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Speaker offers teachers tips to reach across the boundaries of local cultures

Bonnie Davis addresses an audience Thursday during a presentation at the Willmar Education and Arts Center designed to help teachers communicate with minority students. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

Bonnie Davis shocked herself when, after a couple decades of teaching, she looked at two male students who were late to her ad-vanced literature class and immediately made assumptions about them in her mind.

That Asian boy had probably stayed late at his calculus class to talk to the teacher, she thought, but when she looked at the black boy, spo-rts came to mind.

It made her think, "What am I capable of doing that I may not know I'm doing?"

Davis, author of the book "How to teach Students Who Don't Look Like You," spoke to the Willmar School District staff last week. Her visit was sponsored by the West Central Integration Collaborative, and she spoke at the BOLD Schools, too.

Davis's talk was peppered with humor and personal stories of her 30 years teaching English and her multi-cultural family. Staff members were involved in role-playing exercises.

Davis said she was happy to be speaking to the entire school staff, a total of about 800 people. "Every one of you is important and necessary for the learning process to occur," she said. "Everyone in the building counts."

Davis offered a variety of suggestions for the district's predominantly white workforce in working with a student body that is 40 percent minority.

Some of the advice seemed simple -- use humor, acknowledge all students, be clear about the rules, have high expectations for all students, learn how to pronounce names correctly.

Underlying the simple strategies is the goal of overcoming the subconscious stereotypes that everyone develops over the lives, Davis said.

"Classroom instruction is influenced by the cultural lens through which we see the world," she said, but there are ways to even the playing field for all students in a classroom.

It's important to meet and greet students every day, Davis said. Depending on the teacher and the age of students, it could be a high-five at the door in the morning or a "check-in" question that each student answers in turn. Her example with the Willmar staff was a question about what a mother would carry in her purse or pockets.

A check-in can take less than a minute, she said, but it establishes a mood for the class, "gets everyone's voice in the air" and prepares students for learning.

"Kids who don't look like you may feel invisible or hyper-visible," she said. With the check-in, "all kids start out with the correct answer."

Davis also recommended posting photos of students in classrooms and photos of staff members around the school. It's also important to post photos of role models, not sports heroes, from different cultures, she said.

Teachers can make sure they interact with all their students through their body language in moving around a classroom, she said. To "privilege" students through body language, she said, a teacher needs to be an arm's length away from each student twice in a class period.

Outlining the rules of a classroom is also an important way to overcome cultural differences, Davis said. Cultural groups have "hidden rules" that are subconscious, she said, but the unspoken rules need to be spelled out, so everyone knows what they are.

After Davis's lively two-hour talk, staff members said they had appreciated Davis's insights.

"I thought it was great," bilingual paraprofessional Mary Nichols said. She works at the Senior High School. "We've learned of her mistakes," she added. "I liked the fact that she was not perfect."

Mariana Thurston, also a Senior High bilingual paraprofessional, said she was planning to buy Davis's book. Davis's talk gave the staff things they can apply to their work right away, she said.

Senior High math teacher Kim Rhode said she appreciated Davis's discussion of her upbringing in a homogenous, all-white community in southern Missouri.

"I see myself in her," she said. "That's the way I grew up."

Davis's talk helped staff members understand that "we have stereotypes" and need to work to overcome them, Rhode added.

Rhode and the others praised the school district for offering training for the staff to help people understand other cultures.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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