Why We Need Ethnic Studies in Teacher Preparation Programs

An Urban Teacher Talks to Teacher Educators:

By Cynthia Ellwood

In November 1990, Cynthia Ellwood was asked to discuss the ethics of urban teacher preparation at the 4th National Forum of the Association of Independent Liberal Arts Colleges for Teacher Education. At the time, Ellwood was a bilingual English teacher at South Division High School. The text of her presentation follows.

As a white teacher in Milwaukee’s most culturally diverse high school, I believe if we are to meet the needs of urban education, we need many more teachers of color. But I cannot speak for teachers of color.

Instead I reflect here on my own experience and its particular implications for training teaching candidates of European American descent.

At the very core of teaching is the task of helping students make connections between what they already understand and the new concepts, information or skills.

Scientists of the human mind tell us we can remember very few totally separate items at once, and all learning is a process of somehow associating new information with old. So this is my job as a teacher: to help students make connections. And to do that, I need to have a pretty good picture of what their understandings are — or I need a way to probe those understandings.

Making connections is central to my job whether I want my students look deeply into a character in a novel we’re reading; whether I’m trying to help my students write literary criticism for the first time in their lives; or whether I’m juggling the complex dynamics that automatically come into play when you put 30 teenagers in one room.

Teaching is interaction, and it demands all the resources of my being. At any moment I have to decide whether to present information or stand back and let a student discover it. I have to know when and how to encourage, compel, accept, judge, nurture, admonish, humor, provoke, and inspire thirty individuals. Now if I am teaching your son or daughter, you undoubtedly hope that I understand your child well enough to make those decisions — so often spontaneous ones — wisely. And if I really understand your kid, if I can see into his soul a bit, or if I can figure out how his mind works when he’s wrestling with a particular concept or skill, or if I can find a way to make him passionately interested in what I teach, I just might be able to inspire him to real heights. But if I don’t understand, I can damage your kid. I can turn him off, or set him back, or crush his feelings, or stifle his opportunities.

White Teacher

But what happens when a white teacher like myself from a protestant, upper-middle class family tries to teach children who are poor, or working class, or Puerto Rican, or African American, Laotian, Mexican, Catholic, Pentecostal, Arab, or Native American? Anthropologists tell us culture and experience shape our perceptions. And there is no question that my students have all sorts of experiences and perceptions very different from my own. If the core of teaching is making connections between students’ experiences and the content of the curriculum, if teaching is a series of judgement calls as I have argued, I am constantly at risk of making mistakes.

A number of scholars have shown just how easy and damaging it is for perfectly well intentioned educators to make mistakes rooted in cultural ignorance. At worst, I am at risk of severely compromising my students’ chances for success; at best I am at risk of not being very effective in my teaching if I do not understand what my students see and know — or even understand that it may rationally be different from what I see and know.

Now maybe I’m overdramatizing. If I as one teacher fail to reach, nurture, and inspire your son or daughter, it’s probably not the end of the world; a child can probably recover from this single experience. But if entire educational systems repeatedly misjudge or work ineffectively with certain categories of children — if those systems test, track, and teach in such a way that creates unequal results — we have a problem of national dimensions.

Seeing Differently

I believe that race and class profoundly shape one’s experiences in this country. In Drylongso, a collection of oral histories of black people collected by anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney, sixty year old Hannah Nelson reminisces:

One time in rural Georgia a white woman and I were stranded in a ditch in her car.

When some policemen came and helped us, she was relieved to see them, but I was frightened. Now, I know many other black women who have had experiences like that and most felt just like I did. I didn’t know what those policemen might do, but the white woman with me felt quite certain that they would help us. Well, I knew that they would help her, but I didn’t really think they would help me.

It is not only in the rural Georgia of yesterday that people of color have reason to mistrust the police. I have a full load of bilingual classes this year, so all my students are Latino. If my students — particularly my male students — stand on a street corner in a group of three, they get a very different response from a passing patrol car than three white kids standing on a street corner in the suburbs. They could be the most clean-cut, innocent male students — and I have some real innocents; some of my students have grown up in incredibly protective environments in spite of what’s going on in cities today — but the mere fact that they grew up male and Latino in the city means that they have a very different experience with the law enforcement system.

Recently an inspirational speaker came to our school to address students about gangs, drugs, alcohol, and sex. This man, Joseph Jennings, with his “Listen hard, because I been there and I’m here to level with you” style is able to command the attention of hundreds of teenagers in an auditorium near the end of the school day in a way that I never thought possible. At the climax of his speech that day, he leaned forward dramatically and said to my students and the other students there, “You are not garbage!” and my students sat there wide-eyed as he repeated it, “You are not garbage!”

Imagine — the young people I teach need to be told they are not garbage! And it’s not because their families do not love them — they love their children as intensely as all parents do. Rather, if you look at media images of young people of color, if you search our national consciousness, you discover that America is afraid of these young people. I have trouble imagining what it would feel like to grow up in a world that was afraid of me. What if I looked at myself in society’s mirror, and I saw drug dealers, hookers, gang bangers, and welfare cheats? That feeling of being outside — of being considered garbage — could not be farther from my own experience growing up as a white person who could take certain future opportunities for granted.

It is relevant to my job that I recognize

that my students may on the basis of solid experience respond differently to a situation than I do. And if in my English class I want my students to write from their hearts, or articulate thoughtful opinions on an issue of the day, or probe the themes in a piece of literature, if I even hope to convince them to take school and my class seriously, I have to understand something about the nature of their experience in the world.

Training Student Teachers

How, then, do we prepare teachers to teach children whose experience in the world may be very different from their own? I believe we must:

  1. Dramatically augment the number of faculty and students of color in colleges and universities;
  2. Require every teaching candidate to acquire a strong background in ethnic studies; and
  3. Recognize that aspiring teachers need to be armed not simply with “methods” and content knowledge, but with the sensibilities and skills necessary to probe student understandings and make the connections to the curriculum.

I deal with each of these proposals briefly below.

First, I think any college or university that seriously hopes to meet the needs of multicultural urban schools must embrace significant numbers of faculty and students of color. Clearly children in schools need more teachers that share their cultural background. But I am also contending here that we cannot train white teachers and we cannot fully explore questions of urban education if “we” is a group of white people with all the best intentions in the world who nevertheless only hear our own voices. (And having just a few students or faculty of color will not do. What happens then is that those few “culturally different” do all the adapting and then are called upon to articulate “the minority perspective.”)

Ethnic Studies

Second, I propose that every teaching candidate undergo a rigorous program of ethnic studies. By ethnic studies, I don’t mean learning a smorgasbord of ethnic holidays, heroes, and dates; I don’t even mean studying “learning styles.” I mean a series of courses that look in depth at the history, literature, and culture of particular ethnic groups.

If student teachers studied linguistics long enough to understand that say, an African American dialect is as rule-bound and linguistically sophisticated as the dialect which has gained prominence as “Standard American English,” they might be less inclined to judge their students as unintelligent simply because they spoke a different dialect. If they also studied African American history and literature, gaining an appreciation for the immense love of language running through African

American culture, they might be able to recognize in their own black students, skills and linguistic strengths that could be built upon in the classroom.

Similarly, if we gained an appreciation for the tenacious struggles people of color have waged historically in this country around education, it might be a little bit harder to jump to the immensely unlikely conclusion that “those parents” do not care about the education of their children.

If we want to be successful in educating urban students, this respect is essential. We need teachers who will assume absolutely that the children in front of them are worthy and capable and who will assume that parents love their children and want the best for them.

An aspiring urban teacher needs to transcend the limits of her own experience, to begin to internalize the notion that her students may see things differently, to begin to cultivate an abiding respect for the children she teaches, their parents, and their communities. A rigorous and extensive program of ethnic studies would help teachers do that.

Nor is ethnic studies needed only when we teach children of color. Even white teachers of white children need to prepare those children for a multicultural world, and teacher educators need multicultural education themselves.


Third, I propose that teacher education programs take to heart the concept that teaching is a highly social interaction in which the teacher helps students make connections between students’ prior understandings and the new material at hand.

We might make use of case studies that ask teachers to think about what’s inside students’ heads, or how to probe student understandings, or how to forge connections, or analyze and make use of classroom dynamics.

Consider an issue I had to grapple with recently. In my English classes, I’ve always insisted on tossing out workbooks and anthologies of short, “basalized” readings. Instead, I have students read and write about book-length works — novels and biographies. But this year for the first time, I was teaching bilingual English classes, facing students with a great range of English and Spanish language skills. I have students who are very bilingual, some who are English dominant, some who are Spanish dominant but intellectually extremely well trained, and a number who read and write well in neither English or Spanish. How could all of these students proceed at the same pace in Richard Wright’s autobiography, Black Boy? Participants in a teacher education class could gain valuable practice by articulating, debating, and imagining the outcomes of a variety of possible approaches to this dilemma.

After conducting that same dialogue in my own head and with colleagues (including my student field observer from the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee), I decided to organize heterogeneous reading groups in which students would be expected to help one another. I came into my classes the next day and explained my thinking, telling students that I would be grading them each day on group process (these are energetic tenth graders), and they would also receive group product grades. I told them they had two class periods to read chapter two, which was 45 pages long, and to produce one vocabulary word and one thoughtful discussion question per group member. As I anticipated, they immediately argued that they should be able to form their own groups, and after some discussion, I let them.

The results were remarkable. On day one, 9 out of 12 groups got As in group process, and on day two all 12 groups did. Most groups read out loud the first day, but one divided the chapter into sections. Then they actually assigned themselves homework. On the second day, my room was abuzz with kids excitedly explaining the chapter to one another in both English and Spanish, conversing about Richard Wright’s life and sharing their own similar experiences, or pressing on with their reading. I had found a way to keep a heterogeneous group of students challenged and engaged in the business of English.

These are the kinds of dilemmas teachers constantly wrestle with. Yet too many teacher education programs fail to train teachers to address the deep complexities of human interaction that teaching really involves. When cultural differences compound these complexities, the need for sophisticated teacher training is even greater.

No teacher education program can anticipate all the complicated demands a teacher will encounter in trying to draw connections between students’ understandings and the curriculum. But we can approach teaching and teacher education with the expectation that we must constantly and forever struggle to examine our own perspectives and explore the experiences of others. Then when things do not work, maybe we will be less likely to label, judge, or surrender to frustration, and more likely to search for another way.


Erickson, Frederick and Gerald Mohatt (1982). Cultural Organization of Participation Structures in Two Classrooms of Indian Students. In George Spindler (Ed.), Doing the Ethnography of Schooling. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Gwaltney, John Langston (1981). Drylongso: A Self Portrait of Black America. New York: Vintage Books.

Heath, Shirley Brice (1983). Ways with Words: Language, Life and Work in Communities and Classrooms. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Labov, William (1972) Language in the Inner City. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

McDermott, R.P. (1974) Achieving School Failure: An Anthropological Approach to Illiteracy and Social Stratification. In George D. Spindler (Ed.), Education and Cultural Process, New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.

Rist , Ray C. (1970) Student Social Class and Teacher Expectations: The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy in Ghetto Education. Harvard Education Review, 40(3), 411-451.

Cynthia Ellwood coordinates Milwaukee Public School’s K-12 curriculum reform effort.