The course Culturally Responsive Teaching (EDU 6525) was key in my meeting Teacher Leader Standard 5: Establish a culturally inclusive learning climate that facilitates academic engagement and success for all students. At the beginning of this class I felt that I had a good idea on how to be a culturally inclusive teacher. I teach in a school with an ever growing ELL population. I have students from Korea, England, Iran, and India in my class. I consistently seek to include instructional strategies which include both auditory and visual cues. Yet, I realized through this course that expanding what I do in the classroom to the school environment is a next step in my learning.
There were some key points that highlighted my learning. First, was the idea of social justice, compassion, and caring for all students. I loved the quote, “education is what allows children to go as far as their ability will allow them to achieve liberty or freedom in order to ‘seize the day’.” (Paraphrased from Professor Nyaradzo Mvududu, Ed.D.) The lecture then went on to discuss the idea that in America we are very “rights driven” and a little obsessed with litigation. We focus on “hyper-individualization” vs. looking at our responsibility to the community and groups we belong to. We focus on justice vs. relationships.
I truly believe that relationship is the key to making real progress and gains with students. In the lecture it was referred to as the “art of relating”. As teachers we must relate to our students. We must know them, know their families, and engage both to create the most positive and productive learning environment. The other aspect of that is high expectations for all students. As the lecture stated, this is a matter of understanding and study that the achievement gap is not “a result of biology, but of lack of experience.” I found myself putting a name and a face to that statement, unfortunately, multiple names and faces. These are the “lost ones”. The students who by virtue of circumstance and family situation have entered my classroom disadvantaged and not set up for success. However, putting aside their poverty, they are smart kids! They need to be pushed, be inspired, be held to the high standards and told, “You can do it!” If Richard Sherman, a kid from Compton, can go to Stanford and earn a 4.2, we need to embrace that ALL kids have that potential and who are we to say they can’t?
Another idea which guided my learning was, “Spoken language is encoded culture.” This quote resonated with me and I kept coming back to it in the days after I heard it. I know this statement to be true, but what does it mean for me and my students? Most of us in my classroom this year are from a European White background. I do have one black student and one new student from Iran, who both represent their culture through their communication styles. My new student, R, speaks only Farsi and it is clear that his communication in his native language is very developed and very different than what my white students are used to. This has been a huge learning curve for all of us as we navigate both spoken and non-spoken language to communicate.
The next point that stood out to me was the different discussion models used in other cultures such as call-response in black churches or co-narration in Hawaiian culture. The point that students come to us on Monday morning after a weekend in their culture with its different norms was very insightful to me. “Quiet is not always best” and “Exuberance is good if on topic” are two take-aways I had from our readings on communication.
I found myself watching my students in their discussions more closely, also because that was my action research project so I was very in tune with the communication my students were engaged in. I did see some of the patterns described in the course which could be culturally based. The louder, more exuberant, and charming students get the most talk time and others look up to them or just sit back and let them speak. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be based on skin color, but more on the culture of discussion that they bring with them from their homes. It also is not gender based. The girls in my room are anything but invisible. Most are not afraid to speak up and go “toe to toe” in discussion with each other or with the boys. In fact, many of them “take over” and are dominant in their groups and discussions. I eagerly took the learning from this course and applied in my classroom to further grow my students in their communication styles including helping them advocate for each other be sure that all voices are heard and understood.
A final step in my learning came in analyzing my curriculum and then instructional materials that I use with my students. One key point I got from the class was the idea that as we have become more multi-cultural in our texts or at least more culturally sensitive, but in doing so we have also “stressed harmony over conflict”. The idea that “society is dressed up prettier than it is” resonated with me. As Professor Mvududu stated, “Conflict in society is unavoidable and kids need to learn the truth about that in an age appropriate way in order to enter our democracy as equipped participants.” (Paraphrased) We do our students a disservice when we avoid that conflict in our teaching and restrict them from analyzing either side, or multiple sides, of the issues which affect our society.
I faced this first hand as a 5th grade teacher. Our standards and curriculum cover the formation and governments of the Colonies, The Revolutionary War, and the forming of our United States government. Our given “box set” curriculum does a decent job of covering multiple viewpoints such as the Loyalists, Patriots, and Native Americans. Yet, it doesn’t go far enough and basically makes it seem like, yes it was tough to agree, but they had a war and then it was fine. My team knew our students needed deeper understanding and analyzing of this time period and an opportunity to put a face and identity to those group labels. We used The Witch of Blackbird Pond as a way to put a personal attachment to that time period. Then, through the use of that literature and various projects around it (student selected) we were able to help them understand that being a Patriot at that time wasn’t such an easy decision as we think it would be. I love teaching these “controversial” topics and especially teaching during election years when opinions and “truths” are thrown about at will. Teaching our students to be analyzers of our culture will only lead them to be better citizens of the culture in future years.
The Fifth grade curriculum was one that I decided to analyze for my final project in our course. Modifying and updating this lesson showed me that even good curriculum needs to be reviewed and through some simple changes can be made culturally inclusive and relevant. Final Revised Lesson Plan
As a future principal, it is the learning and growth I have seen in my students which I will seek to expand to a school setting. Being a culturally aware and inclusive leader is key, both as the instructional leader and as the most public representative of the school. I must be able to –
Communicate with community to promote learning – Builds effective communication systems between home, community and school that are interactive and regularly used by students, school staff and families and other stakeholders; uses multiple communication channels appropriate for cultural and language differences that exist in the community; practices a healthy discretion with personal information of students and staff. (AWSP Criterion 7)
I look forward to rising to the challenge of continuing to meet this standard in my future work.
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Association of Washington School Principals |AWSP Leadership Framework
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The University of Calgary AISI Research Findings (2011). Spotlight on Parent Engagement. Retrieved from: http://education.alberta.ca/media/6591254/spotlight_on_parent_engagement_sept_2011.pdf