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Problem child to problem-solver

School of Education Professor Rosemarie Allen has been tapped to create a course for President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative.

March 11, 2015

Professor Rosemarie Allen teaches students to recognize bias and understand how it impacts the learning environment. PHOTO: Scott Houck
Professor Rosemarie Allen teaches students to recognize bias and understand how it impacts the learning environment. PHOTO: Scott Houck

Rosemarie Allen remembers the moment in vivid detail. Her third-grade classroom was quiet. She’d just finished a test, and was waiting for her peers to do the same, when her pencil escaped. It rolled off the edge of her desk, evading a last-second reach, and skittered across the floor. This presented a major dilemma. Her teacher had given her a clear ultimatum: if she got up from her seat, she would fail the test. She tried everything in her power not to go after the pencil, but in the end, the lure was too great.

The teacher made good on her threat. In fact, she drew a giant F on Allen’s paper in front of her peers. And when Allen drew an A over the F (something she admits was pushing it), the teacher made sure to show Allen the failing mark recorded in the grade book.

This was not Allen’s first run-in with a teacher. By third grade, she’d already been suspended eight times. Her curiosity and dynamism — things that earned her praise at home — caused her trouble in school. It was a reputation she wouldn’t shake until she transferred districts in high school.

“I remember feeling misunderstood,” said Allen, now a professor of early childhood education in MSU Denver’s School of Education. “That’s why I wanted to teach, to make sure other children didn’t have the same experience.”

Allen has spent more than 40 years in the field making good on that promise. She’s been with MSU Denver for the last decade and specializes in culturally responsive teaching. She learned early in her career that her childhood educational experience was not unique. Research shows that African American students are suspended and expelled from school at much higher rates than their peers, an outcome Allen attributes to a cultural disconnect.

“Teachers bring certain cultural biases to the classroom that often conflict with the culture of the students,” she said. “My goal as a professor is to help future educators recognize those biases and to understand the implications on their teaching practices.”

Allen recently earned national recognition for her work when she was asked to develop an online course to be used as part of President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, an effort aimed at creating more educational opportunities for boys and young men of color. The course topic is culturally responsive practices in early childhood education and its goal is to help decrease the disproportionate suspension rate for students of color. Allen plans to submit it for review in August before it is disseminated to educators across the country. She also will write a white paper on racial inequities and implicit bias in education, topics that historically have not gotten the attention they deserve.

Allen considers this opportunity the highlight of her career and one for which she is uniquely qualified given her own early education experience.

“Who would have thought that the child who was in trouble all the time, the one who was labeled as a problem, was actually being prepared to influence the nation?” she said. “What an honor to be able to do this work that is so close to my heart.”