different is like looking out a window.”

Previously, she’d read to the group, Dolores Huerta: A Hero to Migrant Workers, which recounts a story of children whose parents are migrant farm workers and are not paid fairly. In the book, Dolores works to gain fair treatment for the families.

This day they were going to hear, The Book Itch: Freedom, Truth and Harlem’s Greatest Book Store.

Students listening to a reading exercise.

Curriculum for Our Times

Although the format is similar to courses that have been taught in the College of Education for years, the intentional addition of themes of racial equity and social justice is new, says Wetzel. “After Charlottesville, the election, and anti-immigration reforms, I really thought a lot about what it means to be a teacher in these times and how to prepare our students to respond.

“Elementary teachers are often motivated by their love for students. They often want to help. But what does it mean to help?” Wetzel says.

“Many of our students will teach children who come from diverse backgrounds, who face challenges, who are refugees impacted by war or other trauma. We are challenged to take those passionate feelings of people who want to be teachers and help them understand what it means to care for these children. We want to help them shore up their abilities to be a teacher in the complex classrooms they will find in Texas,” Wetzel says.

An Opportunity for Collaboration

As Wetzel and other colleagues across the department were modifying the methods course to address these time-sensitive issues, their colleague, Associate Professor Keffrelyn Brown, had been named a UT Austin Provost’s Teaching Fellow.

The prestigious teaching fellows program empowers faculty to advance education through individual initiatives that improve teaching and learning at UT, and through participation in campus-wide events that promote the quality of education and its status in the campus culture.

Brown’s research for the two-year fellowship focuses in part on the sociocultural knowledge of race in teaching and curriculum. She wants to use her fellowship as an opportunity to facilitate working groups for faculty who are interested in infusing anti-racist teaching and practices in their coursework.

The timing was ripe for college faculty collaboration on the topic. Says Brown, the faculty working groups “meet monthly in an intentional learning community. Faculty share their work sample or challenge. We listen closely to each other. We use inquiry within the learning community. Then we add the theoretical work and revise the curriculum around race,” she says.

“We also discuss strategies to better facilitate conversations around race as well as ideas such as what it looks like to take an asset-based stance with our students,” a view that each student comes from a community with assets rather than deficits, she says.

This spring, Brown is extending her reach beyond the College of Education across the university campus.

“I personally want to develop a stronger theoretical understanding of race, better understanding and use of important theoretical constructs, and means of having better conversations about race,” Brown says.

Passion Leads to Change

Brown sought an opportunity to work with Wetzel on the methods course and Wetzel participated in these faculty learning communities last fall.

She and Svrcek added concepts to the literacy methods curriculum—racial and social equity, and intersectionality.

“Students’ experiences are complex,” Wetzel says. “We all live complex lives, experience complex factors, and have complex classrooms. Our pre-service teachers need to be able to address that.

“The Literacy Methods course’s read-alouds create a space, or tutorial, to model these ideas. Each text has an intersectionality topic—race and gender, for example—along with the theme that “’I can be anything.’ We want to disrupt racial stereotypes,” Wetzel says.

She adds, “The theme highlights that small change makes big change. We can feel disempowered and all feel oppressed by systems we are involved in, but the things we are passionate about can make big change.”

Pre-service teachers and their co-operating teachers have found the methods and conversations with students to be surprising and meaningful to their work. “I didn’t know the kids could go that deep,” one cooperating teacher says.

Change-based Teaching

Pre-service teacher Collette Nguyen, a senior who plans to teach 3rd grade, says, “I didn’t really know what to expect from the students, but they have been very insightful. I read The Memory Coat; Paper Son: Lee’s Journey to America; The Lotus Seed, and My Name is Sangoel. We explored the big questions—‘Why did people have to leave their home country to go to America? What struggles did they face and how did they feel?’ This allowed the students to develop empathy for others who had to flee because they were in danger. It opened a window for them to look into other cultures, and the severity of the situations they were put in that was out of their control.”

Nguyen adds, “By having them learn about these situations, my hope is that they will be tolerant people from the get-go and continue being people who embrace and respect differences in others. With that, they can learn to use their voice.”

Says Wetzel about her work with Brown and the incorporation of racial equity into the Literacy Methods curriculum, “As a department, anti-racist work is part of what we do. Teaching about diversity and sociocultural knowledge will be different in different times, shaped by a particular historical moment, in a particular context and place. It will never be just one syllabus.

“As knowledge in the field is changing and the social context is ever–changing, the teaching will always be change-based,” Wetzel says.

In 2012, Cornell University researchers published a study that concluded that children between 8 and 11 years old would choose an apple over a cookie if the apple had a sticker of a popular cartoon character. Childhood obesity rates had skyrocketed across the United States, and this simple solution to help children make better food choices received a lot of buzz.

It turns out the findings were too good to be true. Last October, JAMA Pediatrics, the journal that published the study, was forced to retract the study’s findings.

The problem? Faulty data and faulty conclusions.

The College of Education’s Tiffany Whittaker wants students to learn to interpret data and statistics, so she designed a new educational psychology course: Statistical Literacy and Reasoning. Whittaker is an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology.

The course is open to undergraduates across the university and is taught by educational psychology doctoral students. It’s designed to introduce students to statistical applications and their interpretations in daily life.

The course can replace a math requirement and introduces undergraduate students to coursework in educational psychology—which may have the extra benefit of enticing them to earn a minor in the subject.

Students often enter the course with a “blank slate related to statistical literacy,” says Molly Cain, a doctoral student who taught the class last fall. The students don’t have preconceived notions about statistics. But they also have no real facility with deciphering statistical data.

In a world teeming with numbers and stats to prove the validity of ideas and opinion and to influence public policy, “statistical literacy is critical,” Cain says. “We want students to become critical consumers of data reported in media. We want them to be actively engaged with what they consume and to approach things with a healthy dose of skepticism.”

Whittaker says, “We want students to ask: What’s going on behind the numbers?” Specific questions can help students think critically about what’s going on behind those numbers: How were the data gathered? What methods were used? Who conducted the survey? Was bias introduced? What do you know about the sample—such as its size or population? Are there lurking or hidden variables that might explain an association?

“Correlation does not equal causation,” says Whittaker. “For example, the number of children in a home correlates with a toaster being in the home. But the toaster didn’t cause there to be more children in the home.”

“Psychology studies are difficult,” Cain says. “Often, researchers will choose subjects who are convenient to study, like college freshmen, just because they are available.” But samples should reflect the actual population that researchers want to draw conclusions about, she says, and college freshmen may not be representative of the population they actually want to understand.

That was one of the problems with the apple vs. cookie study. It was conducted with 3 to 5-year-old children, but the findings were applied to 8 to 11 year-olds—a population likely to be less motivated to choose an apple with a sticker of Elmo over a cookie.

“Data can generally be trusted if you use the correct techniques and methods,” Cain says, adding that correct interpretation is also a must. “Knowing how to analyze data will help you in any discipline. Even a rudimentary understanding means you are light years ahead.”

 

Be Loved on a beam

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

Valentine’s Day can be challenging for those without a partner to shower them with tokens of affection. The holiday also sets up expectations for those in romantic relationships—expectations that may backfire.

Kristin NeffProfessor Kristen Neff in Educational Psychology., associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education, studies the impact of self-compassion on people’s emotional and psychological health. She says that Valentine’s Day can present a terrific opportunity for people to show themselves self-compassion, which can lead to greater emotional satisfaction and actually improve intimate relationships.

According to Neff, people who are not partnered can “ask themselves what they need and want from a partner. They may come up with answers like love, being heard, being seen for who they are. They can make a list of those things, and they can give those things to themselves.”

She recommends that people also give themselves validation and appreciation verbally.  A person can say to themselves, aloud, “I’m here for you. I care about you,” and meet that need for themselves.

Research also shows that self-touch impacts the body and mind positively. “The warmth of human touch has a positive impact, even if that touch is from your own hand,” says Neff. She recommends placing your hand over your heart while speaking words of kindness to yourself. “Doing so can help ease the sadness a person may feel about not having a partner.”

People often have high expectations of days like Valentine’s Day. Neff recommends letting go of those expectations. “A supportive and open-hearted attitude for the particular situation can be especially helpful,” she says. “And if a person is not in a relationship and wants one, it’s important for the person to accept that desire, have compassion for the struggle, and also remember that relationships can bring both joy and pain.”

In the end, says Neff, “Meeting your own needs and showing yourself compassion, acceptance, and kindness are important activities that also lead a person to be more kind and supportive to their sweetheart too.”

Self-compassion, she says, “is not only good for individuals, it’s also good for relationships too.”

Photo of Melissa WetzelMelissa Wetzel, associate professor of language and literacy, shares research-based ideas about the literacy “crisis” and how understanding diverse literacies is a stronger educational approach.

Children come into the world with a set of language and literacy practices. Young children are always learning to name their world and discovering how language works. As they grow, they learn the words that are important to their worlds, what Paulo Freire called their “word worlds.”

When they enter school, they are often assessed in terms of their letter and word recognition, their phonemic awareness, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and letter and word writing. These are measures of literacy.

However, there are other aspects of literacy that are not measured because test developers cannot have a window into the world of words that surrounds each child. What we know, for example, is that there is not a word gap, as many researchers have found, between students who speak English as their first language and second language learners.

In fact, the number of words that bilingual and multilingual students know might far exceed the number of words that an English monolingual student knows. In addition, multilingual students have the additional knowledge of how to navigate their social worlds using more than one language!

Line of colored Candies and kid counting

Photo by Patrick Tomasso (@impatrickt) on Unsplash

One thing we are pretty sure of in the field of literacy is that teachers who know how to find out what a student knows and how they are literate—rather than gaps in their literacy—will be much better equipped to build on what the students know and help them to be successful.

Illiteracy is an unscientific concept and very political. Literacy rates were used to document literacy during a politically constructed “crisis of illiteracy” in the latter part of the 20th century. For example, under the Reagan Administration, many organizations began receiving funding from the federal government for programs designed to provide basic literacy education for those people who were identified as illiterate.

Like other “crises,” a crisis of illiteracy is dangerous for many reasons, primarily because it positions some people’s languages and literacies as deficit and narrowly defines what it means to be literate. It positions students who leave school as illiterate, which is often untrue, and shifts responsibility and blame onto the young person who may have been miseducated in many ways.

In a binary of literacy/illiteracy, we have to ask, “what counts/doesn’t count as literacy” and “who benefits from literacy programs and initiatives,” among other important critical questions. In a dynamic society in which what it means to be literate is always changing, it is hard to see how narrow measures of literacy (reading and writing assessments) might be meaningful to public conversations or policymakers in productive ways.

Organizations that are focused on literacy often rely on discourse from the literacy crisis to make claims about literacy rates and why they are a problem. This discourse appeals to those who want to help—through volunteering and monetary support. That can be a good thing. The danger, however, is that each time a literacy crisis discourse is evoked, dominant and narrow views about what counts are reproduced. That means we may move further and further away from understanding diverse literacies, what and how students know, and what literacies will support them most for participation in a changing world.

Wetzel is Judy Spence Fellow for Excellence and Associate Chair of the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. Her research and teaching focus on how pre-service teachers integrate critical literacy and culturally relevant practices into their field-based literacy teaching experiences. 

-Feature photo of books by Patrick Fore (@patrickian4) on Unsplash