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A Lesson for Inspired Teaching: From Those Who Know Best

Cornbleth's book gives voice to innovative teachers nationwide

Release Date: February 28, 2011

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Catherine Cornbleth's newest book looks at successful teaching methods that work in the standards-based classroom without sacrificing a teacher's individual touch.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Fresh from her memorable work with life-changing but unconventional "maverick" teachers, University at Buffalo education professor Catherine Cornbleth now turns to a universal challenge in the secondary school arena: how to engage students so they feel personally connected in class while teaching them to excel in today's standardized test-driven academic culture.

Cornbleth's newest book, "Teaching With Vision: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Standards-based Classrooms," addresses what is widely recognized as one of the central issues facing American education: finding successful teaching methods that work in what is known as standards-based classrooms, without losing the individual touch that has been a timeless hallmark of inspirational teaching.

The book selects teachers from around the nation -- including five from Western New York -- and asks them to explain how they are able to navigate the demands of standards- and test-driven teaching environments without losing their vision of what teaching can be. It is the seventh book written or edited by Cornbleth, a professor of learning and instruction in UB's Graduate School of Education.

"This is, in my view, an important project," says Mary H. Gresham, dean of UB's Graduate School of Education. "Not only are teachers given a 'voice' through the lens of an experienced researcher, but this collaboration and respect for teachers is exactly what is needed to find the much-needed solutions for public education.

"I am very excited about this work, showcasing innovative teachers," she says, "and have been for some time."

"Teaching With Vision," which Cornbleth edited with Christine E. Sleeter, was published this month by Teachers College Press. In it, elementary and secondary teachers chosen by Cornbleth and Sleeter write about how they prepare students for the required state tests and maintain their ability to inspire individual students.

Cornbleth, whose work on maverick teachers attracted national attention and praise, uses the book to express her strong objections to overly standardized and rigid teaching methods that do not take into account the individual needs and backgrounds of students. Instead, the book advocates "grassroots, culturally responsive teaching" as opposed to a "top-down, teach-by-the-numbers approach."

Culturally responsive teaching, according to Cornbleth, is tailored toward specific students and groups of students to "connect" and "engage" them where they are and then move them toward meaningful academic learning goals.

"Culturally responsive teaching acknowledges and speaks to -- rather than ignores or tries to suppress -- one or more aspects of students' culture such as language, religion, sexual orientation, experience, race or ethnicity, ability and interests," Cornbleth says. "It meets the students half-way rather than expecting them to do all the changing."

By definition, teaching cannot be top-down because whoever is at the top is not in touch with the students being taught, according to Cornbleth. Meaningful learning cannot be by-the-numbers or standardized either, she argues, because individual and groups of students differ.

"One of the things I find infuriating," Cornbleth says, "is that many of the people who favor standardized approaches to teaching and learning -- the people who talk about being all on the same page, an expression I detest -- are often upper middle-class white people who have experienced culturally relevant teaching themselves, and like a fish in water, don't recognize it."

As was the case in Cornbleth's maverick teacher study, certain patterns of teaching success emerged.

"Across the differences among the teachers we hear from here, the students they teach, and the schools and communities in which they teach, there are striking similarities," says Cornbleth.

Among the common practices displayed by those who have mastered "culturally responsive teaching":

-- Getting to know students individually and as a group, and then connecting academic learning with students' backgrounds and experiences.

-- Reorganizing subject matter in the textbook, syllabus or other guidelines to make it more accessible and meaningful to students;

-- Viewing problems or constraints as challenges; being a trouble-shooter.

The five Western New York teachers, all of whom write about their successful teaching, are: Stephen Stiller, a teacher, new-teacher mentor, curriculum lead teacher and math department chair at East High School in Buffalo; Eric Mohammed, a social studies teacher and colleague of Stiller's at East High School; Regina Forni, a retired secondary-school English teacher who taught grades 7-12 in several Buffalo and suburban schools for 31 years; Frank DiLeo, the English department chair at City Honors School who previously taught English at Frank A. Sedita School #38, both in Buffalo; and Joanne Rickard-Weinholtz, the culture teacher at the Tuscarora Indian Elementary School within the territories of the Tuscarora Nation.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

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