Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | April 28, 2017

Channeling Diversity in the Dominican Republic

Channeling Diversity in the Dominican Republic

by Ken Reeds

During spring break, one section of the School of Education’s Culturally Responsive Teaching course, taught by Dr. Sarah Dietrich, traveled to the city of Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic. The course is an important part of learning to teach in K-12 and the course description begins with a sentence that includes one of our university’s most important words, namely the word diverse. The sentence is: “Students will explore and reflect upon the challenges and opportunities they will encounter teaching students from diverse backgrounds.” Diversity means difference. Difference, intrinsically, isn’t a good thing or a bad thing. It is just difference. Yet difference is a significant part of our world. It continuously surrounds us in many forms. This is the reason that you will find it so central to our university, its mission, and to the classes that we teach.

When people with diverse backgrounds share a space, there are natural tensions. We all have different ways of doing things; of measuring priorities; of deciding right from wrong; and of defining significant words like justice, freedom, and truth. Tensions mean energy and the challenge is to channel the energy created by diversity in positive directions. Diversity’s tensions left unchanneled can produce ugly, even violent circumstances. Driven in a positive direction, the energy created by diversity can generate some of life’s most important forces: art, beauty, culture, and love. The reason that diversity is so present in Salem State’s mission is that one of the purposes of education is to avoid leaving diversity’s tensions to evolve on their own. We want our students to develop the skills to transform differences into positive forces for our society.

The idea behind the trip was that Dr. Sarah Dietrich, the eleven students in her class, and me wanted to take classroom work on diversity and bring it beyond our country’s borders. To do this, we dedicated our spring break to work at the Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra.

Dr. Sarah Dietrich, Salem State University students, and faculty members from the Instituto Politécnico Nuestra Señora de Las Mercedes.

A Latin American country felt like a natural choice for the trip because one of the biggest contributors to Massachusetts’s diversity are the Hispanic and Spanish-speaking populations. In fact, according to the latest census data, Massachusetts is one of six states in the country that can attribute nearly all its growth from 2000 to 2010 to the Hispanic population. Those people are young as well, with a median age of 26. This is notable if you compare it to non-Hispanic whites, whose median age is 43. In regard to education, in 2010 there were 149,000 Hispanics enrolled in public K-12, accounting for 15% of K-12 students in the Commonwealth. The languages these people speak are mixed. 22% of Hispanics aged five and older in the state spoke only English at home, while 78% spoke a language other than English at home. In Massachusetts, the Hispanic population is essential and it will form an important part of our classrooms in the future.

Looking at the demographics more locally, visiting the Dominican Republic made even more sense. In some of the towns and cities closest to our university, the census showed a strong Dominican presence. Hispanics make up 73.8% of the population in Lawrence with Dominicans being the majority. In Lynn they are 32.1% of the population and Dominicans are also the majority. In Methuen, Dominicans are once again the majority and Hispanics are 18.1% of the population. In case you were wondering, Hispanics are 15.6% of Salem’s population with Dominicans forming the largest portion (9.1% of the total and 58% of all Hispanics). Considering this information, it is likely that the future teachers in Dr. Dietrich’s class will soon be in front of classrooms that include Hispanics and many of those Hispanics will be able to trace their roots to the Dominican Republic.

Dominican students in traditional dress with Salem State University students.

We were in Santiago de los Caballeros, the country’s second-largest city, from March 11th until March 19th. The university there provided us with a mix of experiences that were designed to provide an image of Dominican identity. These were classroom lectures and discussions in both Spanish and English on subjects like race, linguistics, history, politics, and social science. We saw films about Dominicans both at home and as immigrants. Our students had lessons in Spanish language and we also visited an anthropological museum. Taken together, these experiences provided context for the other activities that we did.

The most important part of the trip was visiting Dominican schools. After all, this experience was part of an education course. In total we visited three schools. There were two urban schools and a rural one. Of the three schools, two were public and one was private. As people learning to become teachers, the goal was for our students to see how education functions in another country. They compared the practices they saw with the ones that they have been learning at Salem State.

Perhaps the most influential part of the trip was the visit to the rural Centro Educativo Madre Teresa de Calcuta Fe y Alegría school. Located about an hour outside of Santiago de los Caballeros, the students who attended this school were from an economically disadvantaged area. It is important to remember that more than a third of the country lives on less than $1.25 a day and over twenty percent is in what the United Nations calls “extreme poverty.” Most of the worst poverty is in the rural parts of the country where the poverty rate is about three times as high as its urban equivalent.

With limited resources, large student to teacher ratios, and far from the city, the teachers and administrators were doing an amazing job to provide an education. Their work went well beyond the pedagogical and entered the realm of human good. In fact, a common theme in our conversations was the observation that despite the many differences between schools in Massachusetts and in the Dominican Republic, the teachers there were like the teachers here. Everyone was interested in seeing the students fulfil their potential, embrace diversity, and transform it into something positive for the future.

Indeed, it is possible to argue that the best of the trip was the emotional journey. There is no doubt that the Dominican Republic is different from Salem, but by travelling through that difference and experiencing it for ourselves, we could clearly see how much we had in common. It is funny to think that on the other side of so much difference we discovered such an amazing number of similarities.

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