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.


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

Seneca, “idle busyness,” and relevance

How relevant is “relevance” to good curriculum?

Earlier this term, I had my tenth-grade students read Lucius Annaeus Seneca’s letter “On the Shortness of Life” (De brevitate vitae). The letter contains the phrase desidiosa occupatio, which could be translated as “idle occupation” or “idle busyness.” The students seized on this phrase and cited it frequently.

In this letter to Paulinus (presumably his father-in-law, who oversaw Rome’s grain supply and was old enough to retire), Seneca argues against trivial occupations and for the study of philosophy. People complain that life is short, says Seneca, but it is actually long. People make it short by wasting it. He gives the example of the man getting a haircut:

Tell me, would you say that those men are at leisure who pass many hours at the barber’s while they are being stripped of whatever grew out the night before? while a solemn debate is held over each separate hair? while either disarranged locks are restored to their place or thinning ones drawn from this side and that toward the forehead? How angry they get if the barber has been a bit too careless, just as if he were shearing a real man! How they flare up if any of their mane is lopped off, if any of it lies out of order, if it does not all fall into its proper ringlets! Who of these would not rather have the state disordered than his hair? Who is not more concerned to have his head trim rather than safe? Who would not rather be well barbered than upright?

Seneca provides many more examples of “idle busyness”—leaders embroiled in battles and public affairs; men concerned with the ornamentation of their lives rather than the essence; and, worst of all, people who give themselves over to wine and lust. All of these people, in occupying themselves with many things, fail to accomplish anything of importance, as true accomplishment requires dedication and focus.

Finally, everybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things—eloquence cannot, nor the liberal studies—since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn.

What way of life, according to Seneca, allows for dedication to the important things? The immersion in philosophical works, or works of wisdom (sapientia).

Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live; for they are not content to be good guardians of their own lifetime only. They annex ever age to their own; all the years that have gone ore them are an addition to their store. Unless we are most ungrateful, all those men, glorious fashioners of holy thoughts, were born for us; for us they have prepared a way of life. By other men’s labours we are led to the sight of things most beautiful that have been wrested from darkness and brought into light; from no age are we shut out, we have access to all ages, and if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam.

My students said that they could relate it to their lives; they cited Facebook, TV, and other kinds of “idle busyness.” One student told me that this letter inspired her to change her priorities. Now, this sort of “relating,” while in many ways illuminating, has its drawbacks; students might overlook parts of the letter that don’t quite mesh with their understanding. Take this, for instance:

And what of those who are engaged in composing, hearing, and learning songs, while they twist the voice, whose best and simplest movement Nature designed to be straightforward, into the meanderings of some indolent tune, who are always snapping their fingers as they beat time to some song they have in their head, who are overheard humming a tune when they have been summoned to serious, often even melancholy, matters? These have not leisure, but idle occupation.

I, for one, take exception to this, and that is part of the point of reading. If Seneca’s points were exactly my own, then I would learn nothing from his letter. What is wrong with snapping your fingers to some tune, I ask, if that is what you love to do? But Seneca is not talking about what you love to do. He is not saying, “do what matters to you.” Though the letter is to one person, and therefore not framed as universal advice, Seneca unequivocally ranks some activities above others. That stumbling point (for many a modern reader) makes the letter more difficult and in some ways more interesting.

What does that say about “relevance?” Many educators insist that a curriculum should reflect the students’ own experience and cultural backgrounds, at least in part. Now, it’s easy to scoff at this, but it isn’t entirely wrong. It’s just a limited version of a truth. What’s most important is that students find meaning in subject matter (or lack of meaning, if that is its point). This meaning might not apply to their lives, at least not directly. It may not translate easily or completely into everyday language. It certainly doesn’t have to boil down to a maxim or moral. Meaning is the sense or significance of something.

Now, sometimes the meaning is immediate. You read a story and recognize the situation. You may even recognize the characters right away. The life of the story seems close to your own life. In other cases, the meaning doesn’t come for a while. You struggle a bit with the language and ideas. But eventually something comes clear, and with time, still more.

While students may enjoy “relating” to subject matter, they must learn to grapple with difficult and unfamiliar things. The relating may lead to the grappling but doesn’t do so automatically.  Nor is the former a prerequisite for the latter. The former does not require much education; the latter does. Doesn’t it follow, then, that schools should focus on taking students to meaning, not on making things immediately relevant?

Teaching ‘sensitivity’ to teachers

Boston teachers need training in cultural sensitivity, says Sociedad Latina, a local advocacy group. Insensitive teachers create an unwelcoming climate for students, “potentially contributing to their loss of classroom focus, poor test performance, or a higher dropout rate,” advocates tell the Boston Globe.

“The kids are right in demanding more training for teachers,’’ said Carroll Blake, executive director for the School Department’s Office of the Achievement Gap.  “It’s not just valuing an individual student’s culture, but acknowledging it and integrating it into classroom lessons.’’

On Flypaper, Liam Julian scoffs.

Fifteen-year-old Shantal Solomon told the newspaper that she can “vividly recall the day two years ago . . . when she observed her teacher scolding her friends for speaking Spanish.” “I felt offended,” she said. “I don’t even speak Spanish. But it’s a free country. We should be able to speak the language we want.”

Bien sûr, reply school leaders, who reportedly think that “more comprehensive cultural training” for educators is right and good, and that such instruction “could provide a critical link in closing an alarming achievement gap between students of different races and ethnicities.”

. . . It is not a free country, especially not for fifteen-year-olds, and public-school pupils do not have the right to take tests in Tagalog.

Also on Flypaper, Jamie Davies O’Leary disagrees. Cultural sensitivity won’t lift test scores but students and teachers should treat each other with respect. As a kindergarten teacher, she witnessed five-year-olds trading ethnic slurs and spit.

The children may need training in behavior and manners, but do teachers really need a course in cultural sensitivity?  Common sense and common courtesy should be enough, I’d think.

On Fox, Amber Winkler of Fordham and Melissa Luna of Sociedad Latina discuss sensitivity training. Note the fair and unbiased intro.