One of the challenges for VCSU’s education program is that we are located in an area of North Dakota that is not very diverse. About 86 percent of our students are Caucasian; other ethnicities include Hispanic (4.9 percent), Black (3.9 percent), and 2 or more races (3.6 percent). Racial diversity is very important for all our students to experience, since their future colleagues and students will likely be from diverse cultures.
To help students with little or no experience in diverse school settings, we require all our education students to participate in a cultural diversity practicum, typically during their junior year. These practicums are designed to better prepare pre-service teachers to meet all students’ needs and develop a greater understanding of how to work with students from various backgrounds and socioeconomic levels. For example, one group of students last year spent three days working with students in the Minnewaukan Public Schools.
This fall 97 VCSU education students and faculty members visited multiple schools in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area from Oct 1-3. In addition to the school visits, some students were also able to attend an Apple Teacher Training Session, where Apple teacher trainers instructed them on coding.
VCSU students visited the Minnesota Connections Academy, a K-12 online-only school. Not all students thrive in a traditional school system, and this educational system addresses that challenge. The school faculty discussed the pros and cons of a completely online school, and VCSU students observed student-teacher interactions within the virtual classrooms.
The group also visited the Avalon Charter School, a project-based, student-centered program serving grades 6-12. Teachers and pupils identify themselves as a “community,” where students design their own activities while focusing on the Minnesota State Standards. As school systems move to individualized and project-based learning systems that allows students to work at their own pace using approaches that fit their individual learning styles, pre-service teachers will need to learn how to lead these classrooms effectively. Students attending Avalon score higher on the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments than traditional St. Paul public schools, even though 50 percent of Avalon students are on an IEP (Individualized Educational Plan, which provides specialized instruction) or a 504 plan (which provides accommodations). A student-led panel at the end of this visit made a strong impression on our students.
In addition to exploring these schools that present diverse experiential and cognitive approaches to education, the students also visited Washington Magnet High School, a public school in St. Paul, and two elementary schools in the Osseo Area School District. These schools demonstrate demographic diversity, with more than 85 percent of their students coming from diverse family backgrounds. As Ryan Moss observed regarding his experience at the Washington Magnet High School, “Another thing that caught my attention was how students treated each other. From what I saw in classes, in the hallway, and at lunch is that the color of their skin or their country of origin didn’t matter.”
VCSU student Alexa Spotts reflected later that “This was one of the most eye-opening experiences for me.” Leslie Horgan noted that the various school settings “gave me a good look at issues that education is trying to address not only in relation to diversity related to race, ethnicity, religion, etc., but the issues of diversity related to the learning styles of students.”
We can see that this experiential learning activity made a difference in our pre-service teachers; they will carry the memories of what they saw during these three days into their classrooms and be better prepared to make changes in their teaching to meet the demands of tomorrow’s students. As Leslie put it, “I am very glad to have participated in the practicum and believe that it is an important factor in forming teachers so that they can form students.”