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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Response: ‘It is Long Past Time to Meet the Needs of Students of Color’

By Larry Ferlazzo — May 14, 2016 20 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series)

This week’s question is:

What does culturally sustaining pedagogy look like in the classroom?

This question, and the columns providing responses, comprise a special project being guest-hosted by Django Paris (Michigan State University) , PhD & Travis J. Bristol, PhD (Stanford Center For Opportunity Policy in Education). You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Django on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

You might also be interested in previous posts related to the topic:

‘For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood...': An Interview With Chris Emdin

Strategies for Recruiting Teachers of Color (a three-part series guest-hosted by Travis J. Bristol, PhD & Terrenda White, PhD).

The Teachers of Color ‘Disappearance Crisis’ (another three-part series including contributions from Gloria Ladson-Billings, Travis J. Bristol, and Terrenda Corisa White).

Engaging With Class & Race In The Classroom

‘Culturally Responsive Teaching': An Interview With Zaretta Hammond

Introduction From Django Paris:

Django Paris is an associate professor of language and literacy in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. His teaching and research focus on understanding and sustaining languages, literacies, and literatures among youth of color in the context of demographic and social change. Paris is author of Language across Difference: Ethnicity, Communication, and Youth Identities in Changing Urban Schools and co-editor of Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities. Follow him on Twitter @django_paris:

What a pleasure to learn with the dedicated educators who have shared snapshots of the ways culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) informs their teaching. A few years ago, I introduced CSP as teaching and learning that seeks to perpetuate and foster linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling and as a needed response to demographic and social change. I was building off the foundational work of Gloria Ladson-Billings, work that continues to lead our visions of educational equity. CSP asks us to imagine and enact teaching and learning that forwards multiple ways with language, literacy, and culture against the backdrop of an educational system that continues to be centered largely on White, middle class, monolingual, cis-heteropatriarchal, and abliest norms of achievement. This centering on such narrow norms and outcomes continues despite the vast shifts in school demographics. In 1970, eighty percent of public school students were White, today just over fifty percent are students of color. Meanwhile, students of color, particularly African American, Latina/o, and Native students continue to be failed in large numbers and are vastly over represented in school discipline and push-out statistics, and the school-to-prison nexus of which they are a part. It is long past time that teaching begins to meet the needs of the new mainstream, students of color characterized by multilingualism, multiculturalism and the desire to strive toward equity in an unequal world.

It is this project of educational equity for and with this new mainstream that the educators in this forum evidence through their enactments of CSP. As Charlene Mendoza, a teacher and school leader in Tucson, AZ writes “CSP challenges me to create democratic, pluralistic spaces for and with students.” For Mendoza, this means a “pedagogy that acknowledges youth as full actualized human beings with knowledge, awareness, and resources...” For David Flores, a teacher of Black and Brown middle school students in San Francisco, engaging CSP begins by acknowledging that “Schooling has never served to value my students’ culture and heritage, much less sustain it.” To design an alternative, Flores prioritizes “healing, self-discovery, and a social justice based curriculum...” Matt Knielling, who teaches at a racially and linguistically diverse middle school in Massachusetts, engages with CSP “as a White teacher (remaining) cognizant of my classroom dynamics and the ways I inadvertently perpetuate oppressive systems.” For Knielling, this has encouraged the mutually enriching study of culturally situated notions of respect with his students. Gabriella Corales, a high school teacher in Hayward, CA, shares her work teaching literature and language with youth of color where “we not only meet the demands of the Common Core... but we also sustain their linguistic and cultural diversity.”

These educators show us that, as high school teacher Lorena German in Austin, TX, writes, “CSP is not a teaching guide or a set of lesson plans. It’s an approach to the craft of teaching.” This approach moves beyond including the languages, literacies, and cultures of students only to encourage success on monolingual and monocultural outcomes. Teachers who engage CSP enact teaching across languages, literacies, and cultures to engender outcomes that sustain multilingual and multicultural abilities while extending what students (and teachers) know and are able to do. As German shares, “CSP allows me to be the inclusive, socially just K-16 teacher I never had.” The educators in this forum show us how to be that teacher.

Response From Charlene Mendoza

Charlene Mendoza is a teacher leader at Arizona College Prep Academy (ACPA), a charter high school serving a diverse student population in Tucson, AZ. She is passionate about equity, voice, and choice in her teaching and as a Ph.D. student at the University of Arizona in Language, Reading & Culture. This connects her work with youth and teachers at ACPA and in the community to sound theory, research, and practice at the university level:

Co-Creating Curriculum through Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) challenges me to create democratic, pluralistic spaces for and with students. As part of re-imagining our classroom as more dialogic, students engage in inquiry to explore, struggle with and perhaps overcome social injustice by creating understanding through the texts we encounter.

A CSP inspired re-envisioning of a literary analysis essay in my AP English Literature and Composition class is one example. With the sound of pencils whishing and the pages of our mutually created diverse text sets flipping, thinking is palpable. Students identify and follow their tensions and connections provoked by literature, reader-response engagements, collaborative discussions and reflective writing. Through self-selected engagements like conflict maps, heart maps, and dialectic journals, students construct questions that inspire writing prompts that they answer in essays. Engagement skyrockets as students become curriculum-creators, not passive recipients of my curriculum. Students humanize themselves and peers as collaborators and scholars.

By questioning texts, sorting those questions into thematic clusters and selecting a cluster to write about, students direct their own learning. Some students pursue inquiries into identity and its intersections, others explore “what makes a family: biology, love, responsibility, sacrifice?” Once students craft prompts, they mine the texts, engagements and collaborative discussions for evidence to support the theses they have constructed. Small groups grapple with questions like “Can someone do bad things but not be a bad person?” or “How did that character cope with having parents who were unreliable or absent?” or “Do children have agency in their own lives?” This focuses classroom activities on meaning making that flows from issues students choose to explore connecting the texts to their own lives and communities.

Through the lens of inquiry, students have an embodied experience of the world through literature. Students become problem-posers who “develop their own power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves; they come to see the world not as a static reality, but as a reality in process, in transformation” (Freire).

It’s easy to imagine stereotypical English teachers as disconnected, uncaring, elitists more engaged in correcting grammar and teaching the “right” interpretation of canonized literature through a transmission model. In these classes, students are passive occupants in class waiting to be filled with knowledge supplied by the teacher. Our classroom, however, is filled with student voice and choice. We are acting upon and with each other to share, critique and create knowledge and meaning. This dialogic power-sharing space humanizes our mutual learning by supporting pedagogy that acknowledges youth as fully actualized human beings with knowledge, awareness and resources who are agents in their school lives directing explorations of text and writing in a scholarly and rigorous manner.

Paris and Alim (2014) challenge teachers “to envision and enact pedagogies that are not filtered through a lens of contempt and pity but, rather, are centered on contending in complex ways with the rich and innovative linguistic, literary, and cultural practices of ...youth and communities of color.” My re-imagining is a step in that direction.

Response From Lorena Germán:

Lorena Germán is a 12th year educator, born in Dominican Republic and raised in Massachusetts, now living and teaching young people in Austin, Texas. She earned her undergraduate degree in English from Emmanuel College and her Masters from the Bread Loaf School of English at Middlebury College. A National Council of Teachers of English Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award recipient, Lorena strives to be the teacher she never had. Follow @nenagerma:

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy Across Two Different School Contexts

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy (CSP) is an effective strategy in any classroom setting. It looks different depending on the school context in which you teach. I’ve taught from a CSP framework in both an urban public school and a predominantly White independent school. I’ve had amazing results in both.

In the urban public school where I taught, CSP looked like creating units that were centered on students’ lived experiences and voices. One example was engaging a classroom of 10th graders by analyzing Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” Students were highly engaged and this was evident through their intellectual debates and products where they made direct connections to their communities. As an educator, I had to be prepared to engage students in challenging dialogue about police brutality, racism, and gentrification. Ultimately, the conversation led us to discuss educational inequality which is what we were experiencing together in the classroom. We spoke about aspects of their schooling that were unjust and attempted to find ways to navigate those circumstances. CSP, in the urban public school, meant that I had to become a student with them and intentionally guide the content to be inclusive of their extracurricular conversations and experiences. These activities led to writing that was critical of systems of inequality. It led to character-based analytical debates and discussion of such tropes in their own community. Standardized testing for the sake of appeasing some federal policy was not at the top of my priority list.

At my current independent school, CSP looks like engaging in courageous conversations about the white gaze, feminism, slavery, gentrification, and soon to come: the politics of language. Students research and present on these concepts and we learn together as a class. We invite guest speakers and find ways to explore experiences different than our own. As a class, we have worked on stretching the boundaries of text, writing, and reading so that we can be more inclusive of other voices and cultures. Some examples of this include welcoming street art as a text, or reading a tattoo as text, or creating a street art inspired one-dimensional piece that was a visual representation of their original analytical essay. These activities have pushed students to think critically about their own experiences, others’ experiences, and begun to shape them into considerate and culturally aware young people ready to participate meaningfully in society.

CSP is not a teaching guide or a set of lesson plans. It’s an approach to the craft of teaching. Often teachers want a ‘strategy’ or a concrete unit to reach their students. Being ourselves and engaging our students’ lives as the content for analysis is CSP. CSP allows me to be the inclusive and socially just k-16 teacher I never had. And when I’m engaged and present, my students are engaged and learning.

Response From David Flores

David Flores is from northwest Pasadena, California, and received his education from UC Santa Barbara and UCLA. He has taught social studies and English for the past three years in underserved communities in both Los Angeles and the Bay Area. He is currently teaching within the Spanish Immersion program at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco where he also coaches flag football, soccer and serves as a mentor for Black and Brown youth on campus:

Combating Schooling Trauma through a Pedagogy of Healing and Self-Discovery

The words of Marcus Garvey fill the classroom community space with flames that engulf the perceptions and beliefs forced upon my students.

“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”

Between the uniform checks, surveillance cameras in the hallways, “random” drug searches of Black and Brown youth, and disproportionate suspensions, the school my students walk into feels like nothing short of a prison. Schooling has never served to value my students’ culture and heritage, much less sustain it. Our role as educators is to foster a pedagogical approach that will challenge a schooling system that has left underserved students filled with numbing feelings of inadequacy.

My students react to their circumstances with submissiveness and resistance. Submissive to a system and people who claim to want success for them. Resistant to the manners in which the system and its agents seek to bring about their “success.” School has led my students to suffer from constant identity crises, lurking around them as they seek to embody something that finally feels right.

In my classroom, I replace punishments and systems seeking obedience with love, appreciation, and encouragement. Personal identities are re-envisioned through historical analysis of ancestry and lived experiences. Students are exposed to indigenous knowledge and thought while exploring the continuous impact of colonialism on the current state of white supremacy. Students engage in a critical, yearlong analysis of Systems of Oppression through the mediums of literature, music, art, and media. Quicker transitions and organizing learning around group worthy tasks has dramatically increased student engagement in the content as well as offering diverse learners a meaningful and inclusive learning experience.

Throughout this year, I have witnessed how students have converted misguided resistance into an intentional effort to learn while disrupting an educational system that seeks to make them unaware of injustice and oppression. This has led my students and me to create a space that allows for healing through means such as community circles, meditation, self-reflection, and goal setting exercises. Although Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy is the ultimate goal, I envision learning through a Pedagogy of Healing and Self- Discovery, attempting to reverse and combat the trauma and injustices caused to underserved students within a repressive American schooling system.

Implementing Pedagogy of Healing and Self-Discovery will offer students the opportunity to establish themselves as humans first: people with backgrounds, beliefs, and experiences that are valued above the characteristics and knowledge considered valuable by the dominant majority. By prioritizing healing, self-discovery, and a social justice based curriculum, schools can ensure that students come into culturally sustaining classrooms that empower rather than marginalize underserved students.

It’s Friday afternoon and I leave my students with the words of Gloria Anzaldua to consider as they head off into the world again.

“I will no longer be made to feel ashamed of existing...I will overcome the tradition of silence.”

Response From Matt Knieling

Matt Knieling studied secondary English education at Central Michigan University. He currently teaches 6th grade English Language Arts in western Massachusetts. Matt is particularly interested in culturally-sustaining and social justice pedagogy, restorative justice in schools, and language and literacy. He can be reached at matthewknieling@gmail.com.

Exploring & Sustaining Conceptions of “Respect” across Cultural Difference

The word respect is nearly ubiquitous in schools, from codes of conduct to classroom rules. We expect that students respect their teachers, respect their peers, and respect the classroom. However, the concept of respect is rarely interrogated, and too often perpetuates dominant white, middle-class values, along with a power structure that frequently marginalizes students.

Recognizing that respect is a culturally-constructed notion, I am working with my students to develop a more nuanced and culturally sustaining understanding of respect. This is particularly important because I teach in a very diverse school--racially, ethnically, linguistically, etc. Furthermore, as a white teacher in a diverse school, it is critically important that I remain cognizant of my classroom dynamics and the ways in which I inadvertently perpetuate oppressive systems. Working with my students to explore deeply and meaningfully how they understand respect--which not only brings in their voice, but allows me to disrupt the dominance of white, middle-class culture in schools--is one way that I am working to create a culturally sustaining classroom.

Each morning begins with “crew,” which is similar to homeroom, but focuses more on community-/relationship-building. My crew consists of 14 sixth grade students. Every morning, we eat breakfast together and participate in a mini-lesson. Because this space is designed for openness, dialogue, and community, I decided to use this space to explore, collectively, conceptions of respect among my students. We only recently started this thematic inquiry, but already, we are gaining valuable insights into the diverse ways in which we understand/experience respect.

Rather than trying to define respect, my students and I are each writing and sharing stories related to respect. For instance, the first question I posed was: What was a time when you felt respected by a teacher? We all wrote for a few minutes, then some of us shared. Some students shared stories of teachers going out of their way to help them; some shared stories of teachers listening to them before jumping to conclusions; others shared stories of specific teaching styles (e.g. Explaining content more slowly). Just from this activity alone, we learned that respect means something very different to most of us. Based off my students’ input, we will continue to explore these ideas, including times when we felt both respected and disrespected by a teacher or a peer.

Though I am only just beginning to explore how our diverse backgrounds contribute to diverse understandings of respect, I am already learning so much and understanding the disconnects between the way teachers demand respect and the way students understand respect. It is my hope that through this process, I am able to build stronger relationships with my students, to allow all of my students--across cultural differences--to feel respected, and to sustain their own cultural backgrounds within my classroom, through my practices and interactions.

Response From Gabriella Corales

Gabriella Corales teaches 11th grade American Literature at Impact Academy in Hayward, California; she has taught there for 3 years, working with many first generation college students of color (like herself) and alongside many dedicated educators. She is originally from San Antonio, Texas. She completed her Bachelors in English and Communication Studies at Texas State University and her Masters in Education at Stanford University.

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: Recognizing and Honoring every (Student) Tile within the (Classroom) Mosaic

Honoring the diversity within our classrooms is necessary. Historically, our school system has committed cultural and linguistic genocide (e.g., Native American Boarding Schools, prohibition of Spanish in schools, etc.). However, rather than rejecting what is “different,” we ought to create spaces and curriculum that embrace and sustain cultural and linguistic diversity.

My students hail from some of the hardest working families. Many were born to immigrant parents or are immigrants themselves from Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, India, and Nigeria. They each represent unique cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and genders. Each student is a tile within the classroom mosaic.

At the beginning of the year, we read Lorraine Hansberry’s critically-acclaimed play “A Raisin in the Sun.” In it, Hansberry sheds light on important social issues, while also capturing African American, working-class language. I play the original Broadway recording at the beginning so students can hear the characters’ language variety and personality. Doing so not only sustains this particular language variety, but also communicates that ways of using language have value across the spoken English continuum. Moreover, the familiar language increases access and engagement.

As students’ fluency around reading and comprehension increases, we begin our analysis. Students learn about and apply Feminist, Marxist, and Critical Race Theory literary lenses to their reading. They first practice this with Disney lyrics, such as clips from Shrek for example. We discuss various forms of oppression (social, psychological, economical). They begin to analyze the portrayal and treatment of women, the working class, and historically oppressed groups in supplemental texts. Students identify the ways in which the characters reinforce or undermine oppression. Armed with this critical lens, we return to “A Raisin in the Sun” to undercover some of Hansberry’s underlying themes.

My favorite part of this unit is when students begin questioning, making connections, and saying, “I cannot look at [TV] the same! As I was watching, I realized that they portrayed [women] as...!” As educators, we can use texts that use variations of language and dialect and then get creative with how students analyze and discuss those texts.

Moreover, we can create spaces for (Four Corners) discussion activities that encourage students to share their experiences as young people of color, women within patriarchal cultures, and immigrants, for example.

We can also provide multiple text selections rather than focusing on one narrative/culture/dialect. During our Immigration unit, students chose one of seven books, representing various cultures (e.g., Nazario’s “Enrique’s Journey,” Adichie’s “Americanah,” Tan’s “Joy Luck Club”). During our interdisciplinary Civil Rights rhetoric unit, students chose one of six historical movements, analyzing its rhetoric and resistance strategies. These options allow students either to explore deeply a part of their identity and generate pride and passion or to learn about other cultures and generate compassion and understanding.

Regardless of the text, language variety, or content, we can get students to think critically, identify an author’s messages, formulate valid claims, and cite supportive evidence. In doing so, not only do we meet the demands of Common Core and cultivate our students’ analytical thinking and writing skills, but we also sustain their linguistic and cultural diversity.

Thanks to Django and Travis for guest-hosting this series, and to Charlene, Lorena, David, Matt and Gabriella for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Look for Part Two in a few days.

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