Teachers, Be Brave in the Face of Unjust Laws (Opinion)

(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are your suggestions for how to make English classes culturally responsive?

In Part One, Jacquleyn Fabian, Marina Rodriguez, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., and Jennifer Yoo-Brannon shared their responses.

Jacquleyn, Marina, Stephanie, and Jennifer were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Margaret Thornton, Denita Harris, Ph.D., Chandra Shaw, and David Seelow offer their ideas.

‘Now, More Than Ever’

Margaret Thornton is a visiting assistant professor at Old Dominion University. Her research interests include equity-focused school leadership development, school leadership for detracking, and critical race theory:

Be brave.

Before the far-right weaponized culturally responsive teaching, English teachers already struggled to serve the diverse needs and interests of their students while helping them to hone their critical-thinking skills. Now, this work has become both more difficult and even more important.

Students who come from historically oppressed backgrounds deserve mirrors where they can see themselves in the classroom. This attitude has the added benefit of not just being culturally sustaining for students but also beneficial to their learning.

And now, more than ever, students from privileged backgrounds, particularly white students, need to be exposed to literature that invites them to consider other perspectives.

Taking on these tasks is no mean feat and is made more difficult in states that have actively outlawed discussions of race, students’ families, and other topics a loud minority deemed controversial. School leaders must do all they can to protect teachers from these egregious, unjust laws, and teachers and families can work together to overturn them.

‘Use Their Authentic Voices’

Denita Harris, Ph.D., is the assistant superintendent for diversity, equity, and inclusion for the Wayne Township school district in Indianapolis. She is the recipient of the 2019 INTESOL (Indiana Teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages) Best of the Best in K-12 Education and the 2017 and 2020 African American Excellence in Education Award. Find her on Twitter @HarrisLeads:

In order to make English classes more culturally responsive, educators must be culturally aware and have a deep understanding of their personal inner culture, the culture of the students they serve, and an equity lens that extends beyond the classroom walls.

Educators must ensure classrooms are inviting to both students and caregivers so our young people understand that not only are handing in assignments and earning good grades welcomed and strongly encouraged, but so is their humanity; so is their culture. Educators should engage all students in a culturally responsive balanced approach that allows students to utilize their cultural lens to demonstrate levels of English proficiency when applying their learning to the four domains of language: reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

Cultural responsiveness goes beyond the surface level of receptive and productive skills that focus primarily on food, famous people, events, and holidays. Although these things are certainly a part of one’s culture, today’s students have a deeper desire to be seen and heard in the books they read and the written essays they are assigned to write about and discuss. Students should be exposed to and required to interact with a plethora of literature, materials, and resources that are reflective of their rich culture, as well as the culture of their classmates. Students should see visual reflections of themselves from the time they enter the classroom, with posted images of people who look like them, along with various languages ​​and countries displayed throughout the room.

There should be books, essays, poems, and articles for students to read throughout the year from authors who are representative of a global society. Students should be able to use their authentic voices in their writing, tell their own stories, and do so all while engaging in classroom discussions about how certain characters might respond if they were from their country or neighborhood.

The English classroom can easily be one of the best places in a school for students to fall in love with learning. We can all appreciate the fact that educators have a responsibility to teach the academic standards, and that can be done most successfully when there is a cultural connection between the students and the classroom materials and resources.

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We Need More Teachers of Color

Chandra Shaw has more than 24 years of experience in education, as a teacher, reading specialist, instructional coach, and now a literacy consultant at one of her state’s regional service centers. As a TEDx speaker and amateur YouTuber, Chandra loves to find ways to share her passion and love for teaching and learning with educators everywhere:

If English classes are going to be culturally responsive, one thing we can do is to make sure that students in classes see themselves represented in the books and stories they read. We should also make sure that those representations show a wide range of diverse experiences within the groups since no group of people is a monolith. Allowing all students to read and discuss the lived experiences of others can lead to greater understanding and the revelation that we have much more in common than we do differences.

A bigger challenge in making English classes more culturally responsive would be to ensure that classes are taught by educators who see the value and beauty in the different cultures. Data tell us that the teaching profession is made up of nearly 70 percent white females, which does not align with the student demographics in public education. Because of this, I’ve witnessed many teachers shy away from texts that might show different cultures for fear that they wouldn’t know how to navigate any uncomfortable conversations or questions which might arise from reading such texts. Even worse, some of these teachers don’t feel like they themselves can relate to the texts written by and for marginalized groups, which only goes to show a major disconnect between a majority of teachers and the students they serve. This highlights the importance of representation of people of color in teaching.

Being culturally responsive begins with seeing the similarities AND differences in others and valuing the beauty and uniqueness that make them who they are.

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Using Literature

David Seelow has been teaching in higher education and grades 7-12 for 30 years in a diverse range of settings. He has recently edited two collections of practical essays on innovative classroom practices: Teaching in the Game-Based Classroom: Practical Strategies for Grades 6-12 and Lessons Drawn: Essays on the Pedagogy of Comics and Graphic Novels. Find him on Twitter at @davidfreeplay:

Literature provides an easy and fruitful way to make every English/ELA classroom culturally responsive. You cannot teach literature without having deep conversations about the many cultural factors that impact both the creation and the reception of literature.

For example, teaching Shakespeare’s Othello requires discussion of race and teaching As You Like It requires class discussions of gender. Shakespeare, of course, spoke not only to both Elizabethan and Jacobean England, but he also speaks to our time. The musical and film “West Side Story” brings Romeo and Juliet into conversation with modern Hispanic culture. Baz Luhrmann’s 1996 reinterpretation of the star-crossed lovers brings a Renaissance family feud into the context of modern organized crime and conflicts over business “territory.”

The tricky part of being culturally responsive is the politically charged atmosphere of our culture. Yet, that’s why literature is perfect for such culturally responsive teaching. Let class discussion about literary texts bring about the discussions around race, gender, religion, class, and nationality. Shying away or ignoring these questions would not be responsible and does a disservice to students. For me, these kinds of conversations about texts can be tremendously productive. This strategy requires student inquiry about areas that are critical to their maturation as students and learners while exposing them to different cultural experiences.

My favorite pairing has always been The Autobiography of Frederick Douglas and Elie Wiesel’s Night. Both the horrors of slavery and the horror of the Holocaust must be studied. Talking about these short powerful works as part of history understood through the lens of personal experience raises students’ sensitivities to the tragic experience of African Americans and of Jews while enhancing their understanding of religion, race, nationality, identity, and more, in addition to appreciating great writing, the human spirit, and the value of freedom.

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Thanks to Denita, Chandra, Margaret, and David for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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