Before You Read
Think about the range of socioeconomic statuses represented in U.S. schools. How might this form of diversity influence how students are taught and the materials adopted for classroom instruction?
Good intentions: Pinto Beans
“And what do you want to be when you grow up?” This is the famous question that plagues children throughout their formative years. For me, the answer was simple. I always wanted to be a teacher. From the day I entered kindergarten, teaching became a life goal.
I was raised to respect everyone, whether different from or similar to me. I was taught to give each person a fair shake unless they give you valid reasons to change your mind. I grew up an enthusiastic individual, creative and giving. When Albuquerque, New Mexico, started its first kindergarten program, it called to me.
Moving is always an experience. Transplanting myself from the northeast to the southwest was an experience and a half. New Mexico’s cultural diversity, climatic variations, and geographic singularities were all eye-opening differences compared to my Brooklyn way of life. I found that it actually took about two years to “de-citify.” I kept comparing everyone and everything to my New York reference points. In fact, I actually had the audacity to think that because they responded more slowly, many of the people I encountered were just not up to par; intellectually speaking, with New Yorkers in general. Imagine the ego! In reality, I finally realized, just because I spoke and responded more quickly than most people I met did not mean I was superior in any way. It actually showed that I was foolishly rushing through things that wiser adults had learned to take more slowly. Reactions to time vary throughout cultures, and they have nothing to do with intelligence.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to live in New Mexico a few years before I officially became a teacher there. I can’t imagine how many more mistakes I might have made otherwise. Still, when I was offered that first teaching position, all misgivings flew from my mind as I eagerly contemplated the challenges of the trilingual program I was to work in. That first day, as parents dropped off each shy, frightened, curious, defiant, or sullen child, the challenges began:
“Remember, respect your teacher, and don’t get into trouble.”
“Tell the teacher you can read.”
“Don’t let anyone make fun of the holes in your shoe.”
Each set of parents left their children with different messages, different priorities.
Almost any teacher’s first year is memorable. For some, the memories are positive. For others, including me, painful mistakes are only lightened by future accomplishments and an essential sense of humor. I meant so well, after all. High praise from my professors and happy student teaching experiences, a great new class environment with the newest supplies and equipment—what could go wrong? Three decades later, I laugh at that question.
Five-year-olds tend to be egocentric in their drawings and make themselves or a particular important object larger than life. One child had drawn from his experiences growing up on a Navajo reservation and had created a picture with appropriate scale—a small child, with big mountains and sky. I loved it! I beamed about the work to the class, holding the child’s picture up for all to see. However, that innocent praise was interpreted as fostering competition, a taboo concept in the Navajo culture, the culture of that child and of most of the children in the class. It was only the first day, and some students had already been alienated and lost respect for their teacher. Quite a start. I meant well, though.
Using didactic materials in different ways and seeing their possibilities is practically a requirement for any effective teacher. Kindergarten equipment and activities particularly encourage creative alternatives. For example, the children had fun working in groups with the water table, a big, recessed table placed in the classroom for hands-on activities. After a few months, though, we got bored with the water and a second medium seemed necessary.
I thought to myself: “I’m in New Mexico. What is easy to obtain, cheap, and great for measuring, weighing, and sculpting? Pinto Beans!”
So, off I went to the store to buy the beans. I filled that table with one hundred pounds of beans, and the water table was transformed. We would use the beans for counting, for crafts, and for sorting activities. It was wonderful—or so I thought.
After a new activity was in the classroom for a while, it would then become required. Each day included specific independent and teacher-directed activities. The pinto bean table became an independent activity, complete with directions to follow and specific tasks to accomplish. I planned to assign five children to it every day, until this cycle was finished. The first day, I recall one of the girls complaining that Rafael wasn’t doing his work. Since she frequently tattled on her peers, I didn’t give it much thought. As there was no written paperwork as a follow-up and I was busy with a teacher-directed activity, the incident quickly left my mind.
The second day, I noticed two boys fooling around with each other, instead of working at the pinto bean table. This was definitely surprising, since almost everyone had fought for the opportunity to work at the water table. I left my activity to quickly speak to them, but did not really have the time to pursue it. Still, I did not notice that the boys were not accomplishing their required tasks and seemed to spend most of their time talking together. During nap time one of the boys was restless, which gave me the opportunity for some quiet conversation. When I asked him why he didn’t do his activity work he wouldn’t look me in the eye. He mumbled a bit about not feeling like it, and then said he wanted to nap. I was shocked. This particular student never wanted to nap, and grabbed every opportunity imaginable to talk with me. Something was going on, but I was clueless.
On the third day, there was again some disruption at the bean table. One girl began crying and went to sit by the hamster cage. I went to investigate, but all she would tell me was that Roberto was making fun of her. Neither child would give me details. Parents are an invaluable educational asset, and a volunteer worked in my room every morning. On this particular day, the volunteer was a mother who had spent a great deal of time with me coordinating kindergarten projects. We were comfortable with each other; and had discussed many different topics throughout the term. At the end of the day, she asked to speak with me in private. I noticed her staring at the pinto bean table. I had learned not to rush conversations, and so I waited while she composed her thoughts. She told me that I was a wonderful teacher, and that her son was learning a great deal in school. She looked at the table, and then at me and said, in a soft voice, that those pinto beans could feed her family for a year. Rafael and his friends didn’t want to work at the bean table—it would mean playing with, and thus disrespecting, their food. Roberto was teasing his classmate about how she wished she could take the beans home for her mother to cook. After my parent volunteer left, I remember wanting to leave the room too, but my feet wouldn’t work. I felt numb. The next day I replaced the beans with sand.
I learned a lot that first year, and a good teacher’s education never really ends. I still find myself telling students to look at me when I’m talking to them, even though I know that some cultures teach their children just the opposite as a means of showing respect to adults. I still publicly praise and chastise students at times for myriad reasons, even though I’m sometimes a bit surprised at what’s coming out of my mouth. After three decades in the profession, I’ve finally made peace with my shortcomings as well as my strengths. But one lesson persists—good intentions, respect, and consistent fairness are all important in the quest toward becoming a quality educator, but they’re just ideals until put into sensitive, appropriate action. With the best intentions, we can still get important things wrong. We must ask questions of our students, our parents, and our community to discover what is important and valued in their cultures. The intention to do so is just not enough.
Questions to Consider
- The narrator compares the speech style in the southwest to that of the northeast (i.e. her impression of speakers with a slow, southwestern accent was that they were somehow intellectually inferior to those who speak faster). What have been your reactions to different accents/communication styles? What factors influenced these initial reactions?
- What can teachers do to minimize cultural faux paus in their classroom practices?
- Is public praise and punishment appropriate? If so, at what times? If not, why not?
- How can teachers develop relationships that enable open discussions between family members and educators?
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