Harvard Educational Review
  1. The Light in Their Eyes

    Creating Multicultural Learning Communities

    By Sonia Nieto

    New York: Teachers College Press, 1999. 207 pp. $22.95

    In the introduction of her newest book, Sonia Nieto establishes that multicultural education is not something that schools “do” by simply devoting a segment of the curriculum to “diversity” or filling bulletin boards with posters of multicolored children. She sees multicultural education rather as a perspective from which to focus on achieving excellence in student learning.

    The title of the book, The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities, underscores Nieto’s view of the illuminating power of education for both teachers and students. Her previous work, Affirming Diversity, brought student voices to the foreground as they commented on their educational experiences. The current volume complements the previous one by highlighting the voices of teachers — gathered from journals they kept while enrolled in Nieto’s graduate class — who comment on their own educational transformations.

    The book focuses on teacher practices, attitudes, and values, as well as on the policies and practices of schools that she believes will promote the learning of all students — especially those who have traditionally not met with much success in school. Instead of referring to such students as “minority,” “at-risk,” “disadvantaged,” or “disempowered,” Nieto uses the term “bicultural,” which emphasizes what these students have rather than what they lack. The author sees multicultural education, indeed all good teaching, as transformative. To this end, she advocates that teachers transform their practice on three levels — individual, collective, and institutional — in order to improve the educational potential of all students. Nieto is also convinced that “unless and until teachers undergo a personal transformation, little will change in our schools” (p. xx). The transformation that she sees as “indispensable for the learning to take place” is based on an attitude that blends “hope and critique” (p. xxiii).

    Throughout her book, Nieto gives clear working definitions for many problematic terms (for example, multicultural education, culture, critical pedagogy, empowerment). In addition, she provides explicit descriptions of the social and political conditions in public schools that impede the achievement of bicultural students, and makes logical, cogent arguments for change, which are supported by numerous examples from research. The teachers’ reflections lend authenticity to the book.

    Chapter one, “Learning the Social Context in Multicultural Education,” identifies five principles that inform Nieto’s view of learning. She believes that learning is “actively constructed,” connected to experience, influenced by cultural differences, developed within a social context, and created within a community (p. 3). Chapter two, “Learning and Inequality,” presents an analysis of conditions in U.S. society and schools that have been “consistently, systematically, and disproportionally unequal and unfair for students who are different from ‘the mainstream’” (p. 20). Also included in this chapter is a discussion of group and individual responses to inequality. The first two chapters set the theoretical and sociopolitical context, while the remaining chapters deal more directly with what happens in classrooms and schools.

    In chapter three, Nieto looks at “Culture and Learning,” giving a thorough, detailed definition of culture and then discussing language as culture. After offering examples of culturally responsive practices that work to enhance student learning, however, she cautions that this approach can be misguided if applied superficially or if cultures are rigidly defined. On the other hand, she cites several examples of students who do well in schools that are quite different from their home culture and effectively counters the assumption that “cultural discontinuities” inevitably lead to school failure. Stressing the necessity to look at structural inequalities as well as cultural responsiveness, she concludes the chapter by suggesting several issues for teachers to focus on to encourage effective connections between language, culture, and learning. The title of chapter four asks, “Who Does the Accommodating?” Here, Nieto suggests that improving connections between students’ home and school lives can ease the way for the creation of positive learning communities. A number of examples illustrate how teachers and schools can change practices and policies to allow accommodation to be shared between the institution and the home.

    In chapter five, Nieto delves into critical pedagogy, empowerment, and learning. First she defines these terms and then makes persuasive arguments for viewing multicultural education as critical pedagogy and for linking empowerment with learning. This chapter is full of examples of approaches to teaching that engage students actively in “both the content and context of their education” (p. 129). Although teachers’ voices are interspersed throughout the book, chapter six, “The Personal and Collective Transformation of Teachers,” focuses specifically on their stories of coming to terms with one’s identity, learning from and with students, and challenging bias within both oneself and one’s school. The last chapter, “Creating Learning Communities: Implications for Multicultural Education,” summarizes themes that have emerged throughout the book and suggests characteristics that school reform should reflect in order to be effective “for students of all backgrounds and all situations” (p. 176).

    The Light in Their Eyes offers a comprehensive and convincing argument for multicultural education as an important conceptual framework for improving student learning. As the author notes, “There are lessons to be learned from the many stories about student learning, teacher transformation, and school change . . . that might serve as models for other teachers and schools committed to developing demanding, caring, and inclusive learning communities” (p. 162).

    Teachers, administrators, and members of school governance bodies will find this volume useful, as will teacher educators. The book is written in a clear and engaging style that will also appeal to any reader interested in gaining a better understanding of this affirmative approach to schooling.

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    Book Notes