The adventures of a fourth grade teacher in East Central Illinois.

Culturally-Relevant Teaching

Every time I think I am going to get back into the swing of updating this blog daily (or at least weekly) something happens to stop it from happening. After months of not being able to update it at work, my district network specialist was finally able to bypass whatever filter was blocking WordPress, but some configuration has changed and, once again, I am unable to update, despite my best intentions. (Even now, I am only able to write an update because I am waiting to help with childcare during a women’s event at my church; my wife was one of the planners and so I was “voluntold” to assist.)

Interestingly enough, though, this frustration of not being able to do something despite my best intentions ties directly into a topic I have been mulling over in my mind for several weeks and then had an epiphany about the other day: culturally-relevant teaching.

This is a topic that has been gaining traction within professional education circles for almost 30 years, going back to the work of Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, author of The Dreamkeepers (a book I reviewed here and then revisited a few years later here) and a number of other books and articles. The more I have heard about culturally-relevant teaching (sometimes called culturally-relevant pedagogy and sometimes written without the hyphen), the more I have wondered if we are thinking about it the wrong way. (And when I say “we,” I mostly mean “me.”) From one of my earlier blog posts about this concept, I noted that this philosophy of teaching has the following core principles:

  • Teachers presume that all students have the capability to learn
  • Teachers clearly outline what it means to be academically successful
  • Teachers know the content, the learners, and how to teach them
  • Teachers support critical consciousness of the curriculum
  • Teachers understand their students’ cultures
  • Teachers take responsibility for learning about these cultures
  • Teachers use students’ cultures as the basis for learning
  • Teachers plan and implement academic experiences that connect to a larger context
  • Teachers know the larger socio-political context of the school and community
  • Teachers believe that success has direct consequences for life
  • Teachers have an investment in promoting the public good

But far too often, I think it has come to focus on the content of teaching and ignores all the rest. For example, I often hear or see others discussing culturally-relevant teaching in the context of providing materials that include people of colour and/or people of diverse backgrounds. But just giving a student a book with a character that looks like him or her isn’t really culturally-relevant teaching. Rather, I am coming to realise more and more that this type of teaching, this pedagogy, this framework, is really all about teaching students the way that they learn and behave within their own cultures.

A colleague and I were discussing this yesterday, which is what really brought it all to mind. In many classrooms, the school day is organised into blocks of time, such as math, writing, reading, social studies, science, and social/emotional learning. Within each block of time, there is usually a whole-class lesson in which the students sit quietly and listen as the teacher explains, raising hands to ask or answer questions. Then the students are expected to work independently, often in silence or, if with a partner, in near silence, while the teacher presents a mini-lesson with a small group of students who are working on similar skills or concepts. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Here’s the problem: What does this actually do to help students? How many of us live or work in environments that look, sound, or feel like that? When I am at home or with friends, we are talking and engaging and moving, often over and around one another. That is my culture. I learn from others by talking to them, disagreeing with them, discussing further, and by listening to lots of view points. Yes, I also read to myself a lot, but even then, I share snippets with friends and family and engage in discussions; it isn’t at all uncommon for me to look up for a book a read a passage out loud to my wife or, really, whatever random person is nearby! In my classroom, though, my students are expected to read silently, reflect silently, write silently, and generally work silently. This isn’t my ideal, but it is a framework for teaching that has been foisted upon me and many others as a result of others’ decisions.

Not only is this framework of teaching not relevant to the day-to-day experiences of me and my students outside of school, it isn’t even relevant to the workplace. Maybe it was back in the early 20th century when work consisted of pulling levels and twisting knobs on an assembly line. Back then, it wasn’t as necessary to discuss and collaborate with one’s peers; you clocked in, did your work, ate your lunch with your coworkers, then went back to the job. Nowadays, though, the workplace is very different. It is boisterous, it is collaborative, it is interactive, it is involved. But this isn’t what I am training my students to do through their schooling. It isn’t relevant to their cultures, nor is it relevant to college and career readiness.

So what, really, is the point of it? Why do we keep on doing things this way? Why do we get mad at students who want to talk and engage and work together? Why do we force a culture of teaching and learning that isn’t actually relevant? Most importantly, why do we keep on doing things this way and then expect major changes? How often have you heard that if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got?

This brings me to a related point. A book I read last summer, Five Levers to Improve Learning: How to Prioritize for Powerful Results in Your School by Dr. Tony Frontier and Dr. James Rickabaugh, presents an analogy for improving schools by thinking about how you improve the outcome of one’s food. Sure, they argue, you can put the most current equipment in a kitchen, but if the cook is terrible or the recipes are garbage, the food is going to be terrible, too. They compare such changes to changing the structure, or physical facilities of a school or the sample, or grouping of students. Structure and sample won’t improve a school just like just changing the equipment in a kitchen or a the cook won’t help if the standards (the recipes) are awful. What will make a bigger difference is changing the strategy (how we teach or how we cook) and self (what we believe about ourselves and our students). In terms of culturally-relevant teaching, the focus should be on strategy and self. But, and this is a very big “but”, if the school structure is such that the strategies don’t work, then what we think about ourselves and our students won’t matter. If the standards continue to be outdated and focused on the needs of works from over 120 years ago, we are still going to have the wrong outcomes, not because we are bad teachers, but because we aren’t teaching what students need to know and do.

As I jotted down in a note about this concept, it doesn’t matter if you are the greatest baker in the world: if your kitchen doesn’t have an oven or even a heat source, you aren’t going to bake any bread.

What does this mean for culturally-relevant teaching? Well, you can have the most multi-cultural books in the world, the best trained teachers with the greatest faith in themselves and their students, but if the structure of the school and the school day is rubbish, the outcomes aren’t going to be as great as we desire. So maybe, just maybe, instead of changing the standards and pushing for more rigor, instead of spending hours and hours on professional development and book studies and workshops and seminars, maybe we ought to stop and look at the structure of the day and of the building. Because sometimes the problem really is in the the physical design of the kitchen.

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