“These people should learn English or we’ll send them back to where they came from,” Mayor Barton exclaimed to enthusiastic applause during his election victory speech. During a fiercely contested campaign, Mayor Barton relied on stoking racism and xenophobia in Dovetown to rally his base. The suburban town, which until recently had been predominantly white, was attracting growing numbers of Somali and Central American immigrants looking for work in its growing service industries. Although many people in Dovetown welcomed the diversity, others were not so welcoming.
Over the next couple weeks Ms. Samaya, a science teacher at South Dovetown School, noticed more and more sentiments mirroring Mayor Barton’s statement surfacing, not only around the community, but in the school. She noticed the significant increase in racial and ethnic bias incidents targeting not only Somali and Central American students, but all students of color. Then, one night during an evening newscast when a reporter was interviewing local residents about the aftermath of the election, she watched as William, one of her neighbors, said he missed the “good old days” when everybody in the town knew one another and nobody had to worry much about “outsiders.” Citing one of Mayor Barton’s campaign claims despite it having been debunked by the town’s sheriff, William stared into the camera and said, “Those people bring crime into my town and take our jobs.” A group of people standing behind William clapped and cheered.
Ms. Samaya was concerned for her students. She was concerned for those who were part of the communities targeted by the racism and xenophobia displayed so brazenly by William and shared by many other adults in town. And she was worried for the children who were being socialized by parents to adopt William’s views. As a child of immigrants, Ms. Samaya was fully aware these views had always existed to some extent in the town. But Mayor Barton’s election had given people permission to share them publicly and many were doing so.
Although many teachers at South Dovetown were chatting informally about the election and the increase in bias incidents, Ms. Samaya was frustrated that the principal, Mr. Smith, had not addressed the issue with the full staff. She felt anxious about the upcoming staff meeting, hoping he would mention it.
Nothing is simple when it comes to diversity and social justice. Perhaps we can all agree that each student ought to have access to equitable educational opportunity—that a student’s (or, for that matter, a teacher’s or administrator’s) racial identity, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, gender identity, or home language should not determine her level of access to educational opportunity or predict her grades or her likelihood of graduating from high school. But do we agree on how to construct a just educational system or even an equitable classroom?
We believe one struggle that impedes us as a community of educators in our quest to create more just schools is a pattern of trying to solve complex problems or address complex conditions with simple, immediate solutions. Consider, for example, the time and resources schools across the U.S. have invested in attempting to narrow achievement gaps by training their teachers on culture- or identity-specific “learning styles”; on the “girl brain” and “boy brain”; on the “culture of poverty.” We understand the lure of these approaches, as dangerous as they are. We share the sense of urgency that accompanies rooms full of students who cannot wait, and should not have to wait, for the educational revolution to come along before their learning needs are addressed more effectively.
Although easy practical solutions might be convenient, they also can do damage. Often they shift the equity responsibility onto the student, focusing on fixing students’ mindsets or grittiness instead of addressing the conditions that require some students to be more resilient than others. They are simple and straightforward and, unfortunately, often more a reflection of inequity than a challenge to inequity.
For example, research has shown that teaching to particular learning styles is ineffective because students’ learning styles and learning needs change depending on what they are learning, the context in which they’re learning, from whom they are learning, and their confidence with the material, among other factors. Moreover, identity-specific learning styles simply do not exist. At any moment the diversity of preferred learning modalities within individual identity groups—African American boys, for example—is just as great as the diversity of preferred learning modalities between identity groups.
Complicating matters, a considerable portion of disparities in educational outcomes such as academic performance and graduation rates are symptoms of conditions that fall outside our individual spheres of influence as educators. We cannot control the racism and xenophobia students and their families face outside schools. We can and, we would argue, we should at the very least be aware of these conditions and how they affect students’ lives and school experiences. After all, these conditions also affect students’ interactions with us and with the schools in which we work.
Upon reading the scenario involving South Dovetown, it might be easy to think, I have no control over the results of an election or bias in the community. That has nothing to do with school. If only matters of diversity and social justice education were that simple.
When the meeting was almost over and Mr. Smith hadn’t mentioned the election or the bias incidents, Ms. Samaya decided to speak up. As soon as Mr. Smith asked whether anybody had new business, she raised her hand.
“I think we need to talk about how this election is affecting our students,” she said. Several of her colleagues nodded. A few others fidgeted uncomfortably in their seats. “Moreover,” she added, “I think we need to take a stand against bias and bigotry. We need to let students know they are all welcome here. I don’t know or care who voted for whom, but can’t we at least agree we have a responsibility to all our students?”
As a wave of chatter filled the room Mr. Smith tried to regain control of the conversation. “OK, OK,” he said loudly. “Let’s settle down. I figured somebody was going to bring that up. We are planning an anti-bullying workshop for our next professional development day. So things are in motion.”
“What about a public statement? We need to let the community know we don’t support all this bigotry,” Ms. Samaya said.
Mr. Smith responded, “As for that, we need to be careful not to enter the political fray. As a school we can’t take a political stand. We strive to be welcoming to all students, but a public statement might offend people who voted for Mayor Barton.”
“Well, I voted for Mayor Barton and it would definitely offend me,” Ms. Allister, a language arts teacher, said angrily. “Whatever happened to free speech? I feel like I can’t be honest about how this influx of Somalis and Hispanics has made it harder to teach the kids who are actually from this community. And a lot of it goes back to their parents refusing to learn how to speak English.”
There are no perfect answers or solutions when it comes to the complexities of diversity and social justice. Nobody has invented a magic formula for solving the issues swirling around South Dovetown. The scarcity of right answers underlines why we must develop and hone the knowledge and skills that help us to make sense of real-life messiness. Otherwise we risk allowing ourselves to be swayed by popular mythology and how we’ve been socialized to buy into that mythology when we respond to bias and inequity. We risk responding without an intricate understanding for why certain conditions exist in our classrooms and schools.
So, what would you do if you were Ms. Samaya or one of Ms. Samaya’s colleagues attending that meeting? What would you do in the immediate term? Would you challenge Principal Smith or Ms. Allister? Would you attempt to invite others at the meeting into a conversation about why an anti-bullying workshop sometime in the future is not an adequate response? Would you look for other ways to support Somali and Central American students?
Just as importantly, how would you respond in the longer term, knowing others in the room might share Ms. Allister’s beliefs or Mr. Smith’s misunderstandings? How might you seek and share deeper insights about how Mayor Barton’s election might affect students in the long run? How would you use what you learn to become a more equitable educator, not just for current students, but for future students?
Certainly, as much as we might want to do so, we cannot in our roles as educators control some of the bigger life situations in which our students and their families find themselves. We might not have the power in our roles as educators to eliminate racism and xenophobia from society; we probably don’t have the power to change the fact that students will come to school with biases they learned from their parents or from the media. We do, however, have the power to understand how our students’ lives outside of school—the repressions they and their families face, the inequities with which they contend—inform the way they experience us and school. We have the power to strengthen our abilities to create equitable learning environments and to maintain high expectations for all students by considering these contextual factors in addition to the everyday practicalities of our work as we shape our professional practice. We have the power to offer students new options for how to interpret what they see and hear.
One tool—in our experience, a particularly effective one—for strengthening these abilities is commonly called the “case method.” The premise of the case method is, by analyzing real-life scenarios based on actual events, such as the situation at South Dovetown, we can practice applying theoretical ideas (like educational equity) to on-the-ground professional practice (Darling-Hammond, 2006). The case method enables us to practice stepping through a process of considering a range of perspectives and angles, to practice seeing the full complexity of school and classroom situations, and, as a result, to consider in a more focused manner how we might respond. In this sense, in the words of William and Margaret Naumes (1999), the case method is an “active pedagogical practice” (p. 11), an applicative process designed to build our capacities for evaluating and implementing mindful responses to complex, and often inequitable, school and classroom conditions (Leonard & Cook, 2010). In fact, studies have demonstrated the case method’s effectiveness in deepening critical thinking abilities, problem-solving skills, and other competencies in professionals from a variety of fields, including neuroscience (Rosenbaum et al., 2014), nursing (Mills et al., 2014), food studies (Gallego et al., 2013), and of course education (Bonney, 2015; Brown & Kraehe, 2010).
Richard Foster and his colleagues (2010) explain, in this spirit, the nature of a case method “case”:
This, we think, is among the most formidable challenges the case method poses to current and future educators. In this era of high-stakes testing and standardization, when many of us feel increasingly desperate for practical solutions to complex problems, the idea that there usually isn’t a practical solution or “right answer” can be daunting. The point of examining cases like those in this book is not to be constrained by boxes—this
is correct, so this
must be incorrect—
but rather to muddle through the gray areas by considering all that makes them gray. The case method allows us to do this in a way that few other pedagogical methods allow. This is how it helps us grow our equity literacy
, as we will discuss in Chapter 2
The muddling is especially important when it comes to matters of diversity and social justice. After all, none of us wants to contribute to racial, or class, or gender injustices in our classrooms. We want all the students at South Dovetown to succeed, to be protected from racism, heterosexism, xenophobia, and other forms of oppression. The trouble is, we might not always understand how we help to create some of the barriers to their learning, despite our philosophical commitments to equity and justice.
The other important diversity and social justice benefit of the case method is that it challenges us to question our own mental models by examining classroom situations through a variety of lenses (Gallucci, 2006). It challenges us to practice asking the questions we might never have thought to ask; to reconsider old ways of thinking in light of new understandings. How do we see the situation at Dovetown differently when we let go of old notions that conflate anti-bullying efforts with equity and justice efforts or old ways of looking at things that mark inaction as apolitical and action as political? How might we think differently about ourselves as equitable and just educators when we learn better how to see past our presumptions and consider a broader picture? These are the sorts of questions that cannot be answered by theory alone or by memorizing “five practical strategies for teaching all immigrant students.” They require deeper, more critical, reflection: the kind encouraged by the case method.
With this in mind, we chose to write Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education for several reasons. Firstly, especially since writing the first edition of this book, we have observed how the case method strengthens our efforts to prepare educators, including us, to think, teach, lead, and advocate more equitably and justly. As educators we have experienced situations similar to those described in our cases but have found too few opportunities to process what has happened as mindfully as possible. These cases provide an opportunity to practice doing just that.
Additionally, as we mentioned earlier, when we haven’t practiced, it can be particularly challenging for us to “see” what is happening in our classrooms and schools unconstrained by our existing biases and ideologies. The case method provides opportunities to bolster these abilities by practicing thoughtful analysis and problem-solving skills. We have constructed the cases purposefully to challenge ourselves and our readers to consider our teaching in light of what Nieto and Bode (2011) call the sociopolitical context of schooling. Taking account of this sociopolitical context requires us to recognize the relationship between the inequities plaguing our schools and larger societal inequities, even when we don’t see those larger conditions as within our sphere of influence.
It is our hope this book will create this kind of deeper reflection about equity, diversity, and social justice concerns in schools and, by doing so, encourage readers to consider how...