Teacher shares her passion for multicultural education

What did you do on your summer vacation?”

It’s a common question when students return to class in the fall, and this year Michelle Willi’s third-graders at St. Mark’s School in Peoria weren’t the only ones with adventures to talk about on the first day of school.

Her passion for multicultural education took Willi to Bad Hofgastein, Austria, in June to present a paper at the European Conference for Academic Disciplines. Sponsored by the International Journal of Arts and Sciences, the conference marked the second time that she had shared the findings of her thesis at such a gathering.

“It’s almost unheard of as a graduate student to be accepted at an international conference,” Willi told The Catholic Post, admitting that the news rendered her speechless.

She recovered in time to make the presentation with Dr. K. Paul Kasambira, a professor in the Department of eacher Education at Bradley University in Peoria. Her mentor, he also chaired her thesis work, “The Degree to Which Multicultural Education is Taught in Catholic Schools in the State of Illinois.”

While that sounds like a mouthful, Willi said most teachers are doing this already without realizing it.

“I believe it’s not an add-on. I don’t think you have to have a multicultural unit or a multicultural class. You just incorporate it into everything you’re teaching,” she said.

“This world gets smaller and smaller through technology and with that comes a responsibility to be tolerant and to be accepting of others, no matter what their culture is,” Willi explained.

Catholic schools are a natural place to foster this understanding because the church has always taught social justice, Willi noted.

Exposing students to different cultures is an easy and obvious way to help them see the world through new eyes and she does this. In fact, Dr. Kasambira visits her classroom each year to talk about his native Zimbabwe and help the students dress Willi in the garb of that country.

But stories like “Charlotte’s Web” are also capable of teaching them about forging friendships with those who are different and what they can learn from those differences, she said. Willi also points to their annual interactions with the parish seniors as a way of breaking down barriers.

“I think kids are so open and so accepting of others, if we help them we can really affect the change that has to happen,” she said.

If those walls don’t come down now, they will only get higher, Willi warned. “Then it gets harder — when they get older — to bring those walls down themselves.

Willi lives in Peoria with her husband, Thomas. They are the parents of two and the proud grandparents of one.

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