By: Dayna Ford, Ph.D. and Melissa Brevetti, Ph.D.

Motivating Diverse Students: Nontraditional Approaches in the Global 21st Century

As professors of students who come from all over the world, creativity is key in order to connect knowledge to students’ global experiences and learning styles.  We would like to share classroom experiences, narratives of students and educator interactions that, moreover, changed our own teaching and lives.

  1. Making Sense: How Touch Memory Can Enhance Learning

Education, in the global 21stcentury, provides the embodiment of the multicultural, diverse paradigm as multiple opportunities to study in and with different cultures exists.  Since many educators use various methods of pedagogy to connect with students, let’s examine the concept of “touch memory.”  To be sure, educators are frequently encouraged to provide students with Kinesthetic/Tactile/Hands-On learning experiences—which can be a great challenge in order to develop curriculum and activities that emphasize ways students can manipulate the learning tools.  Because many professors are not this type of learner, we did not fully understand the benefits of this style of teaching.  Nonetheless, as creative educators, we sought ways to engage students with student-centered approaches.  One way that we found was a game for vocabulary instruction which required students to practice spelling without seeing the letters.  One student would spell a word on another student’s back and that student had to say which word it was.  Then they would switch, etc.  We have used this activity several times and while students seemed to enjoy it, we questioned whether it was really worth the time it took in class for students to explore the new vocabulary as they took turns writing on each other’s backs.

One spring day during this activity, a student from Turkey called me (Dr. Ford) over and he seemed to be very excited about the activity.  These are not his exact words, but he told me that he had never been able to spell correctly in his entire life until today because he was dyslexic. He said that he had not misspelled any of the words today because he was looking at the word in the book as he wrote it on his friend’s back.  His friend got it right every time.  He understood which letters were being written.  This Turkish student felt that I had solved his spelling problem.  He could trace the letter with his fingers and as long as he did not look at them, he could reproduce them though his touch memory.

Of course, I was not sure this had really solved his problem, but I was pleased that he felt he had found an answer to a lifelong problem.  I was now sure of the benefit of this activity in my classes and continue to use it. However, many years later, something even more extraordinary happened.

Years later, I was teaching a graduate level “Teaching English as a Second Language” class and walking out of class when it was over, I saw this same Turkish student waiting in the hall.  Unbeknownst to me, his wife was in my class and he had come to pick her up.  He gave me a big hug and then told me how the spelling on the back activity had really helped him throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies.  He said he believed that he would always be a good speller because of what he had learned about himself that day.

I was really astounded that this had really made a difference for this student.  More than anything, this experience confirmed to me that people do not need to hear or see something in order to learn.  After more than ten years of teaching English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL), I finally completely believed in different learning styles.  This set me off on my journey of trying to figure out how to explain concepts kinesthetically or tactilely.  In the next, few segments, we will explain where visual and kinesthetic activities enhance students’ learning.

  1. Putting It Together: How Kinesthetic Organization Enhances Students’ Writing

When our gaze shifts toward how to instruct writing, educators must consider how to provide opportunities for diverse students to learn how to logically, yet clearly, connect and develop ideas.  Indeed, the exploration and time to engage in writing becomes critical so that educators can create effective practices for diverse students. After several months of teaching beginning level writing classes, we wondered: who in the world had decided that beginners could grasp the abstract concepts of writing paragraphs when they did not know enough English for us to explain those concepts to them?  By its definition, abstract is difficult if not impossible to illustrate or show.  The concepts of writing a paragraph, which objective was required in beginning writing courses, however, forces explanation to these students.  Additionally, by definition, beginning students cannot understand or read enough English words to talk and explain anything.  Beginners rely heavily on seeing and teachers rely on showing them in order to develop enough vocabulary and grammar for them to learn through language. Still, we were compelled to somehow teach these concepts which were intrinsically undemonstrative.  We pondered and asked colleagues, but none had any answers for this dilemma.  With these considerations, we began to emphasis constructivism.  People can often figure out rules or concepts without having them explained if they had enough guidance.  This made us search for something that had the same characteristics as writing a paragraph but yet something that my students might already know. Then, hopefully, they could extrapolate from what they knew to determine the abstractions of the writing paradigm.

For example, I (Dr. Ford) started using framed cardboard puzzles and their adult knowledge of how to quickly put such a child’s puzzle together to represent putting their writing together.  One day, I wrote the key words from the course objectives that they needed to understand on the board:  topic, topic sentence, supporting sentence, detail sentence cohesion.  Next, I showed them three different Mickey Mouse puzzles. After showing the puzzles, I pointed to Mickey Mouse and to the word “topic;” then pointed to the word “topic” and shrugged and they all immediately knew the answer I was looking for in my shrugged question: Mickey Mouse.  Now we know that they, indeed, understood the topic.  The following part is much more difficult.

I recognized my students knew what a sentence was since they all followed instructions to write sentences correctly.  I had to get them to understand that all sentences are not created equal.  So I held up the first puzzle, I pointed to the frame and them the words topic sentence.  I repeated with the second puzzle.  With the third, I pointed to the frame and again shrugged.  They immediately came out with “topic sentence.”  I next laid the puzzle on the floor and motioned for them to gather round.  When they had, I began taking out only the pieces which touched the frame, stacked these in a next pile, and pointed to the words “supporting sentence”. Before I made it through the second puzzle, the students were helping, taking apart the third puzzle and saying “supporting sentence.”  When they were doing this, some students also removed pieces which did not touch the frame and I was quick to stop them, point to that piece, shake my head, and point to the words “detail sentence.”  Before long, they were making another stack of pieces for only detail sentences. Then I asked different students to attach either supporting sentences or detail sentences until the puzzles were reassembled and then we reversed the process until there were piles of supporting sentences and detail sentences for each puzzle again.

Now came the part that students even in high proficiency levels often misunderstood; cohesion.  I chose a supporting sentence from one puzzle, handed it to a student along with a frame from the wrong puzzle and indicated he should put the piece in the frame I had given him.  He immediately looked at me as if I were crazy and tried to pick up the correct frame. I looked confused, pointed at the frame and said, “Mickey Mouse,” the next frame and said, “Mickey Mouse,” and the third frame and said, “Mickey Mouse.”  The student and many others looked at me strangely and were able to convey that the pieces must go in the frame they came out of.  This was my teaching moment.  I was able to say cohesionand no cohesionwhile pointing to the words to help them understand that not all sentences about Mickey Mouse could go in the same topic sentence paragraph.

They, then, wrote sentences to represent the topic sentences, the supporting sentences, and the detail sentences.  Then we tried moving sentences between paragraphs to see if they worked.  If a sentence worked in both paragraphs, they immediately knew there was a problem and we revised together until each sentence belonged to its very own topic sentence.

I do this with my paragraphs and essays regardless of how well students speak English.  In fact, I do this activity when also teaching American students about pieces of writing.  Without constructivism, I would still be struggling to teach abstractions without speaking.

  1. Seeking to Understand: How Culture Can Shape Students’ Classroom Behavior

When we have a multicultural classroom, students help educators—in addition to their school classmates and community—to understand just how very different the classroom culture of America is from other countries.   Students come to university with a very specific set of acceptable behaviors implanted in their heads from their K-12 experiences which are often unimaginable to students from other countries.  An encounter with this was in a conversation class I (Dr. Brevetti) was teaching which included a quiet girl from Saudi Arabia.  This was in my early years of multicultural teaching and I was wanted to find a measurable way to score students speaking abilities.  One suggestion I had received from a more experienced teacher was to weight how often a student volunteered information or asked questions.  This was interesting except I found that some students may enjoy listening or prefer private thoughts.  Also, she liked to be covered fully in her hijab, head scarf, as that was what was comfortable for her.  It worked out that I could work one-on-one with students or in small groups as a way to help them practice conversational skills without pushing students to disown their heritage.  No one size fits all and, furthermore, every student should have the space to learn without fear or discomfort.

One student from Thailand explained her culture about speaking.  It was during this process that the student relayed an eye-opening story which helped me (Dr. Ford) deeply understand her ingrained unwillingness to speak in class.  Apparently, in the Thai school this student had attended all of her life, speaking in class was only allowed for questions and then only under very extraordinary circumstances were questions allowed.  She related that in order to ask a question, the following steps must be demonstrated.  First, the student raised their hand to be recognized by the teacher.  Once recognized, the student must lower his/her eyes, get out of the desk in order to get on one’s knees next to the desk. Then, the student could walk, on the knees with eyes lowered, to the teacher’s desk where the question could then be asked without making eye contact with the teacher.  Upon receiving the answer, the student could return to the desk in the same manner.  No speaking other than this was allowed.

Needless to say, we can certainly understood now why these students had difficulty speaking spontaneously during class.  We had to devise ways to motivate students to share in safe spaces in order to meet American classroom discussion expectations.  This has become a fun part of getting acquainted ritual so that we develop respect and cohesion; students explain how classes are conducted and what teachers expect in their different homelands.  It is interesting to all of us and helps us understand how better to help students function in American classrooms.

Conclusion and Discussion

Many times in early education, teachers can find ways to implement creative approaches so that students can grasp concepts.  Most significantly, with evolving technology, students are able to interact and construct knowledge with personal meaning.  Many professors in secondary education and higher education scenarios use lecture-style teaching, however, which can deter diverse learners from wanting to understand and synthesize knowledge.  The examples that were mentioned in this article, from our challenging but real teaching experiences, indicate that students are most influenced by outside-the-box activities as they explore, question, and reflect on the information, as well as actively engage with the material and each other.  We challenge you to throw out the box altogether to build dynamic, exciting teaching approaches for students’ best interests.  Students will be present and engaged when the content matters to them.  Learning is once again simulating and fulfilling.  Most significantly, learning is an adventure of life itself—let’s share information in meaningful ways!