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