Two separate issues

Apropos of Diane’s recent post about “superfun sameness”, which touched on one of my own personal betes-noires, “relevance” in teaching, I thought this would be a good time to talk about this article out of Minnesota.

Here’s the skinny:

The St. Mary’s program is part of an effort among some teachers to make their classes more culturally relevant to their students. It requires the teachers — most of whom are white women — to find new ways to connect to struggling kids.

St. Mary’s instructor Marceline DuBose encourages her students to shake up their traditional teaching styles. She said music and movement can help capture students who learn differently.

The education system is already working best for white, middle-class kids, particularly female students, so it’s no surprise that many teachers share those traits, DuBose said. The state Department of Education estimates that less than 4 percent of Minnesota teachers are people of color. Yet more than a quarter of Minnesota’s students are nonwhite.

The upshot is that Minnesota’s white teachers need to practice making their teaching “culturally relevant”, the better to grab the hearts and minds of their students. They might even consider a graduate certificate in “culturally responsive teaching. That these sorts of programs exist and that they continue to grow isn’t really news… It’s probably nothing most readers of this blog have not heard before.

I want to focus on some specific language from the article, however, that makes me think that there is something very basic getting lost in these sorts of programs. I’ve emphasized the parts on which I want to dwell a bit.

Tracine Asberry, an African-American school board member and a former teacher in Minneapolis, says it’s natural to teach who you are. But if you come from a privileged background and don’t believe in the struggles faced by many people of color, your opinions can alienate a lot of kids.

“As teachers, teaching students who have different realities, we have to be aware of those things. We can’t just be aware of them. We have to be comfortable so that we can have the conversation, and then encourage our students to feel comfortable to have those conversations in our classroom.”

Asberry believes one way to close the achievement gap is to close the teacher gap. For some students of color, she says, the key might be as simple as making sure the person leading the classroom looks like them.

Let’s start with the painfully obvious. It’s not only natural to “teach who you are”, at least in a very broad sense, it’s sort of a logical requirement. With apologies to the lovely people who spend their time making up programs like the Common Core, it is an exercise in futility to attempt teaching some skill or bit of knowledge you do not actually possess. You have to teach who you are, because that’s all you have. That is not to say that you can’t change who you are over time, that you cannot broaden your perspective, and it certainly isn’t to say that you can’t understand other people’s perspectives. I am just acknowledging that putting an illiterate in front of a class with an English curriculum is madness.

Now, if you believe that you can only teach who you are (as I do) then the next bolded clause will give you nightmares. DIFFERENT REALITIES???. What the heck does that even mean? There is one reality. I can only assume that Asberry is being clumsily metaphorical here and means to say something like “students who have a substantially different way of seeing the world and communicating.” Of course, once you drop the vacuous metaphor and actually say what you mean, it becomes clear pretty quick that the differences aren’t all that great. Maybe the students don’t have the same views of authority, the same sense of the value of organization, the same (I’ve always loved this one) “future time orientation”. But once you are specific about the differences, they start to be manageable.

There seem to me to be two very separate issues at work here that are being muddled. The first is a question about pedagogy. The plain fact of the matter is that teachers need to know their students in order to be effective. You cannot teach if what you think is a signal of displeasure on your part is taken as a signal of approval on the part of your students. There needs to be some common ground for introducing the new material, or communication is impossible. And teaching is, if it is anything, a type of communication. (From a language and culture standpoint, I think that Lisa Delpit stands out as one of the only really sane CRT-type voices on this sort of issue. I don’t think her work Gospel, but it seems mostly on the right track.) It also helps if your teachers don’t objectively stink – if they are not racist, not sexist, and not given to ignoring their students’ various qualities.

But there is another issue, apart from pedagogy. That issue is one of cultural relevance in what is taught, as posed to awareness and sensitivity. The nature of education is to expand that which the student takes to be their culture. Think about it: a five year old has a culture… One that consists (hopefully) of household patterns, domestic relationships, and likely a healthy dose of mass media. Except in extreme circumstances, Hamlet isn’t part of a five year old’s culture. It is the job of a teacher to introduce poetry and math and music and shape the student’s culture. On some views, it is to introduce the student to an existing culture… Some dominant paradigm like “Western Culture” or somesuch. On other views, the role of the teacher is to allow the student to expand and shape their own sense of and place in their society’s culture. Still others think that the student should shape their own culture. (That way lies madness.)

My point is just this: pedagogical sensitivity and the ability to communicate with and teach students whose existing culture does not share as much with your own as might otherwise e the case is an issue separate and distinct from the question of whether certain material is “culturally relevant” to the student, and what sort of cultural picture for the student lies at the end of his or her education.

Finally… With respect to the last emphasized part of the article — the part about teachers looking like students, I just quoted that to show that for many people opining on this issue, it isn’t really about culture at all. They’re just racists, and they want the students to be racist, too.

H/T educationnews.org.

UPDATE: Minor typos corrected, including changing the rather accusative-sounding “you teachers” to “your teachers”, which was intended. Also a few small language clarifications. -ML

Comments

  1. If people learned best when taught by teachers of their own ethnic/racial bacdkground then that would be a good argument for bringing back segregation. In fact the performance of black students in the US seems to be little affected by the racial balance of the schools they attend.

    East Asian children attending US schools in general do quite well despite their often very different background from their classmates and teachers. The children of newly arrived Jewish immigrants in the 1920′s did very well in the US public schools of that era despite the fact that most of their teachers were WASPs.

    Basically some groups such as East Asians and Jews do well academically virtually anywhere and under almost any conditions. Others such as blacks generally do much less well.

    This gives every appearance of being due to genetic differences.

  2. George Larson says:

    Is this the kind of culturally relevant experience we should expect?

    “A student at Florida Atlantic University has charged that his professor in intercultural communications class told the whole class to write the name JESUS in bold letters on a piece of paper, then drop the papers and stomp all over them.

    The alleged incident happened three weeks ago on the Davie, Florida campus of FAU, according to WPEC-TV.
    Junior Ryan Rotela, a devout Mormon, is the student making the charge.

    “Anytime you stomp on something it shows that you believe that something has no value,” he told the South Florida CBS affiliate. “So if you were to stomp on the word Jesus, it says that the word has no value.”

    Some students stomped; others, including Rotela, didn’t. He said he told the instructor, Deandre Poole, that the assignment offended his religious convictions.

    Two days later, the junior alleges, he went to an FAU school official to express his unease with the assignment.

    The result? Rotela has been suspended from the class.

    An FAU official defended the decision, telling WPEC that the Jesus-stomping was part of a classroom exercise from a textbook: “Intercultural Communication: A Contextual Approach, 5th Edition.” ”

    I would only do this after I saw the teacher stomp on a Koran

    • Mark Roulo says:

      George Larson: “I would only do this after I saw the teacher stomp on a Koran”

      While being filmed on the students’ smart phones

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        You know, this would be a good idea. I’ve challenged folks in various situations with this conundrum. Great fun, looking at the blank, confused expressions.

  3. Miller Smith says:

    Thank god that black teachers will have to learn to teach white children correctly. But maybe we can save them the trouble of having to teach the special way that white children learn…

    …why, we can just tell those black teachers they can only teach children that look like them. That will solve the problem. Alrighty then!

  4. The comment about Florida Atlantic University and the earlier blog about the Wisconsin Department of Education are astonishing. Ritual humilation of people belonging to certain races or religions sanctioned by governmental bureaucracies is a sign of very troubled times ahead.

  5. Roger Sweeny says:

    Perhaps this is an irony. Many (most?) students who do poorly in school come from a culture that does not value school, studying, academics, etc. Are teachers expected to value that culture? NO! We are expected to let students know that those attitudes are wrong, wrong, wrong. Far from respecting those attitudes, we are supposed to destroy them as best we can, and replace them with attitudes that we think are better–namely our attitudes about the importance of school.

    (A cynic would also say that we want them to believe that the better you do in school, the more money you will make–AND THAT THIS IS MORALLY GOOD AND PROPER.)