To learn the communication skills needed in a diverse classroom, Angela Muñoz’s students use a 4-step plan to observe local educators in action.
Instructor of Communication, California State University, Fresno
MA in Communication – Intercultural Education, BA in Speech Communication and Rhetoric
Angela Muñoz has always had a passion for helping children, beginning with the youth she worked with through her church. For a time, she considered a career in physical therapy or in counseling troubled teens. Then, in her first assignment as a graduate teaching associate while working on her master’s, Muñoz found her calling.
Muñoz soon joined Teach for America (TFA), a national corps of teachers serving in under-resourced areas across the country. TFA requires members to spend at least two years teaching in a public school. Her placement in an elementary bilingual classroom in the Los Angeles Unified School district proved to be a perfect fit.
Since then, Muñoz has spent nearly three decades in the classroom, the past eight years as an instructor of instructional communication for education majors at Fresno State University in California.
“My experience with TFA has significantly influenced my work at Fresno State,” says Muñoz. Going beyond traditional expectations to support the academic and personal growth of students is a TFA tenet, she says, and one that that informs her teaching style today. In particular, she thrives on bringing the classroom to life for students in her Instructional Communication course.
“I love it, because so often you hear from prospective teachers: ‘We’re not getting any practical experience,’” she says. “A lot of teachers will tell you that what they do is so disconnected from the college classroom. So it’s really meaningful for me to make sure this course supports students in their teaching pursuits.”
Prospective teachers lack multicultural experience
Muñoz’s class is meant to explore the enhancement of instructional practice by understanding communication and diversity. Students learn key concepts from the textbook Classroom Communication and Diversity: Enhancing Instructional Practice, written by Fresno State faculty members Robert G. and Dana L. Powell. However, it is difficult to visualize what transpires in a classroom without witnessing it firsthand. The problem to solve: “We needed to move the theoretical to the practical,” she says.
Conduct field research in grade school classrooms
Muñoz asks her students to partner with nearby grade school educators, in order to observe their classes. Muñoz’s goal is to have students observe and analyze both teacher and student communication behaviors or strategies in order to reflect on how these approaches may be adapted in their own future classrooms.
“The cool thing is that they get to have meaningful dialogue with the teacher,” she says. “They ask questions and observe the diversity of interactions over gender, learning differences, management, technology, instruction, and building community and relationships with students. In class, we read some of the leading thinkers on cultural proficiency and responsiveness. By observing teachers in action, students can compare the literature versus what teachers do.”
“We examine the communication behavior of teachers and students as they interact in the classroom. This is a meta-teaching course: We’re teaching about teaching strategies and communication around that.”— Angela Muñoz, MA
Course description: Communication 114 is designed to introduce prospective teachers to the role of communication in the teaching learning process. The goal of this course is to help prospective teachers become more proactive classroom communicators. A knowledge and use paradigm is used to guide the curriculum in this course. Each student will develop new knowledge about the role of communication in the classroom and be given the opportunity to put this knowledge to use.
See resources shared by Angela Muñoz, MASee materials
A 4-step plan for multicultural-based observations
There are a few steps that Muñoz expects her students to take to make the most of their observations of real-world classrooms:
Step 1: Select a teacher partnership
First, students need to seek out the teacher-partners on their own, through their professional and personal networks. She lets students choose any class level for the assignment—preschool through 12th grade—but they must not know the teacher, and they are encouraged to select a school they did not attend themselves.
While Muñoz offers support and is willing to answer questions from the potential partner’s school, the goal is to give students experience in creating pitches and forming partnerships.
Step 2: Collect contextual data
Before visiting the selected school for an observation session, students collect information about the school’s population, including gender breakdown as well as ethnic, socioeconomic, and disability status. They obtain this information from the institution’s School Accountability Report Card, available for California schools online.
During this step, Muñoz’s students must also explain how they initiated the partnership and how they formulated questions for the teacher about his or her personal background. They provide a written report that includes the demographic data, answers a few questions about the placement process and teacher background, and then provides their interview with the teacher they will be observing.
Step 3: Schedule multiple observations
The students schedule at least four observation periods throughout the semester, each session lasting an hour or more. Each student returns to the same classroom and teacher for each session.
Prompts to Shape Student Research
Muñoz says that the clarity of her assignment has helped students improve the depth of the research they turn in. She provides a detailed and organized outline for students to follow:
Section 1: Background and demographics (of district, school, classroom, and teacher)
This must be completed before students begin Section 2.
Section 2: Observation field notes and analysis
Over at least four visits of approximately an hour each (many students report that they want and need more time to observe), they record teacher-student behaviors according to the following topics:
- Factors influencing learning (including physical arrangement of the room, interaction patterns, nonverbal communication, and other factors based on theories discussed in the course)
- Diversity of learning (including cultural responsiveness; gender factors; and learning differences, styles, needs, and exceptions)
- Instructional strategies (lesson plan, use of technology, and other factors)
- Building classroom community and student relationships (including classroom management practices, community building, and evidence of relational variables such as credibility, affinity seeking, and use of humor)
Step 4: Take objective field notes
During each observation session, Muñoz asks students to collect notes in four key areas. She provides them with a worksheet to help in the collection of field notes, providing questions and prompts throughout.
Students are asked to provide “detailed, observable evidence” rather than single-word responses or short phrases, and to avoid making inferences or drawing conclusions. Terms such as “assume” and “appear” are discouraged. She is teaching them a tenet of field research: to record only empirical data—what they see and hear—and to avoid preconceived ideas or biases about the behavior of either the teacher or the students. (They will later compare their observations with research read and discussed in class.)
Here are the four topic areas that Muñoz includes on students’ field-notes worksheet:
- Foundations of classroom communication and diversity: Factors influencing learning and communication. In this section, student-observers focus on the classroom’s physical setting and layout, as well as evidence of classroom behavior that highlights theories of motivation and nonverbal communication.
- Understanding diversity: Culture, gender, and diverse learning needs. This includes the initial interview with the teacher about how he or she approaches multiculturalism and how he or she would describe being “culturally proficient.” They also ask teachers to discuss strategies or accommodations used for children with special needs and different learning styles. Muñoz’s students take note of where boys and girls sit in the classroom, and they tally the number of times each gender interacts with the teacher and with other students.
- Best practices for communication in diverse settings: Instructional strategies, assessment, and technology. Here, Muñoz’s students analyze how the teacher communicates and models a lesson’s objectives and outcomes. They also note how the teacher brings closure to lessons, and how he or she assesses learning. Other areas that are given special attention here are instructional strategies for second-language learners, as well as how the teacher uses technology.
- Building and maintaining communities of learners in diverse classrooms. Finally, Muñoz’s students consider community building, both by questioning their partner-teachers and through their own observations. Questions involve how teachers develop classroom rules, behavioral strategies, and interventions. Muñoz also asks for descriptions of any incidents of classroom disruption and how the teacher responds, as well as how the teacher uses qualities such as immediacy, humor, and credibility in his or her interactions.
Muñoz says providing these clear prompts (see sidebar) for students’ notes has made a big difference in the papers they turn in. “In the past, due to the extensiveness of the assignment, I was getting terrible papers,” she says. “Now, I’m precise in terms of length and depth.”
“Students say that the real-world project makes [the material] come to life,” Muñoz says. “In this class, we’re studying motivation theory, intelligence theory, instructional planning and design—and we get to see it in action. Students feel like this makes everything concrete.”
Muñoz says that students often comment on her high expectations and tough grading. But she says she is a stickler for a reason. “I vigilantly protect the teaching profession. I think we’re overcoming a low-status view of teachers in general, and it’s important to me that teachers are learners and researchers,” she says. “Students might not like it, but then they realize that the hard work has rewards.