Alternative Spring Break with Research

Students broaden cultural understanding through immersive field experience. 

2017 PhD in Music Education recipient Andrea VanDuesen poses with Cynthia Taggart, MSU professor of Music Education.

Nine undergraduate students from the College of Music spent their spring break in school classrooms in a predominately Arab American community as part of a research project examining music teacher beliefs about cultural differences.

Led by Music Education Ph.D. recipient Andrea VanDeusen, the study involved immersing pre-service music education students in a field experience that combined working in the classroom with exploring a city’s culture and neighborhoods. The cultural immersion field experience was centered in Dearborn—a southeast Michigan community of nearly 100,000 people. Dearborn is home to the largest concentration of Arab Americans in the United States, and is home to more Muslims and more foreign-born individuals than the national average.

“Often, music educators anticipate teaching in settings similar to where they grew up and haven’t necessarily considered teaching students whose cultural backgrounds differ from their own. I wanted to examine the impact an immersive field experience in a culturally different setting would have on pre-service music education students,” says VanDeusen. “Because the cultural community is largely Arab and Muslim, Dearborn was an appropriate setting for the study and is timely, given the current political climate in the U.S.”  

VanDeusen partnered with music teachers in two K-5 elementary schools in Dearborn with large Arab immigrant and refugee student bodies. The MSU students shadowed teachers throughout their school day, and engaged in lesson planning and teaching in the music classrooms. MSU students experienced first-hand how teachers brought cultural elements into their classrooms, and how they built lessons relevant to the cultures represented in their classes.

At the end of each school day, VanDeusen debriefed with and interviewed the MSU students to gather data for her research study. Other activities included a visit to the Arab American National Museum, eating at local ethnic restaurants, and exploring the Dearborn community.  

“The classroom teachers were amazing and completely open and helpful to my students,” says VanDeusen. “They shared a lot of stories about their students, many of whom were recent immigrants or refugees. For some of my students, this is the first time they had engaged with people from Arab or Muslim cultures. The experience was pretty powerful.”

The weeklong experience formed the basis for VanDeusen’s qualitative research into how cultural immersion field experiences affect an undergraduate’s beliefs, assumptions and understanding about teaching music to students with cultural backgrounds different from their own.

Professor of Music Education Cynthia Taggart says VanDeusen’s study will help equip music teacher educators with information on how to develop music teachers who are culturally sensitive and can serve the needs of diverse populations.

“When teachers have a deeper understanding of their students’ cultures, they can build upon the cultural wealth that students bring with them into the classroom by helping them learn in ways that are culturally sensitive,” says Taggart. “Andrea’s work is extremely timely given the current political climate that divides people and is not always inclusive, particularly in relation to immigrants and Muslims.”

VanDeusen plans to finish her dissertation this summer. Support for travel expenses related to the week-long immersion experience in Dearborn was provided by the College of Music and the Graduate College Research Enhancement Award, the Music Education Area, and the Muslim Studies Program.

What they said…

Teachers and students participating in VanDeusen’s study did so on a volunteer basis, with data collected in a manner to protect their anonymity. Some teachers and students agreed to provide testimonials. Here’s what they said.

Dearborn teachers
“Experiencing diversity gives new teachers an upper hand because when exposed to children who are different from them, the teachers gain empathy and understanding for those children. When you gain empathy, you gain the tool that allows you to connect and really reach your students past your subject area. I believe that teachers who understand their students’ backgrounds have a deeper impact on their students lives.”

“It was easy to say ‘yes’ to having students come to my classroom because my classroom is unique compared to any other school in the United States. When you are at my school, it’s like stepping into a whole new country in the Middle East. With how the media portrays Muslims, my school offers the reality of how wonderful and not intimidating the Arab community is.”

“The benefits to future teachers are endless. They are able to take these experiences with them to wherever they end up in their teaching journey. They are now able to see that kids are kids, and they love music. No matter what culture they are!”

MSU students
“Because of this experience, I think I’m more interested in teaching in culturally diverse settings. Before, I wouldn’t have the had the concrete experience of knowing what it is and not just what I expect it to be. I thinking having those experiences are important in becoming a teacher.”

“It’s definitely going to be something that I’ll always remember and use as a resource and frame of reference. Even now, in my classes, I’m always thinking ‘how would this apply in this situation?’ So, I definitely think I'll remember to keep an open mind and focus on inclusion and diversity, just being aware of my students and the world around me, and using that to be a better teacher.”

“I think I expected things to be more different than they were. I think it’s easy to see someone who looks different and expect them to be different. But when you talk to people who look different than you, like I did on the trip, you start to realize that maybe you think of people as different based on appearance or something visible. You don’t take into account that we’re all just human beings walking the earth.” 

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