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Curriculum and Instruction Clinical Associate Professor Haydée Rodriguez takes a group of pre-service bilingual/bicultural education students on community walks near Zavala Elementary School in Austin each semester. The walks help the students learn about the various resources in the neighborhood as well as the history and people that exist in the communities in which their students live. Students visit the local panadería, the bakery, located in the home of a community member and taste various traditional Mexican pastries. They learn about the history of the homes, churches, and other community supports that dot the area.

The community walks give the pre-service teachers the chance to learn more about their students and incorporate their heritage and cultural experiences within the classroom. Research shows that educators’ respect for and incorporation of students’ heritage and background increases students’ engagement and academic motivation. Learn more by watching the video of one such community walk adventure.

Video by Jordan Steyer and Davey Newton, photography and videography interns for the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

At times, parents can be teased for using “baby talk” with their young children. But it turns out that baby talk, the slow, elongated, varied-pitch manner in which parents often speak to babies and small children, may actually help with their language and speech, an insight that could be helpful for children with autism.

Micheal Sandbank is studying how typically developing children and those with developmental disabilities distinguish between words and non-words in child-directed speech, or baby talk. These studies are providing researchers with insights into predicting language in children with autism, with an eventual goal of leading to earlier diagnoses and therapeutic treatment. The studies may also inform intervention practices for children with autism. Sandbank is an assistant professor and area coordinator for early childhood and special education in the College of Education.

Photo of young girl wearing brain sensorsThrough their research, Sandbank’s team has found that the word processing “signal” is strongest when typically developing children hear words spoken in baby talk rather than adult-directed speech. This is even the case with children as old as 36 months. While the team sees a good signal for these older toddlers with adult-directed speech, baby talk is still stronger. The researchers are still examining this signal in children with autism.

In her Brain and Language Lab, Sandbank and her team use electroencephalography—or EEG— to study the way young children process words. Specifically, they are studying event-related potentials—brain responses that are the result of sensory, cognitive, or motor events.

Photo of the Brain and Language Lab

It’s the first such lab in a college of education in the U.S. that studies brain activity in children as young as 12 months.  The children sit on a parent’s lap while 64 sensors are placed on their head using a device resembling a hair net. As researchers read real and non-real words, they record children’s brain responses. The team continues to recruit children with autism and process data.

The team is conducting a meta-analysis of early intervention data.

Recently, 16 graduate students in Professor Anthony L. Brown’s Teaching and Learning in Urban Context course co-wrote an op-ed about urban education. The following is an edited version of their group essay.  

Students collaborating on the op-ed

Students in Anthony Brown’s class collaborating on the op-ed

Urban farming. Urban outfitters. Urban music. What does “urban” look like, sound like, feel like? What is “urban” code for? Depends on who you ask, and what you’re talking about. Within certain contexts the utterance of “urban” connotes a degree of cache and currency, but it just as easily can be deployed to denote decay and decline.

As an adjective, “urban education” signals a particular set of value-laden and layered assumptions. Historically, and across a range of media, urban schools have been represented as troubled and dangerous spaces. Repeated portrayals effectively spin images of deindustrializing cities into legends of chaos and violence, which then narrowly cast students and whole communities as products of declining schools, while simultaneously standing in as the cause of school decline itself. As with all legends and myths however, the truths believed to be contained within are just as contingent as the word “urban” proves to be.

The Troubling Deficit-Lens Narrative of Urban Education

Urban education is socially constructed and often taken up as a static narrative that serves the private goals of those seeking to exploit “urban” black and brown communities. We [as educators] must recognize this, and we must reject it. This is not the only lens, nor the clearest one.

Racism, oppression and social reproduction [the transmission of inequality from generation to generation] have been embedded within the systemic and daily happenings in schools. But by seeing these oppressions, and fighting them fiercely as communities, we can see and uplift the already existing examples of agency, opportunity, resistance and hope for an “urban” that is less legend, and more life.

The term urban and the frameworks associated with it need be redefined. Rather than being viewed through a deficit lens (seeing ‘less than’ instead of ‘more than’), “urban” must express, value, and sustain previously devalued multi-faceted cultural and linguistic strengths. Deficit thinking places the blame of student failure on deficiencies within students themselves, their families, or generalized beliefs about cultural differences. By tapping the roots of cultural wealth and breaking down the constraints of deficit-based thinking, we can acknowledge how urban education has been framed in theory and reality. We then face a choice in how to move forward. Moving forward, we must turn deficit thinking on its head and focus on assets to highlight, empower, and catalyze change.

Why Should We Fix What Isn’t Broken?

The history of urban education is disproportionately laden with folks attempting to “fix” students for normative success instead of actively dismantling systems that oppress them. Researchers attempt to implement interventions that eradicate [supposed] deficiencies of character. They also attempt to provide psychological uplift to help students overcome the damage inflicted on them as a result of their ability to adapt to the neoliberal economy, rather than make students conscious of deep structural changes that are needed to significantly change their life, chances, and future.

Urban education is steeped in a distorted, trial-and-error method of experimentation, often at the cost of students of color. Over the past half century, educational reforms have cycled through repeated efforts to apply policies that fail to fully attend to the needs of marginalized citizens. For the most part, this is not done by accident.

The history of public education in the United States has been built upon a foundation of fear, ignorance, greed, and a lack of faith in the abilities and knowledge of students of color and their parents. Attempts to resolve these issues and work against technical, impersonal, and alienating curriculum and instruction have been repeatedly buried under racially coded political arguments concerning personal responsibility, color blindness, and meritocracy. As a result, communities of color continue to suffer because of the lack of and incomprehensive educational resources.

They become a self-fulfilling prophecy for those who argue they will never succeed.

However, while some may view this as a case of racist policies pushed through by privileged stakeholders, this is not always the case. Schools often mirror the perceptions of superintendents or other policy makers as opposed to serving the needs of the true stakeholders in the communities: the families, community leaders, teachers, and students who are the most impacted. Several instances of policy decisions have led to negative changes in the school environment, including continued segregation of public schooling and governmental housing policies that accelerate gentrification in cities across America.

Rather than help educational systems, these reforms have expedited the deterioration of these institutions.

Let’s Redefine Urban Education

Teachers and schools are always in a state of process, or becoming. Society is ever-changing, and it is our collective responsibility to reimagine what is possible in schools. Moving forward we must empower educators to adopt a culturally sustaining framework of teaching which seeks to promote students’ cultural and linguistic identities.

We have to fight for anti-oppressive education within the ideological and structural systems that reproduce inequities that free public schools from myopic and deficit perspectives promoted by neoliberal education reforms, and we need to decolonize the process in which we exchange, share and value information. This means centering students and their lived realities in the classroom context and beyond.

Our collective conception of the term urban is steeped in the kinds of values we hope to undo. By redefining the term and its associated assumptions, we hope to resolve our concept of those it affects most. The spaces associated with urban contain more cultural wealth and untapped potential beyond what we could currently imagine.

In illuminating the shadowy origins of urban legends, we hope to redress our past and begin imagining and enacting asset-based, student-centered, and anti-oppressive urban education designed to reverse processes that have dehumanized those educated in urban spaces for too long.

Anthony Brown giving a lecture to a group of graduate students

Anthony Brown and his class working on the op-ed

Authors

Course Instructor: Professor Anthony L. Brown’s work pursues a theoretical argument, which suggests that the examination of the historical and racial constructions of African Americans within the social sciences, educational literature, popular discourse and curriculum is vital to making sense of how questions are raised and how educational and curricular reforms are pursued for African American students in the present.

Students:  Joanna Batt, Rebecca Casteel, Gina E. Tillis, Emma Ensign-Church, William Gross, Emiliano Guajardo, Michael Joseph, William Kiley, Heath Robinson, Tatiana Russo-Tait, Lauren Samuel, Grant Selman, Erica Steinitz, Mariah Swift, James Welty, Alexa Zin.

 

That’s what San Antonio Independent School District is betting on. And the bet is backed by research from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction.

A team of faculty and doctoral students is redesigning early childhood education through the San Antonio district-initiated collaboration with the College of Education and the Agency and Young Children Research Collaborative, called Dynamic Innovation for Young Children. Team members are restructuring learning so that it’s project-based and fosters children’s agency—or choice—in their activities.

Child-centered learning is a departure from classrooms in which children are compelled to sit at desks and receive information rather than be active participants, and it can challenge the way some educators have been taught to instruct young students. That’s why the district, which completed its first year of collaboration in May, began with professional development of educators.

Says Associate Professor Jennifer Adair, whose work on fostering children’s agency is a foundation of the project, “Teachers have to learn that when kids are noisy and moving around—in pre-k, kinder or a first-grade classroom, that’s where a lot of learning is taking place. And the teachers have to know that their principals and superintendent understand that they need to be hearing noise and seeing movement in the classroom, that it’s OK and supported.”

The initiative is not about a curriculum change, but culture change, says Adair. Engaging principals and teachers is key in transforming campuses. That’s why the first year of the five-year-long project was about working “intently with six schools through professional development that included select teachers, their principals, district leaders, the children and their families,” says Adair.

Alejandra Barraza, Ph.D. ’17, was the catalyst for change in the district. She’s the principal of Henry Carroll Early Childhood Education Center in San Antonio’s East Side neighborhood. She implemented the learning principles in her school during her doctoral studies with Adair. Barraza’s work increased engagement by students and their families, and caught the attention of district leaders, Associate Superintendent Pauline Dow and Superintendent Pedro Martinez. Dow and Adair co-lead the districtwide project, under the supervision of Martinez.

These San Antonio school district leaders, says Adair, “were willing to transform campuses and give them the same dynamic, sophisticated learning you’d find at a private school. They were willing to let their teachers and principals co-construct the experiences without a cookie cutter curriculum. That’s a lot a of trust.”

Eight UT Austin undergraduates and their instructor are sitting in a circle in a classroom. Taryn, the day’s facilitator, introduces the guidelines: “Respect the talking piece, speak from the heart, listen from the heart, what happens in the circle stays in the circle, trust you will know what to say, say just enough.”

Students sitting in a circle with the woman in focus holding an objectShe placed each students’ values, like ‘courage,’ ‘trust,’ and ‘open-mindedness’ around the circle’s center-piece. She explains to the group that the talking piece, a stuffed animal, will signal who has the floor to speak. She chooses one of the values and explains why she honors it. She passes the talking piece to Sofia, who chooses the value of compassion, and on it goes before they start their next round.

The circle is an everyday part of the Restorative Practices in Education class that Assistant Professor of Practice Molly Trinh Wiebe teaches. It’s an education course within the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, cross-listed with Steve Hicks School of Social Work, and open to any undergraduate and graduate on campus. The majority of students are education majors, but some, like Nicole and Norman, are majoring in subjects such as government and sociology.

According to Wiebe, the course highlights restorative practices’ roots and principles as they can be applied to schools and the larger community. The principles learned emphasize responsibility, accountability, respect, and restoration, and students learn how to facilitate restorative circles to build relationship and trust with youths, parents, peers, and the community.

Though Sofia had never heard of restorative practices or restorative circles before, she said she was encouraged to take the class by her aunt, who is a teacher in Austin. “I’d never really thought of something like this as an option in education,” she says.

D’Jon says the practices are similar to the circles he experienced as huddles on wrestling and basketball teams in high school, though they weren’t named as such. He later recognized similar practices when he was doing prison ministry. “We had 42 residents and six tables and we’d form a circle and get to know each other at the table and check in on each other. The practices teach us to value the whole person.”

The circle plays a comparable community-building role in this classroom. Says Wiebe, “When a student is absent, we all care to know that they are alright. We all know each other’s names and a bit of history about each other. We have built a relationship and trust among us. This is our community and we look out for each other.”

Restorative practices’ indigenous roots

According to Wiebe, restorative practices are rooted in indigenous traditions. Modern communities have used them in the criminal justice system to support individuals who have made the offense repair the harm that was done.A group of students sitting in a circle around a pile of school supplies

The practices also have been used to support those who were incarcerated reintegrate into society. Typically, those practices are called restorative justice. Within school systems they are called restorative practice so that students don’t feel penalized. “Restorative practice can play a role in disrupting the school-to-prison pipeline phenomenon, which zero-tolerance policies can serve to actively perpetuate,” says Wiebe. “Restorative practice is a humanizing approach toward education.”

Beyond classroom circles toward educational policy and practice

Joshua Childs, an assistant professor in Educational Leadership and Policy, adds that all spaces have the potential to be restorative spaces. “Beyond the classroom, the spaces students find as they walk to school and are out in the community can be restorative,” says Childs. He adds that such practices are a two-fold process. “Though it’s often focused on what’s happening with students, the adults or educators also have to be part of the restorative practice element. They should be considering how their practice as educators may be contributing to the school community and to trust.”

“Adults have to shift their practice so that they aren’t always leading with something punitive,” says Childs. “Schools can take into account what’s happening in students’ lives—such as their home life, their walk or commute to school, their physical and mental wellness—and look at how school policy adapts to that. When they institute nonpunitive dress codes and decriminalize attendance, they are using restorative practices rather than punitive, deficit practices,” says Childs. (For more on how school policy can interrupt cycles of chronic absenteeism, see Childs’ Discovery Minute.)

Students concentrating on something to the right of the imageNorman, a student in Wiebe’s restorative circle, agrees. “Whenever a student is doing something that is against school rules, it usually means something is preventing them from doing so. It’s possible that something happened in their family or they got into an accident. There’s always a reason why.”

He adds that restorative practices don’t have to be complex. There are simple things educators can do. “A teacher can allow two to three absences because they understand that life happens. They can give out tokens to use for deadline extensions or revise essays,” says Norman. “Restorative practices build flexibility.”

-Photos by Christina S. Murrey

Kinesiology and Health Education junior Vida Nwadiei and Educational Psychology Professor Kevin Cokley will travel to Ghana this summer as part of a new research project, The Color Complex. The project, which received the President’s Award for Global Learning, is a cross-disciplinary look at colorism, both in Ghana and here at the University of Texas at Austin, in order to mitigate its harmful effects.

Colorism is discrimination based on skin color or skin shade. Dominate groups can prefer people with lighter skin shades, and the preference can also occur within communities of color. In some cultures, the preference for lighter skin causes people to use harmful skin bleaching creams in order to lighten their own tone.

Nwadiei, Cokley, and a team of students and faculty across campus, will investigate how businesses can stop the promotion of conventional “fair and lovely” beauty standards to young women of color. The team will conduct a qualitative study about the perceptions of skin bleaching and use their findings to create a campaign that educates people on the dangers of the practice.

–Videos by Christina S. Murrey