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Teaching To and For Diverse Populations

By Kathleen Hall Scanlon

“You have one weapon & one weapon only: Use it. It is your ability to teach.”  

– Alice Walker

      “My student teachers usually observe for two weeks before I give up my classes,” my 28-year-old cooperating teacher announced. I, however, expected to teach immediately. I’d just completed a stellar initial experience in Allentown after observing for a single day. As I departed Allen High, three tenth graders – two African Americans and one Latina – wished they could accompany me to Reading. I wondered why.

      “You’ll see.”

       My first Southwest Junior High School class in 1977 presented myriad shades of brown. Two white kids sat far back. My ninth graders performed William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker.  Cutout hands framed the American Sign Language alphabet along the bulletin board’s perimeter. Students pointed at their own hands: I earned points.

      Hands reflected cultural diversity: Latino, African American, Asian, and Caucasian. The dominant Puerto Rican culture at Southwest was mostly impoverished, and I lived in the “hood,” its reputation dicey.

       “This is where you make it or break it, kid.” I mused, directing the powerful drama about an indomitable teacher facing spoiled, highly gifted Helen Keller, who resists Annie Sullivan’s persistence – until a miracle occurs.

      West Chester State’s Secondary Education dean rendered her reluctant permission for me to student teach through Kutztown State, because I lacked adequate transportation. She said, “Just bring us back two A’s.”

      My “shoe leather express” followed interminable bus rides into Allentown. I had received no formal cultural proficiency training; chutzpah, a solid background in American literature, and basic Spanish fueled my fire. I also adored my students … but could they learn from me? Could I reach them?

      Jumping forward to my public school teaching career, I spent twenty-two years at Reading High teaching English to both gang members and Ivy League-bound valedictorians. My colleagues hailed from Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Argentina – their cultures reflecting those of students from Romania to Russia, plus Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and Atheists. I slaughtered Spanish attempting to communicate with ESL students every single day. Our literature selections, posters, class library, and discussions solicited reflections in writing and speech from every student. Teachers attended multicultural seminars; my biography course presented literary excerpts showcasing multi-ethnic people.

      In 2000, I joined the Lower Merion School District, which authorized cultural proficiency initiatives. I collected, at my own expense, diversely ethnic finger puppets plus an immense multicultural classroom library. I also helped train colleagues in promoting multicultural awareness district-wide, since everyone benefits from face-to-face interaction among diverse groups while practicing active listening skills. We pause, paraphrase, probe, and acknowledge each other’s stories. Our mantra: “No blame, no shame.” An imperative: “Speak your own truth and expect both discomfort and non-closure.”

      The NEA offers a Diversity Tool Kit, strategies including imperative expectations from educators based on a Brown University study. The list includes communicating high academic expectations, promoting culturally responsive curricula, and providing positive perspectives on parents and families. (http://www.nea.org/tools/30402.htm) School communities with culturally diverse faculties and staffs help produce success. Educators who recognize and embrace cultural differences guide students more efficiently. As we affirm their strengths, students learn and grow as members of one human race.


Kathleen Hall Scanlon profileKathleen Hall Scanlon, a retired public school Secondary English teacher, taught 2/3 of her career in high school and 1/3 in middle school, beginning and ending in seventh grade. An educational consultant, she reads, writes, bird watches, and travels with her husband Chris — plus relaxes with their fifteen-year-old tabby Renard.  A passionate scholar, she taught gifted teens philosophy and currently coordinates PAWLP’s Young Readers/Young Writers summer program at Harriton HS in Lower Merion. Her first ambition was to become an astronomer and write astronomy books, so she remains a big fan of Neil De Grasse Tyson —- despite his complicity in Pluto’s demotion.

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