NYU Steinhardt News

Studying Abroad in the Dominican Republic: Developing Culturally Responsive Teachers for an Increasingly Diverse Student Population

Professor Shondel Nero published the following article, "Studying Abroad in the Dominican Republic: Developing Culturally Resonsive Teachers for an Increasingly Diverse Student Population," in the Newsletter of the Teacher Education Interest Section of the TESOL International Association. The article is reprinted with permission of the author. 

This article describes a three-week study abroad program in the Dominican Republic for pre-service teachers at New York University to address cultural diversity in teacher education. The program seeks to deepen teachers’ understanding of their students’ cultures, develop empathy towards language learning, and promote culturally responsive pedagogy.

On January 20, 2017, nineteen pre-service teachers--all graduate students in New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development--and I returned to New York City (NYC) from an annual study abroad program that I created and lead in the Dominican Republic (DR) during the January intersession. The paradox of the day was not lost on us, as we were just returning from spending three weeks in the DR learning about, and immersing ourselves in, the culture and language of the country from which many students in NYC public schools hail, even as our newly inaugurated president was touting “America first” to the country and world. It is important that we confront this cognitive dissonance in the 21st century -- the fact, and frequent celebration of, an increasingly culturally and linguistically diverse population and, by extension, student body, even as many fear and try to retreat from it. Teacher education programs are an appropriate place to constructively confront this tension because teachers are on the front lines of engaging cultural and linguistic difference in our schools today. They are, by default, cultural brokers. This article thus describes the conception, goals, design, and highlights of the aforementioned study abroad program as one approach to addressing cultural diversity in teacher education.

The demographic imperative
According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2012), immigration to the US has increased significantly since 2000 with the Latino population from the Caribbean, Central and South America leading the way. This demographic shift nationally has translated into a marked increase in English learners (ELs) in public schools across the country. At roughly 4.4 million (National Center for Education Statistics, 2016), ELs are the fastest growing segment of the K–12 student population and are predicted to represent 25% of all public school students by 2025. In NYC in particular, the most culturally and linguistically diverse city in the country, over 3 million of its 8.4 million residents are foreign born, the largest group of approximately 380,000 or 12.4% hailing from the DR. This is directly reflected in NYC classrooms where Dominicans are the largest Spanish-speaking population. Therefore most NYC teachers, regardless of their subject area, are likely to have Dominican children in their classrooms. For this reason, teachers in NYC need a more in-depth understanding of Dominican culture to better serve this population.

Teacher education curricula
I believe bolder steps need to be taken to enrich teacher education curricula, which must go beyond including cultural diversity issues in course readings. We should bolster these readings by providing real opportunities for pre- and in-service teachers and their professors to experience “otherness,” i.e., to engage linguistic and cultural difference first hand by temporarily living and learning in the countries of their students’ origin. Thus, I led the first group of mostly MA TESOL and/or Foreign Language pre-service teachers from Steinhardt on a three-week study abroad program to the DR in 2010, and the program has run uninterrupted annually in January since then.

The program, entitled Culture and Language Learning in Real Time (CLLRT), was conceived and developed as a collaborative learning experience between Steinhardt and Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM), the leading Catholic University in the DR, located in Santiago, the second largest city. The conceptual framework for the program is situated within four interrelated areas of research – second language acquisition (SLA), study abroad as a component of SLA, culturally responsive pedagogy, and intercultural competence.

Second language acquisition and study abroad
Krashen (1982) has proposed the well-known distinction between language acquisition (learning language by immersion in naturalistic settings) and language learning (formal study of language in a classroom) to explain differential outcomes in SLA. In fact, many studies in SLA have examined language learning from the learner’s perspective, but have not looked at the extent to which having teachers engage in language immersion raises their sensitivity to their own students’ language learning process, and how that might inform their teaching of such students.

One way for teachers to engage in language immersion is through study abroad programs, which often include specific learning objectives such as developing competence in a foreign language; understanding how cultures and societies are formed, sustained, and evolve; and developing empathy for the values and perspectives of cultures other than one’s own. CLLRT encompasses all of these objectives, including a required language learning component.

Culturally responsive pedagogy and intercultural competence
CLLRT is also informed by the work of researchers who have argued that culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP) should be a focal point of teacher education curricula if we are to adequately prepare teachers for the growing diversity in the student population. Gay (2000, p. 29) defines CRP as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students.” Such pedagogy requires as a starting point certain dispositions towards learners (e.g., empathy, openness, curiosity). Furthermore, engaging students’ prior knowledge and experiences requires intercultural competence, i.e., having or seeking in-depth knowledge of students’ cultures, and interacting and communicating with students in ways that are contextually appropriate and effective (Lustig & Koester, 2010). These issues are all addressed in the graduate course that is part of CLLRT.

Program Design
CLLRT is a two-part theoretical/experiential learning experience. Students take a three-credit Steinhardt graduate course entitled, Intercultural Perspectives in Multicultural Education taught by me at PUCMM. Topics include: cultural norms and values; intercultural competence; cross-cultural communication in and beyond the classroom, including the role of race/ethnicity, class, and gender; and culturally responsive pedagogy. Prior to departure in early January, students must attend two pre-departure orientations to obtain background information on PUCMM, discuss program goals, and review the course syllabus. Students are also required to read and respond to pre-departure readings on differences in values, beliefs, and practices across cultures, and the history and current state of the DR to provide some context.

In addition to taking the Steinhardt graduate course, students simultaneously learn Spanish through an immersion model by taking a one-credit undergraduate level Spanish class offered by PUCMM faculty. All students admitted to the program are required to take the Spanish class regardless of whether or not they know Spanish. The goal for taking the Spanish class is not to become fluent in Spanish but for these prospective teachers to experience what it feels like to be a language learner and hopefully develop empathy for the language learning challenges of ELs who are new to the US, and must learn English for schooling and survival.

The most important experiential component of the program is the fact students and I stay with Dominican host families for the entire duration of the program, which provides an authentic setting for language and cultural immersion. We also do a number of educational tours and cultural activities across the island, all arranged by PUCMM’s Office of International Students. We visit Dominican schools, observe classes in session, and have a debriefing session with teachers to get a better understanding of the Dominican education system. We also visit museums, an orphanage, a market at border with Haiti, the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo, among other places.

Evaluation of the program
The program is evaluated through a combination of quantitative and qualitative measures including: (1) the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a 50-item survey instrument used to measure intercultural competence. Students complete the same survey pre- and post-program, and then paired sample t-tests are calculated to assess changes in their intercultural dispositions; (2) a qualitative evaluation form that I developed for the program which asks students to comment on the Spanish class; my graduate course; living with a host family; the various educational tours that we do; their overall experience in the DR; and how they would connect it to their teaching; (3) the regular Steinhardt course evaluation form.

Students always rank the homestay as the best part of their experience, as they say it gives them an authentic exposure to Dominicans with all of their complexities. They also experience first hand Dominican cultural values, norms, beliefs, and practices – those subjective aspects of culture that are subtle, deeply embedded, and often the most difficult aspect of teachers’ intercultural work. They emphasize that the visit to schools helps them to understand the educational experience of Dominican children so that they can be better prepared to build on their students’ strengths, and address the challenges they face in NYC schools. Students note that the Spanish class provides models of language teaching, as well as shows them the pros and cons of an immersion model. For those who don’t know Spanish, they state that they immediately feel empathy for their beginner ELs, but they also note that they’re acutely aware of the difference between their voluntary short-term stay in the DR, and the permanent residence of their immigrant children who are brought to the US not by their own choice. Finally, students report that this experience makes them more willing and able to negotiate the uncomfortable moments of engaging students from different cultural backgrounds.

Studying abroad is one approach to helping teachers better engage with our culturally diverse students today. There are obviously many other approaches that can be equally constructive. As migration patterns continue to change, and students bring new and different cultures, languages, and funds of knowledge to our schools, teacher education programs would do well to adjust their dispositions, curricula, and practices to engage our students in academically enriching and culturally responsive ways.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New
York: Teachers College Press.

Krashen, S. (1982). Principles and practice in second language acquisition. Oxford:
Pergamon Press.

Lusting, M. & Koester, J. (2010). Intercultural competence: Intercultural
communication across cultures, 6th. ed. Boston, MA: Pearson Education.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2016). The condition of education 2016 (NCES
2016-144). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

U.S. Census Bureau. (2012). Statistical abstract of the United States, 2012. Washington,
DC: Government Printing Office. Retrieved from http://www.census.gov/compendia/