Tag: James Cohen

DACA-ready: NIU College of Ed prepares teachers empowered to advocate for all students

Cynthia Taines

Cynthia Taines

When President Trump acted this fall to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, Cynthia Taines immediately looked beyond the inflamed political discourse.

Taines, an associate professor in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, thought instead of the youngest of children, of adolescents and, naturally, their teachers.

“Undocumented students disclose their status to people they trust,” Taines says, “and it seems to me that it’s a a pretty common experience that undocumented students are talking to their teachers.”

She has seen it firsthand from teachers and students in Chicago and the north suburbs, thanks to her work with the Metropolitan Community Project. She has seen it in DeKalb as well, thanks to guest appearances in her classes from DREAM Action NIU and the CHANCE Program.

And, Taines says, she has seen that some of the future teachers in her courses aren’t personally familiar with the changing political landscapes that challenge undocumented children in U.S. schools.

“Many of them don’t think that they know anyone who’s undocumented,” Taines says.

For that reason, she makes sure that all of her students understand the gravity of the situation and its impact on the role they soon will play as professional educators.

“I bring real-life voices – their fellow Huskies, their fellow students – who look and sound like any college student. Not all disclose that they’re undocumented, or say that they have family member who are, but some do. They’re really brave,” she says.

“They talk through their struggles, their strengths and where they found support, and it’s often from friendly approachable people in schools, like teachers and educators,” she adds. “I’m trying to encourage empathy and some sort of moral response that doesn’t necessarily come out of a less reflective place or from parroting things you might hear on the news. I’m making this more human and more real.”

James Cohen

James Cohen

Her approach reflects and reinforces a deep-seated philosophy of the NIU College of Education, which proudly stands for educational equity and access for all. The college strongly believes that education is a human right, and that all students can succeed.

James Cohen, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction, enthusiastically shares those principles.

“Over 70 percent of the American population believes that DACA should be continued because they see that you can’t punish kids for the choices their parents made,” says Cohen, who teaches courses in multicultural and bilingual education and was an organizer of NIU’s Social Justice Summer Camp this past summer for K-12 educators.

Students in his classes learn about the injustices that exist in society, including institutionalized and systemic racism. They also are taught to view students from a “strength model,” where children feel welcome, respected and motivated to work, rather than from a “deficit model.”

“If you look at how our society is structured, it’s structured for people who are in power. It’s not structured for people who have brown or black skin, who don’t speak English as a native language and especially not for people who don’t have legal documentation to be here,” he says.

“In my classroom, I have students doing a lot of reading. They read about what it means to be an undocumented immigrant and what it means to live a live without documentation,” he adds. “We discuss it, and we build empathy. We don’t build sympathy. Sympathy is, ‘Oh, I feel bad for you.’ Empathy is, ‘I need to do something about this.’ ”

Cohen makes sure that his future teachers understand, and are ready to fulfill, their role as “advocates who actually act and don’t sit back and do nothing.”

“There’s a concept called social mirroring. If you belong to an ethnic group – which we all do – and society views your certain group as X, Y or Z, it’s very difficult to not believe that you are X, Y or Z,” he says.

“As teacher-advocates, our students need to advocate for their students so that they do not believe in all of these negative stereotypes that float around in our society,” he adds. “If you start believing that you’re lazy, or you start believing that you’re a troublemaker, those can turn into self-fulfilling prophecies. You might drop out of school, get into trouble, join a gang or believe that school is not meaningful.”

Sandy Lopez

Sandy Lopez

Sandy Lopez, assistant to the director at NIU’s Center for Latino and Latin American Studies, is counting on NIU College of Education graduates to make a positive difference for current and future generations.

Around 4.5 million K-12 students currently in the United States are U.S.-born with undocumented parents, Lopez says. Another 1 million are undocumented with undocumented parents; of those, 65,000 graduate each year from high school.

Between 7,000 and 13,000 will matriculate into higher education, which is only 20 percent at best.

“It’s important for teachers to work with these students to let them know that there are opportunities to continue and to go to college,” she says. “Otherwise, these students will disengage.”

Immigrants bring many strengths to their classrooms – “They’re balancing two worlds. They’re bilingual. They’re bicultural,” Lopez says – and are resilient students, many of whom have learned to advocate for themselves, their families and their communities.

Yet they worry about their families being separated. They worry about being deported. They worry that their schools will report them, something that can cause anxiety rather than concentration in the classroom as well as mistrust of principals and other administrators.

Many children also serve as translators on behalf of their families, juggling critical interactions with everyone from landlords to doctors along with their nightly homework.

Teachers must strive for sensitivity, Lopez says, creating a safe space where children can find support while they share their fears and their successes.

“It’s so critical that these kids know that they’re not alone, and that their school is not going to turn them in,” she says. “They have no reason to divulge that information to anyone.”

Colleges are not immune, she adds.

DREAM Action NIUFollowing President Trump’s announcement, Lopez says, “I had a student who came into the center, shaking. She was having a hard time breathing. I said, ‘I didn’t realize you were undocumented.’ She said, ‘I’m not. My parents are.’ ”

Stories like that motivate Taines and, she believes, her students.

“Educational equity drives me,” Taines says. “That’s the reason I got into education. It’s a large piece of how we can achieve social equality, because education is one of the main drivers of opportunity. Just because there’s a language issue doesn’t mean that a student is not going to achieve or achieve highly.”

Taines accentuates her objective by sending students to research the language-learning programs of the high schools from which they graduated.

“Every time, I get some initial pushback: ‘My school doesn’t have that program. We didn’t have any kids in my school who were language-learners.’ I say, ‘I just want you to look. It’s possible that’s changed.’ The students come back and say, ‘I didn’t know we had this,’ ” she says.

“They realize they had only a slice of understanding about the institution as a whole,” she adds. “Their communities are changing quickly. The suburbs are become more diverse. Thinking through these issues, having them think through the issues and connecting to them on a human basis, will help them serve their future students.”

Cohen makes his point through a role-playing exercise where he is “the angry man on the plane” who’s in favor of mass deportation. The students must persuade him otherwise.

“It’s amazing. You can see their wheels turning,” he says. “You can see how they’re trying to convince me that what I’m saying is based on ideology and not on facts. They put me in the shoes of an immigrant student. They make it more relevant to me. They try to convince me that bilingual education and equal treatment of undocumented immigrants are the right, ethical and moral choices.”

DREAM Action NIU

DREAM Action NIU is a student-led organization that works in collaboration with the Latino Resource Center to raise awareness of the situations undocumented students face in the U.S. and, in particular, on campus.

Students gain the solid foundation for their arguments during every class period of the semester, he adds.

“My bottom line is that teachers have to be thinking about their students and less about themselves. We can’t blame our students for the context or the predicament they’re in. I want my students to learn the facts so that they can teach the facts,” Cohen says.

And it’s working, he says.

“We are turning out teachers who understand the systems and hierarchies of injustice that exist. We are producing teachers who know how to advocate for kids. We are producing teachers who are good pedagogists. I’m very proud of being a faculty member in the NIU College of Education and of all the good work we are doing here.”



Social Justice Summer Camp offers educators ideas to reach students in ‘a different way’

sjsc-5Long lines in the lunchroom. Climbing the gymnasium rope. Nagging parents. The quadratic formula.

Anxieties like these are the stuff of high school.

For LGBTQ teens, though, they take a backseat to the issues of sexual orientation.

Changing clothes not in a locker room but in a nurse’s office on the other side of the building, a welcome accommodation that also comes with isolation. Never knowing whom to trust with their feelings. Bullying not just from classmates but also from fathers who threaten disownment and siblings who heartlessly mock them and their friends.

Such overwhelming concerns can impede learning; require understanding and sensitivity from teachers, most of whom probably can’t relate. Students from diverse ethnic and racial populations, also confronted by generations of oppression, equally yearn for that kind of support. Again, it’s often in vain.

But K-12 teachers and other educators from DeKalb and Elgin who attended June’s inaugural Social Justice Summer Camp at the NIU College of Education will return to their classrooms and schools this fall with eyes wide open to students from diverse and historically marginalized backgrounds.

That progress starts with the recognition that educational disparities exist although they likely are invisible to those not impacted.

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Campers talk after a LGBTQ panel discussion.

Joseph Flynn, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and one of the camp’s organizers, said the participants had “a wonderful time, intellectually and socially.”

“People left on a high note, invigorated to get back to their schools and districts and to get to work. Some were talking about addressing the climate within their schools. Some were looking at specific policies as well as the practices and curriculum in general,” Flynn said.

“Overall, the comments we had from campers were largely positive,” he added. “That doesn’t mean that some folks didn’t struggle with some of the issues, and we anticipated that. Learning about issues of oppression in all forms can be challenging because it’s speaking against the status quo.”

NIU’s camp, organized by Flynn and colleagues James Cohen and Mike Manderino, the three-day camp featured keynote speakers, panel discussions, film screenings, experiential activities, reflective conversations and the development of social justice action plans for schools.

Themes of the days included “Building from the Beginning: Understanding Multicultural and Social Justice Education Historically and Currently,” “Pieces of a Whole: Recognizing the Relationships among Systems, the Collective and the Individual” and “Now What? Considerations on the Practice of Social Justice Education.”

Mike Manderino

Mike Manderino

History lessons of how various forms of oppression emerged, along with the thought-provoking content of the films, spawned many side discussions.

“The film series was especially powerful,” Flynn said. “We would finish a film, and an hour of conversation would go by – and we still weren’t done talking.”

During a June 13 panel discussion featuring three DeKalb High School students who are LGBTQ, however, the language was plain and the message clear.

“We’re just trying to make it through, like the rest of you,” one teenager said to the audience. “School should not be a place you fear or dislike.”

Members of the audience, meanwhile, were able to walk in someone else’s shoes.

The three students spoke of bullying in the hallways, observing that teachers often “won’t step in until it gets physical and someone gets hurt.” They talked of academic lessons illustrated only with “white, hetero families” and history curriculum that ignores the contributions of LGBTQ individuals. They discussed sexual education that covers sex and abstinence but not asexuality.

They expressed hurt over hearing the attendance called with their birth names and of being addressed by the wrong pronouns – situations that are not only uncomfortable but also potentially dangerous if the teachers inadvertently “out” students.

Yet they also smiled camaraderie available through school, especially when groups such DeKalb High School’s Gay-Straight Alliance are active. Meeting other LBGTQ students means “I’m not broken,” one said. “There is nothing wrong or strange about this, and I don’t have to be ashamed. This is something other people have experienced. I’m not alone.”

sjsc-1

James Cohen (left) was one of the camp’s organizers.

Educators in the room stood and applauded.

“I’m in awe of your courage,” one told the panel. “Thank you for being who you are.”

The teens also provided advice for the teachers who might have LGBTQ students – or parents – in their classrooms.

  • “Normalize your curriculum.”
  • “Give students someone to talk to. Let your students know you are available and open to them. If a student comes to you and tells you about their parents not accepting them, be there for them.”
  • “Respect every one for who they are – or who they want to be.”

Andria Mitchell, principal of DeKalb’s Tyler Elementary School, came to the Social Justice Summer Camp to reinforce the work of District 428’s diversity planning.

“This has been an amazing experience,” Mitchell said.

“It has been liberating and emotionally draining. It’s been an eye-opener with big moments of aha. I even had to catch myself a couple times, and say, ‘Oh! I have that bias,’ or, ‘I’ve never thought of it that way.’ ”

Mitchell believes teachers must respect diversity with the same level of importance they assign to knowledge and content.

“When you’re able to have this social justice lens, along with the latest knowledge, you reach your students in a different way,” she said, “and you reach all of your students.”

Jackie Jagielski, a sixth-grade gifted program teacher at Glenbrook Elementary School in U-46, wants to ensure that all children are provided with “opportunities to use their voices” and safe spaces.

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Campers came from the DeKalb and Elgin school districts.

NIU’s camp offered “concrete ways” to do just that, she said.

“I’ve always had an interest in social justice issues, particularly now in the political climate we find ourselves in. It’s harder for people to find common ground,” Jagielski said. “We need to celebrate and humanize all of our students, regardless of their backgrounds and in all the ways that they can be diverse.”

Roy Kim, a social worker in District 428, appreciated the camp’s “wealth of historical context” and “hearing the experiences of the other attendees.”

“Social justice is half of my job description,” he said. “Nothing could be more relevant for me in doing my job effectively.”

Ana Arroyo is principal of Elgin’s Parkwood Elementary School, a Title I school where 90 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced lunch. Most are Hispanic.

She attended NIU’s camp to help her teachers advance their “understanding of where our children are coming from,” something already in progress. Parkwood, nominated for PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) “Gold” recognition, is one of the Top 5 safest schools in U-46.

“I’m planning to deliver professional development to my staff on teaching to our population. It’s about listening to students, and giving students a platform to speak, share and engage in their learning,” Arroyo said. “If we can impact change at such an early level, that’s going to continue through middle school and high school.”



A celebration of excellence

excllence-2College of Education Dean Laurie Elish-Piper, along with associate deans Bill Pitney and David Walker, rolled out the red carpet May 5 for the college’s annual Celebration of Excellence.

The event in Anderson Hall recognized winners of the College of Education awards.

  • Excellence in Teaching Award by Faculty/Clinical Faculty: Katy Jaekel, CAHE
  • Excellence in Research and Artistry Award by Faculty: Jim Ressler, KNPE
  • Excellence in Service Award by Faculty: Myoung Jung, SEED (not pictured)
  • Exceptional Contributions by Instructors: Jan Hart, SEED
  • Exceptional Contributions by Civil Service Staff: David Snow, LEPF
  • Exceptional Contributions by Supportive Professional Staff: Susan Schwartz, KNPE
  • Outreach/Community Service Award: Stacy Kelly, SEED
  • Exceptional Contributions in Diversity/Social Justice Award: James Cohen, CI, and Lauriece Zittel, KNPE

Also stepping into the spotlight:

  • Tom Smith, a newly named NIU Presidential Teaching Professor from the Department of Educational Technology, Research and Assessment;
  • soon-to-retire Toni Tollerud (COE personnel consultant) and Susan Schwartz (academic advisor, KNPE); and
  • Rachel Bicksler, Lauren Leifheit and Jacinda Starr, three of the freshmen who were among 2016-17’s inaugural group of Dean’s Achievement Scholarship recipients.

Congratulations to all!



K-12 teachers to explore equity at Social Justice Summer Camp

Joseph Flynn

Joseph Flynn

Question: Can K-12 teachers without a deep understanding of social justice concerns effectively engage and enlighten their students on those topics?

Joseph Flynn, James Cohen and Mike Manderino would say “no.”

But the three professors from the Department of Curriculum and Instruction are ready to start equipping teachers to tackle those tough conversations from a well-rounded perspective of the issues.

Nearly 60 teachers and other school professionals will arrive June 11 at NIU for the inaugural Social Justice Summer Camp for Educators, a four-day, three-night, candid and nonjudgmental exploration of multiculturalism, privilege, identity, oppression and more.

“Practicing K-12 teachers and administrators typically have the best of intentions, but it is important for them to also have experiences that can help further their understanding of various forms of oppression and social justice in general,” says Flynn, who first proposed the summer camp.

“Regardless of what people might have to say, or whatever political stripe they may be, social justice issues are actually happening to people,” Flynn adds.

“And if we really believe in social justice and equity, it becomes imperative for students to actually engage in these issues. Offering students opportunities to explore problems helps them with critical thinking and helps them understand their world.”

James Cohen and Mike Manderino

James Cohen and Mike Manderino

Manderino and Cohen are excited to join in Flynn’s vision.

“Schools are a microcosm of society. They’re not this separate place where the world doesn’t exist anymore,” Manderino says. “And whether it’s racism, sexism, discrimination against one’s gender identity, sexual preference or religious background – these are systemic issues. Schools, and the school system itself, really have to confront the fact that these issues are present.”

“In an age of emboldened racism, and emboldened discrimination in our society, we have to be equally emboldened to fight back all of this racism, discrimination and injustice,” Cohen adds. “What better way to spread that message of social justice than to work with teachers?”

The camp, which will take place in New Residence Hall, will feature keynote speakers JQ Adams and Stacey Horn, panel discussions, film screenings and, most importantly, long and pointed conversations followed by opportunities for reflection.

Discussions will probe the historic development of multicultural and social justice education and key ideas; the nature of privilege across identities and how privilege impacts policy and practice in schools; and the ways in which school policies foster inequity and how to reform such policies.

“We have a whole range of issues that these schools can think about,” Manderino says. “Some schools might be struggling with equity gaps in suspension rates, or in who gets access to some classes. It could be writing more gender-inclusive policies, or providing safe spaces.”

sjsc-logoKey to those talks is coming up with a definition of oppression, Flynn adds.

“Oppression happens when prejudice against a group is backed by historical, social and institutional power. It’s much more than feeling mistreated,” he says.

“Affirmative action is not a form of oppression against white males, for example, as compared to the ways the LGBT+ community has been marginalized for decades, let alone centuries, in American culture,” he says. “When you have a series of laws that are consistently passed that have a negative impact on your community – even if that’s not intentional – then those are markers of oppression.”

Films on the summer camp’s evening schedule include the powerful documentaries “Color of Fear,” “Cracking the Codes” and “Precious Knowledge.”

Campers will set goals for their schools and, before they leave June 14, explain how they will begin making a difference for students in the fall.

cracking-the-codes“One of the six goals of multicultural education is to act on your knowledge,” Cohen says. “They will create action plans for how to advocate for linguistically and culturally marginalized students in their respective schools.”

Teachers who attend will learn to reduce their reticence toward taking on this challenge.

“I’ve met a lot of teachers who feel like, ‘Yeah, what the Black Lives Matter movement is saying against police brutality is really important, but I don’t know enough to say anything about it,’ ” Flynn says.

“We can help them become more comfortable with, one, approaching the subjects in general; two, how to engage their students in discussions; and, three, and perhaps most importantly, in admitting that they don’t know everything, and that’s OK,” he adds. “It’s OK to say, ‘You know, I don’t know. Why don’t we figure that out together?’ ”

Flynn’s journey of turning social justice issues into teaching tools began in 2000, the year he began teaching in higher education.

His first course covered human diversity, power and opportunity in social institutions, a focus that prompted him to become more conscious and thoughtful of how various groups are positioned in society.

“I do believe that the United States, if it really believes what it professes in our founding documents, like the Declaration of Independence, that it’s incumbent on us when we can to help people understand how various forms of oppression work,” Flynn says.

“I believe that doing everything we can to make life better for all people is incumbent on us as citizens. We as a society cannot just keep saying that it’s terrible that these things happen if we’re not going to further educate ourselves and create spaces for kids to talk about these things.”

JQ Adams and Stacey Horn

JQ Adams and Stacey Horn

The professors are eager to welcome the campers, lead and participate in their conversations and, ultimately, see positive results begin to blossom.

Campers should regard the event not as “come and learn everything in a few days” but as the catalysts for expanding their mindsets, they say.

“Public education, and education in general, has the promise and potential to provide opportunities for people to pursue their passions and their interests. It gives people choice and agency over their lives, and it has the potential to broaden the perspectives of students much earlier in their lives,” Manderino says.

“But as participants in a societal institution, we as educators must become mindful of these issues. Then I think we can start to grow people’s participation in our democracy because it becomes more inclusive.”

For Cohen, the answer lies in rising above the notion that “there’s no such thing as white rule.”

“When teachers understand how white privilege plays a role in their teaching, how misogyny plays a role in their teaching, how linguistic privilege plays a role in their teaching – if they can gain that awareness, they will be teaching students multiple historical perspectives,” he says.

“Students will be much more aware of the realities of people who don’t think and look and act like them,” he adds, “and that’s what this really comes down to.”



Go Teacher project graduates 37 Ecuadorian “Huskies”

Go TeacherThirty-seven Ecuadorian teachers gathered at the Red Roof Inn Aug. 13 for the *Go Teacher project’s graduation ceremony. Go Teacher is a seven-month international education program where Ecuadorian teachers studied ESL methodology, second language acquisition, and culture on NIU’s campus.

James Cohen, assistant professor of ESL and bilingual education in the department Literacy and Elementary Education, secured a $777,000 grant from the Ecuadorian Ministry of Education and Kansas State University that made the Go Teacher program possible.

NIU speakers at the ceremony included Lisa Freeman, executive vice president and provost; Laurie Elish-Piper, acting dean of the College of Education; Anne Gregory, chair of the Department of Literacy and Elementary Education; James Cohen, and two Go Teacher graduates—Eugenia Pico and Segundo Rea. Graduates enthusiastically lined up to receive certificates of completion, which were handed out by Cohen and Gregory. The ceremony was followed by a buffet lunch and dancing.

During their seveGO Teachern-month stay at NIU, each of the 37 participants logged 615 in-class and clinical hours. In Ecuador, English is required to study abroad, and to gain entry into a master’s degree or Ph.D. program.

“What has happened here is powerful,” said Cohen. “They’re going to be seen as leaders in their small communities. It’s now in their hands to make differences for their students and their families.”

* To see WNIJ radio’s coverage of the event, visit the website.