Why Good Teachers Embrace Culture

Meeting students where they are often requires knowing, celebrating, and incorporating their cultural backgrounds.

TUCSON, AZ - APRIL 24: An undocumented Mexican immigrant does her homework in the dining room of her family's rented home on April 24, 2010 in Tucson, Arizona. The high school sophomore and her family, who asked not to be identified, said that with Arizona's new immigrant law, they were scared that they would be randomly stopped and deported. The family moved to Arizona in 2000. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
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Sophie Quinton
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Sophie Quinton
Nov. 11, 2013, midnight

Ari­zona’s at­tor­ney gen­er­al called the pro­gram “pro­pa­gand­iz­ing and brain­wash­ing.” An ad­min­is­trat­ive law judge ruled that it “pro­motes ra­cial re­sent­ment against ‘Whites,’ and ad­voc­ates eth­nic solid­ar­ity of Lati­nos.”

With that, the Tuc­son Uni­fied School Dis­trict’s con­tro­ver­sial Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an stud­ies courses shut down in 2011. Yet a Uni­versity of Ari­zona study found that the mostly Latino stu­dents who took the courses were 46 per­cent to 150 per­cent more likely to gradu­ate from high school than those who did not. The study also de­term­ined pos­it­ive ef­fects on math and read­ing test scores. An in­de­pend­ent audit of the cur­riculum con­firmed that tak­ing the courses helped stu­dents suc­ceed in school.

All good teach­ers build a bridge between what stu­dents know and what they need to learn. Yet teach­ing that em­braces stu­dents’ cul­tur­al back­grounds has largely been left out of cur­rent de­bates on what makes teach­ers ef­fect­ive. The drama in Tuc­son helps ex­plain why: Cul­tur­ally re­spons­ive teach­ing of­ten re­quires con­front­ing some of the most pain­ful di­vides in Amer­ic­an life.

“Ba­sic­ally, it’s about ef­fect­ive teach­ing, but it takes in­to con­sid­er­a­tion the chan­ging demo­graph­ics of Amer­ica’s schools,” says Jac­queline Jordan Irvine, pro­fess­or emer­it­us of urb­an edu­ca­tion at At­lanta’s Emory Uni­versity. Today, 63 per­cent of stu­dents in the Tuc­son Uni­fied School Dis­trict are Latino, up from 49 per­cent just a dec­ade ago.

Demo­graph­ic changes have made it in­creas­ingly likely that a teach­er’s ex­per­i­ences don’t mir­ror those of her stu­dents. In 2007-08, 83 per­cent of pub­lic school teach­ers were white, ac­cord­ing to the Na­tion­al Cen­ter for Edu­ca­tion Stat­ist­ics. Dur­ing that same year, the demo­graph­ic break­down showed a dif­fer­ent per­cent­age for pub­lic school stu­dents: 56 per­cent white; 21 per­cent His­pan­ic; 17 per­cent Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, 5 per­cent Asi­an, and 1 per­cent Nat­ive Amer­ic­an.

“If you don’t know any­thing about the every­day lived ex­per­i­ences of your stu­dents — the cul­tur­al back­grounds, the dia­lects, the fam­ily, the home, the com­munity — teach­ers tend to pull the ex­amples for teach­ing from their own ex­per­i­ences,” Irvine says. “And, hence, those con­nec­tions are not made for stu­dents.”

Cul­tur­ally re­spons­ive ped­agogy starts with the premise that race and class mat­ter, and that some schools fail to send di­verse stu­dents sig­nals that they be­long. To make sure all stu­dents feel val­ued, the the­ory goes, teach­ers need to be aware of their own bi­ases, work deeply to un­der­stand their in­di­vidu­al stu­dents, find ways to bring stu­dents’ her­it­age and com­munity in­to the classroom, and hold all stu­dents to a high aca­dem­ic stand­ard.

It’s a philo­sophy that makes in­tu­it­ive sense, and that’s backed by a range of aca­dem­ic stud­ies. But it re­quires sub­tlety. Learn­ing about stu­dents’ cul­tur­al back­grounds is an on­go­ing pro­cess that lasts a teach­er’s en­tire ca­reer, be­gin­ning all over again each year with a new set of stu­dents. “It’s really im­port­ant to be really im­mersed in that loc­al con­text to be able to cul­tur­ally re­spons­ive. And I think that that’s messy work, and it’s really hard to quanti­fy, but nev­er­the­less vi­tal,” says Jason Ir­izarry, an as­so­ci­ate edu­ca­tion pro­fess­or and dir­ect­or of urb­an edu­ca­tion at the Uni­versity of Mas­sachu­setts (Am­h­erst).

Lack of cul­tur­al un­der­stand­ing can eas­ily dis­rupt classroom learn­ing. In a 2009 art­icle for Teach­ing Tol­er­ance magazine, Irvine gave the ex­ample of a stu­dent teach­er lead­ing a les­son on clas­si­fy­ing ob­jects in a mostly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an ele­ment­ary school in the South. Her stu­dents iden­ti­fied a pho­to­graph of kale as col­lard greens, and were stumped when shown a pic­ture of broc­coli. The teach­er couldn’t hide her shock, the chil­dren star­ted mis­be­hav­ing, and the teach­er ended up so up­set that she had to leave the room.

Cul­tur­ally re­spons­ive teach­ing doesn’t mean lower­ing stand­ards, Irvine says. Take dia­lect, for ex­ample. Teach­ers need to help stu­dents speak and write in Stand­ard Eng­lish, but they’ll be more suc­cess­ful in that ef­fort if they be­gin by re­spect­ing the way a stu­dent and his fam­ily speak at home.

Cre­at­ing a link between home and school can en­rich all kinds of les­sons. Teach­ers can ask their stu­dents to in­ter­view their com­munit­ies and con­dense the in­form­a­tion in­to a let­ter to the may­or. Par­ents can be in­vited in­to the classroom to talk about their work. Stu­dents can be asked to think crit­ic­ally about art­icles and texts, ex­plor­ing them for signs of cul­tur­al bi­as.

New Mex­ic­an-Amer­ic­an and Afric­an-Amer­ic­an stud­ies classes will re­turn to TUSD high schools this fall, as a dec­ades-old de­seg­reg­a­tion rul­ing man­dates that the dis­trict of­fer eth­nic-stud­ies classes. They could be as con­tro­ver­sial as the former pro­gram, NPR re­ports.

“Mica Pol­lack talks about be­ing color­mute — that we don’t want to talk about race, we don’t want to talk about cul­ture, for a vari­ety of reas­ons,” Ir­izarry says, re­fer­ring to a term coined by a pro­fess­or at the Uni­versity of Cali­for­nia (San Diego). “And young people are say­ing, un­equi­voc­ally, that they really think these things are im­port­ant”

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