Touro TESOL Teacher Candidate Sareska Tamayo Arias on Multicultural Education and Social Justice

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Prof. Jasmin Cowin, Ed.D.: Spring 2019 semester, one of the courses I am teaching is EDPN 671 Theory and Practice of Bilingual and Multicultural Education. This course reviews the impact of historical, legal, sociological, and political issues in relation to the education of culturally and linguistically diverse students. Students explore the evolution of attitudes regarding bilingualism and multiculturalism in the United States. Emphasis will be placed on developing multicultural competence as educators, with areas of focus including cross-cultural communication in the classroom and with parents; how the language and culture of the home and the community impact student learning; cultural factors in the relationships between the school and the community. Models of multicultural and bilingual education will be presented and analyzed. The course includes 10 hours of fieldwork.

Part of Reflective Practice is the requirement for Reflective Journal submissions twice a semester. Here an exemplary reflection by the Touro TESOL Teacher Candidate Sareska Tamayo Arias on Multicultural Education and Social Justice. Ms. Arias was born and raised in the province of Santiago de Cuba, Cuba. As a Cuban immigrant, she benefited from receiving documentation that allowed her to work, and eventually begin studying. As a result, she is on the path of earning a Bilingual Certificate that will allow her to work with Spanish-speaking students.

Ms. Sareska Tamayo Arias: Completing course’s assignment #1 led to me to browse one of the course recommended texts, Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education (4th edition), and by this, I was introduced to Sonia Nieto for the very first time in my educational career. Part of the assignment was related to stating our understanding of multicultural education. I looked for help in the additional texts. Chapter 9 of Nieto’s book is titled “Multicultural Education and School Reform” (2004, p. 345-365). When I finished reading the chapter, I felt that a veil had dematerialized. Chapter 9 presents Sonia Nieto’s definition of multicultural education. According to Nieto (2004), multicultural education includes seven characteristics: antiracist, basic, important for all students, pervasive, education for social justice, process and critical pedagogy (p. 346). Nieto states that multicultural education can be a way of transforming and enhancing the schooling of our students (p.362).

Antiracist or antidiscrimination education is identified as the core of multicultural education (Nieto, 2004). According to Nieto (2004) the existence of a multicultural program with an inclusive curriculum does not mean an antiracist’s program (p. 349). In order for a multicultural education to be anti-racist, Nieto (2004) explains that the students need to be having open and honest conversations about discrimination, that the teachers are teaching the students skills to fight racism, and that the curriculum includes multiple perspectives about historical events and worldviews (p. 347-348). Nieto adds that a school is committed to a multicultural philosophy once it considers if its practices and policies discriminate against some students (p. 350). Nieto summarizes the chapter with a call for our schools forming global citizens instead of American citizens, and to use multicultural education as an effective tool that promotes embracing our diverse society and world (p. 362).

  1. Initial Emotional Response

The association of multicultural education with anti-discriminatory practices triggered a mixed emotional response. I felt surprised since the content was new; confused since I could not understand how I have been in the educational system and had not heard of it before; upset since I interpreted the lack of exposure as a strategy to cheat me out of tools for empowering of self and others, and at myself for not acting on this chronic sense of dissatisfaction about the kind of multicultural practices that had been presented; overwhelmed by the complexity of the demands of  enacting the multicultural philosophy; and lastly, validated since until now I could not explain the dissatisfaction felt by the superficiality of the type of multicultural practices that I had experienced.

  1. Prior Assumptions or Opinions about the described highlight

Before reading the chapter, my definition of multicultural education was influenced by notions of becoming practitioner sensitive to cultural diversity, to multiculturalism. I was stuck in the following notion: There is a diversity of cultures, and I need to be aware of my biases and respect all cultures by adopting an “I do not know” humble posture when engaging with a client and by using a cultural conceptualization of the clients’ symptoms, needs and goals. Before this chapter, the extent of examples that illustrated my understanding of multicultural education was limited to presenting a “holidays and heroes” approach to diversity (Reyes & Kleyn, 2010, p. 25). Furthermore, prior to reading the chapter, I had assumed that by following the evidence-based practices when providing an evaluation to a student who is Spanish native speaker, I was meeting my requirements as an ethical and culture-sensitive professional. I am aware that I have taken the information given and adopt its practices without a question. Lastly, and so painful to admit, another learned assumption has been that multicultural education and practices are limited to the visible aspects of culture and not actively about race, and anti-discriminatory practices that promote social justice. As I write, I wonder about my own passive acceptance of these prior assumptions.

  1. Source of Assumption or Opinion.

These assumptions are a result of my own personal experiences while learning (personal and institutionalized education) the concept of diversity, racism, and privilege. These experiences include how racism was presented and embedded in every system in my country (Cuba). Then, these assumptions develop by my experiences in the USA, especially the ones that offered a more structured presentation of race, social justice and interpretation of multicultural education through the higher educational system.

I completed my undergraduate studies in Chicago, IL and my graduate studies in Pittsburgh, PA. In the culturally diverse Chicago, I learned about the complex and insidious impact of racism while also feeling ‘not Latina enough.’ At that time, I thought that my personal history did not afford enough “struggle.” Despite being surrounded by strong voices, I did not have a supportive group (peers, professors, friends) who could guide the unpacking of my own notions about race/discrimination and my own privilege.

My graduate experiences in Pittsburgh further disconnected multicultural education from social justice. Race was comfortably avoided. Only one text was assigned (as an additional reading) in my entire four-year program in which the history of racism in USA was exposed. This text was assigned by the only not-White professor of my program. I completed an assignment using information from this book and suggested to the professor to make the text a required reading. He just smiled.

  1. Assumption/Opinion Check – Validation/Invalidation.

My prior assumptions were frozen within the safest and most comfortable space of the practice of multicultural education. These assumptions were learned which indicates that learning about the activism of challenging systemic racism (through multicultural education) continues to be missing from professional development.

As explained by Reyes and  Kleyn (2010) holidays celebrations and acknowledging heroes is important; however, there is a need to notice and to question the motives behind the elements of culture that are absent from the classroom discussion, the school posters, the textbooks, the ongoing dialogue. Nieto (2204) explains that antiracist multicultural education demands reflecting on opposing perspectives to then comprehend reality in its entirety (p. 358). She cites what Jonathon Kozol’s called the “tailoring” of heroes and history as the process through which schools sanitized the curriculums to avoid engaging students in the process of learning antiracist skills and engaging in social justice (Nieto, 2004, p. 347). Nieto (2004) presents as an example the “sanitization” of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and of how, for the schooling of our children, Nat Turner is “not safe” and Abraham Lincoln is (p. 348). The last 10 minutes of the On the Media’s episode “Bad Reputation” aired on February 15th of 2019 includes an example of making Dr. King, Jr. safe by trivializing and stripping away the socialism from his message (Garfield, 2019). Another powerful example mentioned in the episode is of the heroine Rosa Parks. Parks is famously known for her brave and peaceful act of resistant, and not by her role as an investigator for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in bringing awareness about the rape of Recy Taylor. In the episode, guest speaker Doreen St. Felix explains how the presentation of isolated and safe heroes during Black History Month undermines Black history. St. Felix explains that not only the presentation of the safe version of its heroes/heroines shapes how Black history is known, but also, only presenting isolated heroes takes the focus away from the essence of Black history. According to St. Felix, the essence of Black history is the sense of community activism and the force of a political movement. Doreen St. Felix concludes the episode by pointing out that the forces of racism shape the writing of history of the United Stated (Gardfield, 2019).

In chapter 9, Nieto (2004) presents that only by making antiracism explicit, then our students can learn the skills to confront racism (p. 348). Talking about racism within a classroom and with the goal of promoting the development of skills to participate in social justice and equity practices requires that teachers are prepared to unpack racism (at an individual and systemic level) and any expressions of discrimination. Nieto (2004) states the dual need of challenging the silence around racism and of preparing teachers to have these meaningful conversations in the school (p. 349). Determining the belief of pre-service teachers about discussing race was one of the research questions of Brown Buchanan’ study (2015). The participants in her study were mostly White, female pre-service teachers which represents the homogeneity of the U.S. teaching force (Brown Buchanan, 2015; Wilson & Kumar, 2017). Brown Buchanan concluded that since discussions about race were perceived as controversial, pre-service teachers avoided having them especially within their classrooms (2015). Furthermore, research indicates that teachers have a limited understanding of racism (Modica, 2012, as cited in Wilson & Kumar, 2017). Wilson and Kumar (2017) present the case of how teachers’ conceptualizations of racism are exempt from acknowledging the institutional nature of racism. The combination of avoiding talking about race plus having a limited understanding of racism results in a superficial analysis of our history, and a passive stance on social justice (Brown Buchanan, 2015; Wilson & Kumar, 2017). It seems that my institutionalized learning experience of multicultural education has been representative of such outcome.

  1. Realization/Aha Moment or Epiphany.

Agreeing with Reyes and Kleyn (2010), I continue to see the value of learning about the visible aspects of culture; what has changed is that now I know that it is not enough to celebrate heroes/heroines and only focus on the unidimensional, safe and sanitized part of his/her history. I am aware that in order to practice a multicultural philosophy, then I need to be having and be prepared to have conversations about race, racism, discrimination and actively promote social justice within my students. I now know that I have not been having these conversations and that often, I have taken refuge in the notion that talking about race is uncomfortable. I now know that by not having these conversations, I am helping to perpetuate many false ideas about racism and discrimination in the U.S (e.g., racism is a thing of the past).

Furthermore, I have learned that conversations about racism could help students and clients (if appropriate) explore their own responsibility concerning racism (e.g., how we are contributing to sustaining systems of oppression? [Nieto, 2004, p. 349]), and confront and change their racial attitudes. I now know that the way in which I participate in the schooling of my students/clients is important. Nieto (2004) calls teachers and staff to reflect on their own attitudes and practices in the classroom and school to understand how students are grouped (p. 350).

  1. Implications for future teaching practice.

rosa-parks-9433715-1-402In the time period that followed reading Nieto’s Chapter 9, the universe has been sending me opportunities to put in practice my newly found horizon on multicultural education. I was supporting a student to complete her Black history month project. She had chosen Rosa Parks and had included the typical information. Furthermore, the student had concluded that African-Americans were happy. Just like a fairy tale. I ceased the teachable moment opportunity and first, presented additional information about Parks, while inviting some reflection about the Black Lives Matter movement. As I plan to continue promoting reflections about systemic discriminatory practices, I am aware that I need to further develop my discourse on equity and social justice. Additionally, since one of the goals of multicultural education is for our students to develop skills to fight discrimination, I need to get informed about examples of students who as activists are calling out racism in the U.S. As a school psychologist, I need to critically consider my choices of testing materials. Many tests are known as vocabulary loaded (e.g., the WISC). Vocabulary development relates to experiences, and access to multiple and varied experiences is a privilege.


Brown Buchanan, L. (2015). “We make it controversial” Elementary preservice teachers’ beliefs about race. Teacher Education Quarterly, 3-26.

Garfield, B. (Presenter). (2019, February 15). On the Media: Bad Reputation [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

Nieto, S. (2004). Multicultural Education and School Reform. In Affirming Diversity: The Sociopolitical Context of Multicultural Education, (4th ed., pp. 345-365). Boston, MA: Pearson Education, Inc.

Reyes, S. A., &  Kleyn, T. (2010). Teaching in 2 languages: A guide for K-12 bilingual educators.  Corwin: Thousands Oaks, CA.

Wilson, M. B., & Kumar, T. (2017). Long ago and far away: Preservice teachers’ (mis) conceptions surrounding racism. International Journal of Multicultural Education, 19(2), 182-198.

Author: drcowinj

Education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs only to the people who prepare for it today,” determined Malcolm X at the O.A.A.U.’s [Organization of Afro-American Unity] founding forum at the Audubon Ballroom. (June 28, 1964). (X, n.d.) Dr. Jasmin Bey Cowin a Fulbright Scholar, SIT Graduate, completed the Education Policy Fellowship Program (EPFP™) at Columbia University, Teachers College. Dr. Cowin served as the President of the Rotary Club of New York and Assistant Governor for New York State; long-term Chair of the Rotary United Nations International Breakfast meetings; and works as an Assistant Professor at Touro College, Graduate School of Education. Dr. Cowin has over twenty-five years of experience as an educator, tech innovator, entrepreneur, and institutional leader with a focus on equity and access to digital literacy and education in the Sub-Saharan Africa region. Her extensive background in education, administration, not-for-profit leadership, entrepreneurial spirit, and technology innovation provide her with unique skills and vertical networks locally and globally. Dr. Cowin participates fully in the larger world of TESOL academic discipline as elected Vice President and Chair-Elect for the New York State, NYS TESOL organization, for the 2021 conference. Ongoing research, expressed in scholarly contributions to the advancement of knowledge is demonstrated through publications, presentations, and participation in academic conferences, blogging, and other scholarly activities, including public performances and exhibitions at conferences and workshops. Of particular interest to her are The Blockchain of Things and its implications for Higher Education; Current Global Trends in TESOL; Developing Materials and Resources in Teaching English; E-learning; Micro and Macro-Methodologies in TESOL; E-Resources Discovery and Analysis; and Language Acquisition and the Oculus Rift in VR.

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