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Illinois State University School of Teaching and Learning—Changing to Respond to Rise in Linguistically and Culturally Diverse Students

An imperative question guiding my work at the Latino Policy Forum is not if all Illinois teachers and educational leadership should be prepared to meet the spectrum of linguistic and cultural diversity in their classrooms, but how to implement plans that improve their linguistic and cultural responsiveness.  This question is motivated by two significant changes in education: newly minted intensified academic standards and a greatly changing student demographic. 

To address this issue of teacher preparedness, part of my ongoing work at the Forum involves convening a pre- and in-service teacher preparation work group to review, reflect on, and make suggestions to developing a statewide approach to fortify teacher preparation for linguistic and culturally diverse students. 

Dr. Elizabeth Skinner is a critical member of the work group.  She is an assistant professor of bilingual education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Illinois State University.  We are privileged to post her guest blog about current changes at her university aimed at making general education candidates more linguistically and culturally responsive. -Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro


Guest blog by Dr. Elizabeth Skinner, Illinois State University

In her June 6, 2014 blog, Rebecca Vonderlack-Navarro asked how to prepare all Illinois teachers and educational leaders to meet the spectrum of linguistic and cultural diversity in their classrooms and improve their linguistic and cultural responsiveness.  That is a good question; one that all teacher preparation programs must address and after reading the description of Loyola’s innovative program redesign, I felt compelled to contribute to the conversation.

I’ll start by stating that the conversation around how colleges of education are preparing all teacher candidates to work with culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students and/or English learners (EL) is long overdue.  Those of us in bilingual education, both at the school and university level, have had this discussion for years and due to the lack of a practical response, simply attempted to extend our reach and presence in the local schools, communities, and colleges of education.  As a faculty member in the Bilingual/Bicultural Program at Illinois State University (ISU), I can say from experience that it is both liberating and frustrating to finally be invited out of the margins.  For too long, bilingual education, much like special education, has been viewed as the domain of a few teachers or faculty members and not necessarily considered relevant to the work of so-called mainstream educators. 

Demographic Shifts: Diverse Students in Every Classroom

Given the demographic shift across the country and the increased numbers of ELs in all school districts, that narrow interpretation of need is no longer practical.  At ISU the first concrete indication of the need to improve our teacher candidates’ preparation to work with ELs came through feedback from our graduates. Many of our former students, who were teaching in schools throughout the state, responded to a survey stating that they did not feel well prepared to meet the needs of the ELs in their classrooms.  In some cases, I imagine that the graduates were surprised to actually find ELs in their suburban and exurban school districts.   More recently, graduates looking for jobs have discovered that many Illinois school districts won’t even interview them if they don’t hold their ESL endorsement along with their elementary education license. 

Opportunity for Change: New Illinois Teacher Licensure

Fortunately, the change in the teacher licensure structure in Illinois has prompted all teacher preparation institutions to rethink and redesign their programs, thus allowing (or forcing, depending upon how you look at it) us to address the needs of the growing number of CLD school children in the state.  Under the old certification structure, every ISU elementary education major also took the necessary courses to earn a middle level endorsement.  The new initial licensing structure distinguishes between the elementary education license and the middle level license, so that is no longer possible. This change freed up several credit hours for our students and gave faculty the opportunity to dream big and discuss options, albeit on a rather tight timeline.  

Elementary Education Redesign for Enhanced Training on Language and Cultural Difference

After examining our elementary education program and evaluating the needs of Illinois school children as well as priorities for our teacher candidates, faculty in the School of Teaching and Learning at ISU agreed that all elementary education majors should have options available that align with their interests and improve their ability to work with CLD students.  As a result of these discussions and this work, our redesigned elementary education program will allow students to choose to earn state credentials in ESL, bilingual education, or reading.  If they do not opt to work toward one of those credentials, students can choose a trajectory of classes that focus on diverse learners or special education. 

All Students Receive Some Level of Fortified Preparation on English Learners

It’s important to note that students who do not earn the bilingual or ESL endorsement will be required to take one foundations course on working with ELs in the mainstream classroom and participate in an extensive clinical placement with ELs.  Unlike past and current graduates, all ISU students, regardless of interest and selected track, will have at least some foundation in working with CLD students. This is a welcome and necessary change in the preparation of teachers for Illinois schools.

In addition to the ESL endorsement track, the School of Teaching and Learning intends to add a bilingual/bicultural minor option for students.  Currently our Bilingual/Bicultural Program is a major program of study only for elementary education students who speak Spanish and English and want to teach in a bilingual setting. Students who major in bilingual/bicultural education graduate with their elementary education license and bilingual endorsement.  While ISU will continue to offer the bilingual/bicultural major, the bilingual minor will be an option for those teacher candidates who speak English and a language other than Spanish, as well as for early childhood, middle level, secondary, and special education teacher candidates.

During recent conversations with Chicago area principals, I’ve found myself explaining our redesign and assuring them that, “Starting with our 2015 freshman class, most ISU elementary education majors will also have the ESL endorsement.”  I certainly hope that is the case.  I also hope that all of our students will not only be well prepared for, but also looking forward to working with the wonderful variety of CLD students who will be in their classrooms, no matter where they choose to teach. 



PHOTO: HCPLEBRANCH/Creative Commons 

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