Culturally Responsive Teaching: Can Students See Themselves in Your Lessons?
I can remember like it was yesterday having a conversation with a young, motivated, and passionate former journalist turned 8th grade ELA teacher about how the TAP Master Teacher did not agree with her choice of activities and selected readings that she had chosen for her students. The teacher said that TAP Master Teacher (who was white) had convinced the principal ( who was black) that she needed to expose the students to more classic works of literature like Edgar Allen Poe and Shakespeare because that’s what was in the curriculum.
I asked the teacher what kind of books were the students reading and she showed me some novels and said that the students really enjoyed reading the novels that she had chosen. As the conversation ended my advice to her was to keep doing what she felt like the students needed to be successful.
Little did I know that 5 years later I would find myself in a similar situation with my students. I work at a predominately Hispanic school where the students are very passive learners. If you don’t know what a passive learner looks like, think about that student that is NOT engaged in the educational process and tend to wait on you to do everything. In the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain the author Zaretta Hammond refers to these students as dependent learners. Dependent learners depend on the teacher to carry most of the cognitive load, is unsure of how to tackle a new task, cannot complete a task without scaffolds, will sit passively and wait if is stuck until the teacher intervenes, and doesn’t retain information well or “doesn’t get it”.
Being a black teacher I really felt like I understood what it meant to be a black student in the American school system. Boy was I wrong! Chris Edmin the author of For White Folks that Teach in the Hood made it very clear that black and white people can be classified as “white people”. This hit me like a ton of bricks! Obviously I’m not white but I’m guilty of adopting many of the traditional educational methods that were taught to me by white instructors. I quickly realized that my instruction was not reaching the students that I now serve because it’s rooted in European pedagogy and is NOT relevant to my students’ lives.
To make matters worse, after reading these 2 books my son and I had a strange conversation in the middle of a Walmart isle about how school didn’t prepare him for the real world. I could really feel his disappointment about how he felt like the school system had failed to prepare him for “his” life as a black male. I couldn’t argue with him because I instantly realized that I was one of the teachers who had not shown my students how mathematics can be used to help their communities and their families. Little did my son know through one conversation he gave me a personal lesson on why teaching culturally responsive lessons to my students is important.
Needless to say this school year began very differently than the 15 previous school years. This year my estimating decimals activity included grocery store ads not from just the stores that I knew but stores like Mi Tienda and Fiesta. I would be lying if I said that it wasn’t uncomfortable walking into a store where black people don’t shop. When the managers gave me that confused look I just looked at them and smiled. My 3 minutes of being uncomfortable paid off big time! The students were so excited and put forth so much more effort with my estimation activity than I had seen with the group I had last year. The conversations were rich and engagement was high because there were not any students that were just sitting there doing nothing. After seeing their response to this lesson I can’t wait until the rest of the school year to see how implementing culturally responsive teaching will lead to other Ahas!