Culturally Meaningful Learning

Unsettled.  Irritated.  Maybe even short-tempered.  I struggle to identify the emotions swimming through my heart.  My mind chases runaway thoughts that scamper away like squirrels up a tree. Maybe it’s just one of those days when I am easily irritated.  Perhaps I didn’t get enough sleep.  My page-long to-do list could be fighting for my attention. But something, something has crawled under my skin.

Every couple of weeks I meet with a group of teachers to discuss issues relevant to the field of education.  In particular, we focus on the unique needs – social, emotional, educational, cultural – of our minority students and our students who are at risk.

This week we are discussing an article about cultural relevance in the classroom – how to stay aware and sensitive to the differing social and educational needs of our students because of the diversity that exists in every classroom.  The article, not so gently, reminds us to respect the learning styles and preferences of every student.

students readingThe article we discussed last week admonished us not to treat students differently just because of culture, race, and economic differences.

Thus my irritation.  How are teachers to practice culturally responsive teaching while ignoring huge chunks of students’ identities’?

They can’t.

Even without cultural differences, diversity in the classroom has never been greater, nor has individualized instruction ever been as needed as it is today.  That’s without cultural differences in mainstream America.  Teachers differentiate because of needs associated with

  • Autism
  • Learning Disabilities
  • Emotional Disturbance
  • Dyslexia
  • Other Health Impairments
  • Eating disorders/ weight issues
  • Hearing impairments
  • Visual impairment
  • Diabetes
  • Allergies
  • Anxiety/ Depression
  • Asthma
  • Tourette’s Syndrome
  • Epilepsy

Not an exhaustive list, but these issues are some that have necessitated accommodations for many of my students -past and present.

The first article encourages teachers to ask immigrant students to share their experiences with classmates.  Stop for a moment.  Remember how it was for you as a new immigrant, or imagine how it might feel being singled out as different.  Everything is new and strange and you already feel like an outsider.  Now the new – probably white – teacher is drawing attention to you, confirming that you are, in fact, the outsider.  Culturally responsible teachers recognize that individuals that identify with certain cultures  feel uncomfortable with the spotlight on them.  Yes, allow them opportunities to share their experiences…on their terms, not in a way that draws unwanted attention when they are already self-conscious.

My point is, we must interact with each student in a way that shows respect for who they are and what they bring to the classroom.  We must ask hard questions such as, ‘how does their culture impact how they learn and behave in the classroom?’ ‘Is their behavior affected by racial issues?’  Sometimes kids are hesitant, other times they distrust the teacher, they show unsolicited anger or overreact.  And behaviors we consider to be positive could also be as a result of culturally or racial influences.  Consider the child who so desperately wants to please the teacher, the quietly working kiddo, the student who always does more than what is required, or the student who stops by the classroom to chat with the teacher in between classes.  What is behind each of these behaviors, and how should we respond to them?

Relationship.  I’ve said this before, there is no substitute for getting to know your students. Invite conversation, be available if they want to ask a question or make a comment, welcome opportunities to tutor students of all ability levels. I will never forget the student who asked in amazement, “You actually researched Greenday?”  Greenday was the band that he was completely obsessed with and he often made it the topic of his writing.  So, of course I needed to know a little more about this band if I wanted to appreciate my student’s work.

Language arts teachers have an advantage because writing cracks open the thought-life of our students.  But there are plenty of other ways to connect with kids.

  • Welcome them into the classroom.  Be at the door waiting for them.
  • Jump into conversations with them.
  • Find out about their extracurricular activities. Attend if possible.
  • Notice and comment on books that they are reading.
  • Create a homework hangout once a week.
  • Compliment them/ say something positive.
  • Share tidbits of your life.

Safe Environment.  Create an environment that embraces diversity of all kinds.

(in progress…)

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