Moving from polite talk to candid conservation: Infusing foundations into a professional development project

Moving from polite talk to candid conservation: Infusing foundations into a professional development project

Russo, Pat


This paper is based on a case study of how a combined foundations and methods approach in a professional development program can move the conversation from polite talk to candid confrontation of important social/cultural issues in education. While the earliest intent of foundations scholars was not necessarily to find a place close to educational methods (Butts, 1993), recently several foundations scholars have called for a closer link between educational foundations and methods perspectives. Leck (1991) recognized that the foundations “holds a tenuous and marginal place within teacher education,” (p.4) and that “from this position, in this context, on the inside of teacher education, never comfortable, accepted or secure in our tenure, we.. work to educate the person who would be a teacher” (p.5). Dippo, (1991) making a similar observation, suggested that to increase the relevance of social foundations we try to help students examine underlying assumptions and see what it means to be a teacher from a more comprehensive perspective, rather than just critiquing practice. Warren, (1993) echoing Leck’s comments, noted that, “Students, whether preservice teachers or seasoned practitioners, complained of content unconnected to the real worlds of schools and classrooms, autonomic displays of a lecture pedagogy, and foundations instructors actively disdainful of the daily demands facing teachers, counselors, and school administrators” (p.125). Johnson and Wetherill (1995) call for an increase in the connection between social foundations and methods class by employing case study analyses. Butchart (1995) suggested that foundations professors pay much greater attention to issues of discipline and classroom management, a decidedly methods domain. Most recently, Laird (1998) called for a redefinition of the purpose of social foundations within teacher education, providing an analysis of how the field of education has been fractured into those who focus on practice and those who focus on educational theory and criticism. But how might these connections be made? What might such a combination look like? In this paper we describe specific efforts and the responses of teachers when we combined our social foundations and methods perspectives within a professional development summer institute.

One of us teaches methods courses and the other teaches foundations. We have struggled with how to understand the distinction between our foundations and methods approaches. Our working together was a result of sharing common views about the nature of teaching, which included for each of us some training and study in both methods and social foundations, though the methods/foundations ratio was reversed for each ofus. In addition, both ofus are grounded in practice, having taught in public schools for a combined total of nineteen years. Explaining what we clearly saw as different approaches in our work has been a difficult task. People who teach methods often engage in internal critique of curriculum and pedagogy. Yet, the focus for methods people tends to lie more in asking the question, “Did you accomplish what you set out to do?” The foundations person might ask, “What is the purpose of your instructional goal?” Methods instructors often engage in an external critique of the curriculum and pedagogy. This critique, often grounded in the literature on “best practice,” compares the practice to the standards of a variety of professional teachers’ associations. Foundations people ask about how curriculum and pedagogy fits within a current socio-political context, and who is controlling the knowledge. We noted however, that a critique of the assumed values and that underlying issues of power and privilege was often missing in methods discussions. Or, if such a critique did exist, the methods perspective focused on a human relations (interpersonal, psychological) critique centered in practice. But in the foundations view, this critique would also include a social, historical, and/or political analysis. We took these differing views into a professional development summer institute about teaching for diversity.

Within professional literature and national politics, there is an expanding conversation about teaching for diversity, teaching for social justice, multicultural education, and addressing issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, and disability in schools. However, within the real world of rural and suburban elementary (and middle) school teaching, there is little, if anything, said about these issues. In a recent two-week summer institute, we worked with 42 teachers from a mix of urban and rural settings, and found that for many of these teachers, talk of diversity was nonexistent. When we raised it, the conversation was resisted in a variety of complex ways.

Others have spoken about how students and teachers resist racial awareness (Sleeter, 1996; Tatum, 199; Ellsworth, 1992; Gallagher, 1997). However, their work begins with some conversation occurring. In this paper we pick up the issue at a place where we had to overcome teachers’ tendency to steer the conversation away from these issues, so that we could move to candid confrontation with the topic of teaching for diversity. We are not merely referring to the quality of interpersonal communication when we speak of polite talk or candid confrontation. We use these phrases to include either avoidance of, or willingness to confront, issues of bias and diversity in teaching. This paper examines the patterns of teachers’ reactions to this topic, which was presented from a combined foundations/methods approach.

The thirteen-year-old Project SMART professional/curriculum development program includes a summer institute in which 40-45 elementary and middle school teachers learn about teaching science as they develop interdisciplinary curriculum units. The institute also highlights a current issue in education such as whole language instruction, educational technology, parent involvement, student assessment, or action research. About 60 percent of the teachers attending each year are experienced Project SMART teachers, so that the knowledge base of the institute continues to expand along with shared understandings of professional development.

During the summer of 1997, teachers faced the second year of some important departures from the norm of the institute. First, the composition of the group had shifted from a smaller size of about 25 experienced teachers from rural or small town central New York districts, to a group of 42 teachers including 11 from urban education settings and seven “pre-teachers” who had just graduated from our elementary education program. In the past, participating teachers had been predominately European American women, each with many years of elementary school teaching experience. But in 1997, nine of the 42 were men, five of the 42 were people of color (2 Black, 1 Puerto Rican, 1 Guatemalan, and 1 Asian), and nine of the 42 were secondary level teachers. Almost half of the group had less than five years teaching experience. In addition to changes in teachers’ experiential and cultural backgrounds, our approach took a subtle but significant shift from a predominately methods perspective to one that combined methods and foundations thinking.

The composition ofthe participants and the topic of this summer’s institute had the potential for much more volatile conversations than topics from previous years. In prior years when participants found disagreement, they tended to politely back away from the conversation. This topic demanded that people confront each other’s different views. Teachers representing a larger frame of perspectives combined with a course topic that challenged participants’ personal, professional, and political attitudes, resulted in reactions that included confusion, anxiety, hostility, and very sophisticated forms of deflection as teachers struggled with themselves and each other to find ways to communicate.

Within the more than 60 hours of the institute, we devoted about 15 hours to activities directly focusing on teaching for diversity. During the remaining 45 hours participants developed interdisciplinary curriculum units, wrote in journals, shared meals together, and attended field trips related to their units. In addition to the required readings, each teacher selected one book relating to an issue of diversity (class, race, gender, sexuality, [dis]ability, or multiculturalism in general) to read and discuss in groups. Throughout the institute we collected data on teachers’ reactions to their institute experiences. Our findings challenge and extend conversations in the area of teaching for diversity that have been shared by Sleeter (1996), Sleeter and Grant (1999), Nieto (2000), Byrnes and Kiger (1996), Derman-Sparks (1989), and others who work for social justice. Through politeness and silence, teachers sustained a culture that denied candid talk about race, class, and gender bias in schools.

Theoretical Perspectives That Informed Our Thinking

In the winter of 1996-97, we were deeply moved by the keynote presentation by Cochran-Smith, Lytle, Maimon, and Waft(1997) at the Annual Ethnography in Education Conference in Philadelphia. As we left the session, Barb commented, “We’ve been playing it too safe in Project SMART.” We engaged in conversations about moving to a position of talking more directly about race, class, and gender biases, rather than talking around these topics. This was one of the first signs that our thinking about the professional development project was moving from an apolitical methods perspective to an approach that included a critical examination of practice.

Like Lorde, we were afraid of how speaking about these issues might alter the context of this professional development project. We saw the current project as a safe place for teachers to take risks, but wanted to push the edges of the boundaries to explore issues that we had dealt with only indirectly in previous years. After returning from Philadelphia, we noticed how several Project SMART teachers mentioned issues relating directly to teaching for diversity. The time was ripe to deal with this issue in an upcoming institute.

Not all of the planners (four project staff members and nine teachers) viewed this task with the same perspective. In fact we fell across a range of dealing with diversity from merely wanting teachers to recognize and appreciate that each of us is different in many ways (Sleeter and Grant’s human relations perspective, 1999) to seeing diversity as a site of power struggles where the goal is to achieve social justice (Sleeter and Grant’s multicultural and social reconstructionist perspective, 1999). We agreed on two primary readings for the institute. These helped to frame the activities: Derman-Sparks’ Anti-bias Curriculum: Tools for Empowering Young Children (1989), and Byrnes and Kiger’s Common Bonds: Anti-bias Teaching in a Diverse Society (1996). We approached our view of teaching for diversity from a socio-political context (Nieto, 2000), rather than a strictly psychological context where fighting prejudice is the focus (Kivel, 1996). We saw teaching for diversity as teaching as a political act that recognizes social structures and finds ways to challenge them. Our thinking was informed by Derman-Sparks’ (1989) anti-bias teaching; Adams, Bell, and Griffin’s (1997) teaching for diversity and social justice, and Sleeter and Grant’s (1999) full range of multicultural education approaches.

We also held a commitment in our professional development work to finding ways for teachers to speak for themselves (Cochran-Smith & Lytle, 1993). In our work, we seek evidence of how teachers (our students) are making meaning of, negotiating, and building shared understandings of their roles as teachers and as citizens in their communities. And we strive to provide support and encouragement for their self-defined professional growth. During this particular summer institute, we added another component to this picture. We sought to provide a professional development initiative that focused on good teaching within a context of social justice (Adams et al., 1997).

We were aware of situations where others had raised a conversation about diversity with pre-teachers or teachers. Gallagher (1997) described the growing anger present in his undergraduate White students, as they challenged the claims of White privilege with criticism of affirmative action. Tatum (1992) spoke of student resistance to charges of racism in distinct ways when the topic was raised. Cochran-Smith (1995) called for teacher educators to take a stronger role in helping pre-teachers learn about teaching for diversity. She described ways a student teacher’s reaction is often in the form of ignoring differences or merely focusing on the exotic differences of people from other cultures. Sleeter (1996) described how teachers’ reactions to teaching for diversity tended to be apolitical and grounded in the myth of meritocracy stemming from their own struggles into the profession. In all of these cases, the descriptions centered on how participants resisted, within a conversation about diversity and social change. We expected that the participants in Project SMART would also struggle within the conversations about teaching for diversity. We didn’t expect to find that teachers would remain silent or deflect the conversation away from this topic, and through their silence, actually prevent the conversation from occurring.

Method of Inquiry

In order to understand how teachers made meaning teaching for diversity, we chose a qualitative inquiry (Patton, 1990) method of collecting and analyzing data. Qualitative methodology allows for a holistic (we could examine contexts and subcontexts), naturalistic (we observed teachers during the institute activities), inductive interpretation (we allowed teachers to identify the nature of their responses) reflecting the perspectives of institute participants (Bogdan & Biklen, 1992). This qualitative approach allowed us to see that understanding how teachers make meaning of teaching for diversity comes from more than just how they think about practice. We found that the strategies for avoiding conversation about teaching for diversity form a complex backdrop for understanding their resistance to the topic.

Data Collection and Analysis

Our research team consisted of three methods and one foundations university faculty (institute staff), and two classroom teachers from the institute. We collected several sources of data for this analysis. We asked participants to keep learning logs of their experiences throughout the institute. In addition, the research team members each kept their own journals of participant-observation notes. On day six of the tenday institute, we conducted a paired-interview activity and audiotaped each of 20 pairs of teachers as they discussed their reactions to the diversity topic in this institute. We also videotaped most whole group presentation and discussion sessions.

The data provided a very important mix of multiple perspectives from which to consider the reactions of individual participants. For most participants, we had an ongoing participant learning log, field notes of how they acted in large and small group activities, an audio taped interview of the teacher with another teacher, and in some cases, either learning-log notes, or comments from other teachers about the participant. In addition, since each participant worked on a team of five to ten others, we could compare teachers’ different views of a number of team activities. Given participants’ varying comfort levels with this topic, and range of willingness to talk openly, this multiple perspective data collection helped to clarify our understanding of the meaning making process that participants employed.

To analyze the data, we developed a system of individually examining the data and then collaboratively discussing patterns and themes that emerged in our investigation. In between research team discussions we individually coded and rechecked data against working hypotheses. Since we brought very different teaching experiences and perspectives about teaching for diversity, our discussions of the data often included lengthy conversations of our own understandings of diversity, bias, and teaching. Even though we each viewed the data from somewhat different perspectives, we sought out patterns each of us could accept as being reflected in the data. We shared preliminary themes (working hypotheses) with select program participants in a variety of small group configurations as a form of member checking.

Teachers’ reactions to this institute were related to a complex web of their current teaching context, previous experiences with diversity issues, racial/ethnic backgrounds, and Project SMART curriculum team affiliation. Even within general groups of like-minded people, individuals interpreted and acted upon these issues in very different ways. In the following sections we will discuss how teachers used politeness to control conversations and how teachers responded when we could find ways to engage them in a candid conversation about teaching for diversity. Figure 1 represents a range of reactions from polite talk to candid confrontation.

In this section we will not be identifying different types of teachers, but rather we seek to illuminate a range of reactions that teachers exhibited throughout the course of the institute. A culture of silence pervaded the topic for teachers in this study. For brief, intermittent moments we were able to suspend the silence around teaching for diversity, but the silence returned quickly. Thus, our discussion about teaching for diversity moved from polite talk, to candid confrontation, and back to a politeness which insisted on silence.

Polite Talk

We use the term polite talk to describe a pattern of talking in which teachers said nothing or very little about the topic, but always implied good intentions. We are not trying to create a distinction between polite and rude talk, but merely to describe strategies that resulted in no real growth in dealing with the topic. Sometimes teachers used polite talk in the form of not talking at all. At other times teachers used a variety of ways to talk around the topic or to move the conversation away from the topic. In several cases, teachers’ talk carried misconceptions about teaching for diversity. In addition to allowing teachers to avoid the conversation, this climate of polite talk restricted the voicing of alternative perspectives.

No Talk

For example, some teachers simply did not participate in large or small group discussions on the topic, even though they would participate freely in discussions about other issues. They did not refuse to participate. They just sat quietly, nodded, and directed their attention to the speakers, but offered no comments. A few teachers never handed in their learning logs, so we had no way of knowing what they were thinking about the topic. A couple of others photocopied and submitted only certain portions of the learning-log they were willing to share. These teachers could give the appearance of participating by being present and not overtly avoiding the topic. If aperson was challenged for not talking, she (or he) would simply talk around the topic, as described below, until she or he could be quiet again.

We can’t be certain how much these mostly silent teachers agreed with the conversation or disagreed with it. We also have no way of knowing if the institute focused on teaching for diversity had any impact to confirm or cause a change in their classroom teaching. However, we know that remaining silent about this topic tends to reinforce a status quo in which there is very little anti-bias or culturally relevant teaching. Many of the teachers talked a great deal about the topic in a variety of contexts. If someone didn’t talk, it was likely she or he had little, if anything, supportive to say. We can only assume that no talk on the topic meant no change on the topic. Given our previous experiences with this summer institute and its participants, no change meant that these teachers were likely to continue teaching from a mono-cultural perspective.

Less than five of the more than 40 participants reacted consistently with no talk, though it is not possible to determine the exact number, nor is it completely relevant to this discussion. Some teachers who chose to avoid this talk in particular situations responded in other settings. If everyone in the institute had chosen to not comment at all, our paper would have a very different focus. In fact, many more people chose to contribute in ways described below. The important point to note here is that for some people, in some situations, not talking at all was a strategy they employed-to avoid the issue of teaching for diversity.

Talking around the Topic

Teachers also talked around the topic by politely deflecting attention to something else. For example, some teachers would initiate conversations about the weather, food, their families, local news, or some other social, though irrelevant topic. Since this ten-year institute has been developed around a strong sense of community, it was completely appropriate to bring up personal or otherwise pleasant conversation. However, at times, these shifts in the conversation seemed to be inserted to avoid the real conversation of teaching for diversity.

Other teachers moved closer to the topic, but then backed away by discounting their own ideas, or making a joke about themselves. For example, one teacher suggested she had no right making a comment with, “Who am I to say?” Another teacher stopped conversation with the common comment, “I was always taught when you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”

As teachers moved closer to having a conversation about teaching for diversity, but found themselves talking with someone who thought differently about the topic, they would deflect the perceived conflict by saying, ” You have a different situation,” meaning, “Your experience must be different from mine so there is no need to compare.” It seemed more attractive to smooth over differences, than to discuss them. At other times when differences were about to emerge, teachers would claim some credibility by suggesting that they shared a personal experience about race, class, or gender bias, but then dismiss the topic quickly, or shift it to a lengthy discussion of their experience. For example, one rural teacher, who had worked in an urban setting several years before, shared her experiences, but never made the connection to her present experiences.

Some teachers deflected a challenge to their comments by dismissing the issue with broad, unquestionable generalizations that ended conversation. In one instance a teacher spoke in a large group discussion of not pointing out the gender imbalance in workers of a nearby industrial site. When someone challenged this by suggesting that helping kids see gender imbalance was important, this teacher amended her comment by saying, “Oh, that. Well I do that every day in my classroom.” Sometime later within this teacher’s team meeting, the issue came up again, and the conclusion shared in that small group was, “if we don’t bring it up, the kids won’t notice it.” This is also an example of how teachers retreated to silence when their efforts at talking around the topic were challenged. We can only conclude that at times, within a climate of polite talk, teachers sometimes postured overt compliance in large group sessions, and then retreated to covert resistance, within cliques or smaller teams.

Another example of talking around the topic occurred with teachers using empty platitudes to describe how they deal with issues of diversity. We found frequent references in learning logs, audio-taped interviews, and our own field notes of teachers commenting, “I build community from day one,” or, “When a problem comes up, I talk to the kids about it,” or “Dealing with diversity is in everyone’s best interests.” The evidence supporting these claims was either nonexistent, or suggested that the so-called community which was being built, was a community where diversity was ignored, either by valuing only the sameness of children, or by refusing to acknowledge injustice and unfair privileging of some members of a community.

Several teachers, using a supportive tone for dealing with diversity, dismissed a need to take action by claiming that the timing for such action was not right. One said, “As we move over the next few years, we’re going to be impacted. Sexuality hasn’t been outspoken in our area, but in a few years when it is, we’ll be ready.” Others made the comment, “Change takes time.” And another said, “It’s too late now for this generation. Research shows you can’t change attitudes. It’s statistically proven.” These comments, while sounding supportive, evidence the teachers’ refusal to take responsibility to teach for diversity as well as their lack of knowledge about diversity issues and change.

The implication within each of these patterns of talking around the topic was that the speaker had good intentions. Thus, if the facilitators or other teachers tried to extend the conversation or challenged a teacher’s comments directly, the challenger was seen as pushing the issue beyond appropriate limits or questioning the intentions of another peer. Polite talk, by definition, must be courteous, considerate, and in good taste. Voicing alternative perspectives could easily be labeled as a challenge to the good intentions of the speaker, and therefore rude, demanding, or inconsiderate. When this claim of rudeness was made, it served the purpose of once again deflecting attention away from the topic and focusing attention on the process of polite talk. Often the claim of rudeness was made in the privacy of small groups (cliques of friends or teams) and in those settings served to discredit the challenge, and once again deflect the conversation.

Misinformed Talk

There were many instances throughout the ten-day institute, in which teachers took risks and spoke about teaching for diversity. As we reviewed the evidence we noted several examples within a climate of polite talk, in which teachers exhibited misconceptions about teaching for diversity. To claim participating teachers had misconceptions implies that there is a correct way to think and speak about teaching for diversity. While we recognize that the thinking about this topic is far from singleminded, we began the summer institute with a few assumptions about teaching for diversity. First, it is important to recognize and value differences (Derman-Sparks, 1989) Second, diversity is not just about recognizing differences, but is also about recognizing the dominance that is perpetuated around certain differences, like race, class, gender, disability, and sexuality (Adams et al., 1997). Finally, it is important to take action against or to prevent social injustice (Byrnes & Krieger, 1996). All of these authors encourage teachers to teach about diversity by helping kids to value differences, recognize injustice, and work for social change. Thus, when we say teachers were operating with misconceptions, we are speaking about their ideas that difference should be overlooked, that any injustice that might occur was not important enough to address, and/or that as teachers they had no responsibility to address difference or dominance in their classrooms.

Several teachers commented on the lack of diversity in their classroom settings, simply claiming, “I have no diversity in my classroom.” Sometimes, later in the same conversation, a teacher would unknowingly contradict this by mentioning gender differences, kids with disabilities, or the high rate of “free and reduced lunches” in the building, implying at least a socioeconomic diversity. Teachers initially saw diversity limited to an issue of race or sometimes sexuality, but not in terms of gender differences, family structures, language, class, or disability.

Some teachers saw the need to address diversity only when conflict occurred. For example, one teacher commented on how as the students worked with puppets, “only one boy had a problem with playing with dolls, so I didn’t really deal with it. It wasn’t an issue so I just let it go.” Another teacher told the story of how the only student of color in the class had used a “peach” crayon to draw a self-portrait, “just like all the other kids.” She reflected on this with, “I was glad he saw himself as just like everyone else. He didn’t segregate himself.” This teacher did not see diversity as an issue here since there was no conflict to deal with. In fact, the student, by coloring himself peach, also allowed the teacher to deny responsibility for addressing any issues of racial difference. In this teacher’s mind, there was no conflict, difference was minimized, and there was no need to deal with it.

Other teachers commented on this desire to minimize differences, with comments like, “Ifwe mention it, we’ 11 just be raising problems,” or, “I don’t want to make these kids feel there is something wrong with them.” In each case, the teacher’s interpretation of teaching for diversity meant addressing differences. If difference wasn’t mentioned, then it wouldn’t be noticed, and no conflicts would arise. Therefore there was no need to address it.

Another teacher spoke of a student who would not participate in any national, religious, or holiday celebrations. The child’s mother had suggested that her daughter be sent to the library during any such celebrations. The teacher reported to us that she had suggested to the parent that the child “would be more comfortable going home, instead of just sitting in the library.” In this case, the best way to deal with difference was to isolate it as far away as possible, thus avoiding conflict. This teacher saw no responsibility for teaching about differences, and no responsibility for the results of the centrality of holiday traditions in schools that exclude certain children.

Other teachers recognized some undesirable results of race, gender, or class bias, but denied responsibility for addressing them. One teacher talked about a boy who was ridiculed by others for not participating in many of the typical boys’ activities. This elementary student was interested in fashion design and dolls. She justified her concern and her discouragement of his involvement by saying, “I don’t want to be gender biased, but we have to protect the kid.” In this case, she saw no need to teach all the children about diversity by challenging gender role expectations.

Other teachers often began a statement criticizing a person from a marginalized group, denying responsibility for teaching for diversity, or understanding issues of dominance around diversity, with the comment, “I don’t want to sound prejudiced but…” In the most obvious denial of dealing with this topic one or two teachers commented, “Aren’t we getting away from Project SMART?” and “Let’s get back to Project SMART.” These teachers were suggesting that teaching for diversity has nothing to do with this thirteen-year professional development program. It may be that the teachers were also responding to a shift in the focus of the institute from a methods perspective to one that included both methods and foundations thinking; a move from reforming practice to critiquing it from a social, cultural perspective.

A couple of teachers commented in ways to suggest that they were refusing to accept the importance of racial diversity in teaching. One teacher shared an interchange with a student who had complained that she was being discriminated against. This teacher, who expressed concern about his own image, reported that he spoke to the student in the hall outside of class. Within that conversation, the teacher insisted that he wasn’t racist, and said to the student, “Don’t give me that race thing.” This teacher reported that by the end of this interchange, the student recanted her claim of discrimination. Another teacher spoke about how the only person of color in the classroom seemed to be fitting in without any problems, except for “that one time when he tried to use race as an excuse for why he had done poorly.” In both of these cases, the teachers saw absolutely no place for considering the influence of racial diversity in the classroom or their own ability for dealing with this diversity.

In these examples, teachers denied the existence of diversity in their classrooms, saw dealing with diversity as only smoothing over conflicts, showed no signs of seeing diversity as a function of social dominance, and clearly had no sense of their own agency except for avoiding talk of diversity. Yet, within each interchange, there was a clear implication that the teacher cared about her or his teaching, and operated with the best of intentions in helping the students learn. Once again, if anyone attempted to challenge these misconceptions about teaching for diversity, the challenger was seen as improper, rude, or simply not understanding this teacher’s experiences. In many cases there was no way to voice an alternative view of teaching. When a group of teachers was sitting around and someone told a story, making these kinds of comments, others nodded in agreement. As the story unfolded with good intentions clearly implied, and the uniqueness of one’s context was underscored, the social mechanism of politeness forced a silence in those who might question this thinking. Rather than stimulating thinking about change in teaching, the stories and comments only reinforced a climate of teaching to maintain the status quo. Often, teachers preferred to talk about the methods of teaching, but resisted considering any internal or external critiques of their experiences.

Fortunately, our story does not stop here. Even though there were many times when teachers were silent, deflected conversation away from the topic, or spoke with many misconceptions about teaching for diversity, there were other instances where teachers candidly confronted this topic with a desire to learn and change their teaching in this area.

Candid Confrontation

Within the context of this summer institute’s activities, some teachers showed a readiness to face issues of diversity, notice examples of dominance playing out in their communities and schools, and raise questions about how to improve their own teaching for diversity. We use the phrase candid confrontation to describe times when teachers considered their own assumptions about diversity, examined their teaching materials, and/or challenged their own teaching. Many times these comments were shared only in their learning logs. Other times, teachers shared with a few others within small group discussions. Occasionally, a teacher would speak out in a large group activity, opening the door for others to consider their own understanding of teaching for diversity.

Sometimes, the comment would only be a small part of a much larger conversation. But unlike the examples of polite avoidance mentioned earlier in this paper, the tone, and implication of these comments suggested a willingness to listen to others’ ideas. For example, one teacher told of how her students received a worksheet with a string of line drawings of culturally diverse people across the top. This teacher noted, with surprise and a bit of dismay, that, “The kids colored all the people white with the same color crayon, even though some were clearly people of color. I was so surprised.”

Some teachers acknowledged how differences manifest themselves. One teacher noted that in spite of seemingly positive inter-group relations within her classroom, class differences surfaced on the playground, with kids routinely separating according to class levels. Another teacher pointed out how her normally involved girl students were unusually passive when they got to gym class. These teachers wondered about the kinds of actions, if any, that could be taken to counteract this influence.

One fourth-grade teacher shared a specific strategy she used to counter the common practice of marginalization. One year the teacher had a child whose religion did not accept the celebration of holidays. In a reaction very different from that described earlier in this paper, this teacher chose to avoid any religious or national holiday celebrations for the entire year. She reported that her other students observed that this was the first time in five years that the one child did not have to leave the room and be excluded from classroom activities.

One teacher commented about the limited cultural diversity in her setting with, “I’ve only taught five Black kids in the past 20 years of my teaching.” This teacher, by confronting the teaching environment, briefly opened the door for further conversation about teaching for diversity in two very different contexts. Occasionally, when the urban and rural teachers talked together about their experiences, these distinctions surfaced, but were quickly abandoned in the conversation for a less threatening topic.

Some teachers reported how they have changed their own teaching. One spoke of her students drawing super heroes as part of an assignment, expressing satisfaction that so many of the students drew women super heroes as well as men. But then she explained how she also drew a super hero, saying, “I just had to make one of the super heroes a person of color, since all oftheir drawings were White.” In a classroom in which all the students are White, this small action can have important impact on students’ thinking. Another teacher told the story of arranging with a local soup kitchen to have her elementary students volunteer. She explained, “I wanted them to see another view.”

Some teachers wrote comments in their journals that suggested support for a focus on teaching for diversity, making comments like, “We have to keep talking about this,” and, “I think about this topic now in everything I teach.” A few others in responding to some comments where teachers were avoiding the topic, wrote comments like, “I’m shocked and angry to hear teachers talking like this about ignoring diversity.”

These comments are a clear contrast to the misconceptions and coded talk we described earlier in this paper. Sometimes their comments fell into a silent pit, with no reaction. At other times though, they served to carry the conversation about teaching for diversity, and to open up space for others to share their ideas and questions. Occasionally, the culture of silence was suspended allowing a culture of change to exist temporarily. During the two-week institute the large and small group discussions about teaching for diversity shifted back and forth from polite silence to one of social change, but most often settled back into silence quickly. A critical mass of people with different experiences and perspectives about teaching for diversity, and a desire of the workshop leaders to focus on this topic expanded the conversation somewhat.

Teachers’ comments that spoke to a willingness to work for change were very encouraging. Cross-cultural (urban/rural; white/people of color; straight/gay/ lesbian) experiences help to push the limits of their understandings. The recent graduates from our undergraduate program, where anti-bias teaching was encouraged, had markedly different responses to the topic from former graduates of the program. This mix of graduate students, urban teachers, and the local, rural-based teachers who recognized the importance of this topic, fueled conversations during the institute. However, the dominant culture of White, rural/suburban, experienced, women, elementary teachers maintained a norm where polite silence prevailed.

The relationship between foundations and methods perspectives allowed the institute to expand its focus a bit, from a predominantly curriculum development project to one which seriously examined diversity issues implicit in practice. Teachers reacted to this topic with a variety of responses ranging from no talk, polite talk, and misinformed talk, to candid confrontation and interrogation. Individual teachers responded in different ways at different times, across this range of responses, depending on the setting. For most responses, from silence to resistance, and even when the responses were most positive to the focus of the institute, many conversations did not go much beyond a sharing of a few experiences before being diverted to safer ground.


Both methodological and foundational analyses of the data would ask whether the process of the institute was consistent with the goals of getting teachers to address their own strategies for teaching for diversity. Long term, collaborative professional development provided a safe space for teachers to take risks. Even a small amount (25 percent) of exposure to an approach that promotes teaching for social change was seen as a confrontation, and resulted in various levels of discomfort. The reputation of Project SMART as a safe, welcoming place for teachers helped to smooth over some of the discomfort. In fact, it may have allowed for more willingness to talk than has otherwise been the case for many of the participating teachers. It was not surprising to us that many teachers expressed misinformed perspectives or attempted to talk around the issue of teaching for diversity. We knew that once misconceptions were voiced, they could be addressed through strategically planned activities.

Both a foundations and methods approach would question the appropriateness of this topic for this institute within the context of pedagogy and curriculum in today’s schools. We concluded that we did provide a learning environment that was conducive to growth, and that this topic was very necessary for this institute. Yet we fell short of meeting our goals.

The most troubling findings occur around teachers who used polite talk to avoid or deflect attention away from the issue. Finding a way to diminish the power of this polite talk is the biggest challenge we face in future interactions with Project SMART teachers. The levels of discomfort about working for social change that participants exhibited provide insight into how teachers see their roles as educators and as citizens in our diverse society. We must challenge the teacher role of supporting a “business as usual” approach. As Marilyn Cochran-Smith claims, “if we are going to prepare teachers to work intelligently and responsibly in a society that is increasingly diverse in race, language, and culture, then we need more teachers who are moved by their own intelligence and actively involved in communities that engage in `the heresy’ of systematic and critical inquiry” (1995, p. 520).

We must also find ways to disengage the implication that having biases, critical attitudes, and misconceptions about marginalized groups of people means that you are a bad or immoral person. If we can do this, teachers may not find it necessary to use polite talk and implied good intentions to shield their comments from challenges by others that are invested in candid confrontation of themselves, their curriculum, and their practice.

A methodological analysis of teachers’ responses to this institute might focus on identifying the things about the institute that helped people grow toward what we were trying to teach. These helpful characteristics included a welcoming atmosphere, a comfortable setting, establishing trust, the project’s positive reputation, caution in presenting a threatening topic, a variety of options for responding (journals, small group, large group), and opportunities to avoid the conversation at times. We would also identify the critical place where people did not grow and reverted to politeness to deflect the conversation. With polite talk being the norm, it was even difficult to challenge misconceptions, let alone challenge the silence. Thus we would need to think about how to re-teach the institute in a way that would help participants feel comfortable and not threatened, recognize their polite talk strategy, and then set up a system for moving beyond polite talk without being accused of rudeness. For example perhaps we could have started with issues of class and/or disability, since rural teachers face these each day, and then encourage them to extrapolate from there to issues of gender, race, and sexuality.

A foundational analysis would also focus on this mechanism of using polite talk to deflect the conversation. Certainly infusing foundational thinking into a professional development institute is valuable, but how can this occur if teachers have a sophisticated mechanism for avoiding the conversation? Taking a microscopic look at individual participants’ strategies for resisting aspects of this topic provides insight into understanding the power of oppression to maintain itself, and suggests strategies for constructively confronting those forms of resistance.

Laird (1998) spoke of foundational thinking as thinking that theorizes experiences. She discussed how a split developed between the people who teach (methods focus) and people who theorize about teaching (foundations focus). Noffke (1997), in discussing teachers’ roles in action research, described this split between the knowers and the teachers as occurring in the 1960s following the launch of Sputnik and continuing to the present. If we think of this knowledge-practice split in terms of the summer institute, it quickly becomes clear that the teachers were not willing (or able) to theorize their experiences. Clearly the polite talk mechanism simply deflected attention away from the topic. At first we thought this deflection might be due to discomfort, or to fear of dealing with a topic that they didn’t know much about. While these conclusions are partly true, they don’t explain why the teachers who were interested in talking more about the topic didn’t say much either. It could be that for teachers who were socialized into the teaching field through bachelors and masters programs that highlighted the separation between methodological and foundational thinking, and then entered a profession where this socialization was reinforced every day within the school structure, theorizing one’s experiences is just not considered. It’s not an option.

If there is no concept of theorizing for these teachers, then any attempt to get them to confront their own biases and their own limitations to teach for diversity, can only be seen as a direct attack on their teaching methods, and therefore on them as teachers. It makes sense then that to protect themselves, they would remain silent, deflect the conversation, and accuse any one who confronted them as being rude. Thus silence would reign and misconceptions would continue to flourish, since there would be no mechanism to confront them.

If this analysis is correct, then there are two additional implications to be considered. Yes, according to the methodological analysis, we must find ways to provide a safe, non-threatening atmosphere in which to discuss our teaching experiences, work to understand our teachers, and begin our instruction from the point of their experiences. In addition, if we are to infuse foundational thinking in any work we do within a professional development setting, we must find ways to help teachers understand the concept of theorizing one’s experiences. We can’t assume that this process is something that just comes naturally. Instead we must find in our own teaching, strategies to teach about the process of theorizing, and to help teachers understand that theorizing about their own experiences is not antithetical to their work as teachers; that one can be self-critical from a professional level, without undermining one’s position as a teacher. If there is to be infusion of foundational thinking into professional development, foundations scholars must take the lead from methods scholars and learn to directly teach the theorizing that they (we) find essential to good teaching practice.

Copyright Caddo Gap Press Spring 2001

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