La Red Mágica: Progress Report

April 16, 1999

Here we want to share the current state and our successes in the first semester of operating the La Red Mágica project.  There was one section (honors) of EDST 258 “Cultural Diversity, Teaching, and Schooling” associated with the project.  The 16 students (15 freshmen and one sophomore) had teaching practium experience at the Latin American Community Center of Wilmington twice a week for 1.5 hours. The students worked with the LACC children helping them with educational computer games, board games, the Internet, crafts and art activities, homework, reading books in the LACC library, and sport activities.  The children were 6-16-year olds (the majority were from elementary school); mainly from Puerto Rico, African-Americans, but also immigrants from Dominican Republic and Mexico.  More than half of the children were diagnosed with different types of “learning disabilities” in their schools.

Evidence of the successes:

1.     Students’ course evaluation for Fall 1998 EDST258 demonstrates mean 1.4 for overall evaluation of the course and 1.4 for overall evaluation of the instructor on a five-point scale (where 1 is “excellent”).  

2.     Students’ motivation to work with minority children: 100% would recommend the class associated with the La Red Mágica practicum to other students; 70% want to volunteer to work with the LACC children; 50% want to take another class with the La Red Mágica practicum.  

3.     The number of LACC children that voluntarily came to the project grew from 12 (at the beginning) to 60 (at the end) per session.  

4.     Students were initially intimidated by the prospect of working with minority children in the La Red Mágica practicum but then became enthusiastic about being able to make a difference. As one of the students wrote at the end of the semester on the class interactive web, “I have to admit that I was very scared about this teaching practicum at the LACC. I will be the first one to admit that I sometimes stereotype minorities. I am from a little town that is 99% white and I have not been exposed to "inner city" and minorities. This was definitely an eye opening experience. At first I was very afraid. I was even afraid of getting too close, emotionally, to the kids. I expected the kids to come each day in the same torn and ripped up clothing. I expected the kids to be very deprived also. But it was nothing at all like that. I was very uncomfortable at first around the kids. I know this may sound very prejudice, but it was mostly because they were a minority. But after I have gone through these experiences, I have realized that these kids are the same as any others. I no longer look at people differently because they are a different minority. I think this course was a very good thing for me. I needed to see that there are different kinds of people out there and it is okay to be different. It helped me to be comfortable around all kinds of people. I am definitely comfortable around these kids now. They come up to me and hug me and I don't think anything at all of it. This will definitely help me to become a better teacher. One of my biggest fears, coming from a predominately white town, was minority students in the classroom. I know that after this class I don't need to be afraid of this anymore. This could not have been a better class for me to take to open up my eyes.”  

5.     The students’ perception of the minority children improved.  In the class survey, at the beginning of class, 2/3 of the students blamed minority children (e.g., laziness, lack of motivation) and/or their parents (e.g., lack of interests in their children, parental neglect) as the main reason for academic failure of many minority children. A student form the Fall class was invited to give a talk to the new Spring class associated with the La Red Mágica project, “I came to LACC and my whole perspective changed. I thought that the kids would be very stereotypically … you know, not well dressed.  I was under impression that they would not be so… normal. …[The student told how the LACC children taught her Spanish while she was teaching them French.] We had a lot of fun.  I really miss them!” 

At the end of the class, the students developed more sophisticated view of the problem.  As a student wrote on the class web after interviewing LACC children and reviewing Delaware educational statistics on school achievement of minority children (two projects among others that were assigned by the instructor), “Through hearing about all the children’s families I know I will be more compassionate and understanding to the difficult lives they face, not only now but also when I am a teacher. It is amazing to me how everyday these kids with such hardships come to the LACC everyday with a smile on their faces. That right there is a lesson for us all to take note of. These kids are inspirational to us all, and the dreams they have in their head need to enriched and teachers need to give them the tools to fulfill these dreams, tools their parents aren't able to provide. I am not saying they don't love their kids, they just don't have a situation ideal for the nurturing of dreams. I really enjoyed this project. It was eye opening and informative. The things I heard will never be forgotten.”

6.     The students change their approach to educational problems.  At the beginning of the class, the general approach was to find a side to blame.  As the class progressed, they developed more sophisticated and useful approach focusing on analysis of educational design.  For example, in many survey responses of the teachers of the LACC children coming in the second part of the semester, the teacher indicated the lack of any strengths in the children.  Our students were shocked by the fact that the teachers could not see children’s strengths that they saw in the La Red Mágica practicum.  However, instead of blaming the teachers (as many of them often used to do when they faced with problems at the beginning of the class), they started discussing why at the La Red Mágica they could see children’s strengths but at schools the strengths were invisible.  Here is what a student wrote on the class web regarding teacher’s comments on a child she worked with, “I don't want to sound pessimistic or to come across in any way like I am blaming anyone for this observation, because I don't know if I know enough about the teacher or the conditions of the classroom to make a fair observation, so in simple terms this is just a plain observation that kind of effected me. I read about A. [a LACC boy] and I was a little more than heartbroken because the teacher was very blunt in answering that for his strengths there were "none..." but, she or rather they seemed to find many problems and areas of weaknesses. I don't even really know why that effected me so I just really think that that is sad. Sad not just for A. that no one notices how wonderful he is, but also for the teachers because they obviously aren't getting the great opportunity to realize what a special child he is and what hidden talents he can provide.  

7.     The students developed the notion of sensitive guidance.  Initially they either tried to impose their own agendas and definitions of the activities on the children or avoided engaging with them expecting the children to come for help.  Neither of these approaches to guidance worked.  The children either tried to run away from interfering adults or ignored them.  After numerous class discussions, reading academic papers, watching instructional videos, many of the students started trying more collaborative approaches to providing guidance by joining and guiding children-defined activities.  

8.     The students became more open-minded by looking for and considering alternatives in instructional dilemmas.  For example, in one of our classroom discussions, the majority of the students were against any form of bilingualism for immigrant children.  They argued that at school and at home all children should speak only English.  However, when the instructor offered them an imaginary situation of studying abroad, all students chose bilingual instruction and native language, sheltered, dorm environments.  Upon reflection, the students were chagrined that they chose bilingualism for themselves and English-only instruction for immigrant children.  As one student wrote on the class web discussion, “The demonstration that Eugene [the instructor] did last week made me think. In summary, he said that we were students in Moscow and did not speak Russian. I did not choose to be fully immersed in Russian, yet I feel that Spanish speaking people should be immersed in English. I realized that I was being too one-sided (like our textbook). What does everyone think?”  

9.     In the program, the students assumed the ownership of the program.  They started bringing issues, dilemmas, and problems to the class meetings and on the class web discussions; tried to develop solutions; and suggested initiatives.  By doing that, the students were engaged in learning how to actively design educational environment for minority children. For example, at the end of the class, several students proposed and developed a 5-minute presentation video about the project explaining what the purpose of the projects, benefits for the children and the university students and advocating continuation of the program (see attached).  

10.  One of the big achievements of our program was a development of safe learning environment for all the participants.  When undergraduate students’ guidance did not work there were enough activities and freedom for the children not to develop potentially harmful and long-term disciplinary problems.  Undergraduate students’ mistakes were addressed and discussed in the class so the mistakes were considered learning experiences and not as evidence of their own instructional disability.

Other accomplishments:

There is a similar class associated with the La Red Mágica project for the Spring semester with another instructor.  We have developed trusting and effective working relations between the University of Delaware and the Latin American Community Center of Wilmington and technological and logistical infrastructure at LACC supporting the project.

We also have applied for three grants from the following private foundations: Tiger Woods’, Annie Casey’s, and Kellogg’s. Meanwhile we have received grants from the Hewlett-Packard foundation, the Ronald McDonald foundation, and the California Consortium of the 5th Dimension projects.

Current challenges:

1.     Developing university infrastructure and logistics for continuation and expansion of the program for preservice teachers.  Currently, junior and senior students take method classes that mostly fit to the La Red Magica project but their classes are scheduled afternoon so the students can attend their school teaching practicum and, thus, they can’t logistically participate in the project.  Freshmen and sophomores have morning classes (and thus, they could participate) but majority of their classes are content courses that are seen unsuitable for working with children by many of the instructors.  

2.     Securing financial support for next year.  The absolute minimum required for running the project (without expansion or research/evaluation) is about $27,000: about $11,000 is the salary for the site coordinator, $5,000 for transportation of the university students to LACC; and about $11,000 for a teaching assistant.  

3.     Launching research/evaluation program.  We need to develop and find financial support for academic research and program evaluation.

Eugene Matusov, principal investigator of the La Re Mágica project

John St. Julien, co-principal investigator of the La Re Mágica project