Vol. 3. No. 3 R-9 September 1998
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What Difference Does Difference Make? Teacher Reflections on Diversity, Literacy, and The Urban Primary School

Anne Haas Dyson with the San Francisco East Bay Teacher Study Group (1997)
Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English
Pp. xii + 158
ISBN 0-8141-5657-6
US $16.95 (NCTE members, $12.95)

What Difference Does Difference Make? is the collective voice of elementary school teachers who have taught in urban settings for an average of twenty years each. Valuing the importance of "I," and reconstructing the importance of identity among elementary school teachers in urban settings, Anne Haas Dyson reports the reflective stories of the practitioners, incorporating the notion of "we" into education.

The qualitative paradigm in research serves as a marvelous tool to express teachers' voices, and to have classroom teachers tell their own stories. With this tool, the members of the San Francisco East Bay Teacher Study Group listened to and observed urban elementary school teachers who share their perspectives about how and when diversity makes a difference when young children participate actively in their own learning process. The result is a report on what diversity and literacy mean for both school children and teachers in urban settings. The book consists of six chapters plus a prologue, an epilogue, and a descriptive list of contributors to the project.

The prologue overviews and reconstructs the terminology used in the group's talks in order to invigorate, provoke, and invite the reader in. It starts with a story of two first graders, which conceptualizes issues of "voice," "many cultures," and "identity" in light of the pluralism that is celebrated throughout the book. In the author's words, this had "to be experienced in the very struggle to find the right words" (p. x). Dyson goes further to emphasize the importance of togetherness despite differences of color, culture, and nation state. In so doing, each individual school child becomes a symbol for the "Yin-Yang" of teaching.

The author gives each chapter two titles, one representing the category that emerged from the data, and the other representing the voices of the participants in the study. Including these voices in the titles makes the report more natural, and captures the feeling of the participants in school settings.

The first chapter of the book is an extension of the prologue in the sense that the notion of teaching in schools is reflected in "On the Meaning of Difference"/"Community Connection, Personal Response, and [-1-] Colloquial Support." The role of community, the importance of the individual, and collaboration among teachers are emphasized in order to conceptualize the meaning of difference.

Chapter 2, "Relationships In and Out of the Classroom"/"Who Am I?" provokes an answer to the question and investigates how teachers perceive children with a hidden agenda: "Who am I to them?" This chapter summarizes teachers' voices from their stances.

Chapters 3 and 4 shed light on children's worlds in school settings. "Building Classroom Communities"/"I'm From Texas, What Are You?" and "Negotiating Permeable Activities"/"At First I Didn't Understand" explore the way choices are made by linking teacher and child options, and represent the vivid and productive process of negotiation between teachers and children in classroom settings as they build their own community.

The next chapter, "Portraits of Children Learning"/"What Did You Think of Me?" focuses on school members and community involvement. It sheds light on the inner worlds of children as they become bilingual by learning another language in school. In addition, the author shows how children negotiated their understanding of school and home and includes parental involvement in schools.

Extending the conversation, the last chapter in the book carries a message from the teachers to their peers in the form of a story about making a difference in a learning environment rather than dictating what to do. As the second title to the chapter indicates, "It is Not About Telling You What to Do." Rather, it is a collective expression of teachers' reflections about the nature of teaching in multicultural and multilingual environments.

Teachers must be discerning when it comes to putting theory into practice. As practitioners, they are well aware of the fact that much theory may not reflect the realities of classroom practice. One of the strengths of this book is that Dyson and the San Francisco East Bay Teacher Study Group present their perspective from the realities of the classrooms.

This book represents urban school classrooms with diverse populations. The issues these teachers faced are similar in many ways to those faced by ESL teachers, who will benefit from reading teachers' and students' perspectives about the patterns hidden in multicultural classrooms.

Believing that "the essence of the child's developmental challenge is . . . to develop a holistic but flexible system" (p. 298), Dyson helps us rethink the challenge of making a difference in children's lives, including school teachers, community support, and academia. What Difference Does Difference Make? not only presents the way [-2-] children make their own worlds, but also lets us hear them speak about their worlds in their own voices.

Arif Altun
University of Cincinnati

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Editor's Note: Dashed numbers in square brackets indicate the end of each page in the paginated ASCII version of this article, which is the definitive edition. Please use these page numbers when citing this work.

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