Make your classroom culturally responsive

It was a cold fall afternoon on the loading dock at Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati.  We stood on a platform of concrete several feet above oil-stained pavement, bracketed by two scraped and dented yellow metal poles. I was a beginning teacher in an urban high school, skinny and white, dressed just a bit more formally than everyone around me to avoid accusations of being a student. I was looking everywhere for someone to mentor me. My current target, we will call her Roberta, was contemplatively smoking a cigarette, her black fingers flicking ash absently toward me, her other hand pinching shut the top of her jacket, which was cinched tightly around her waist. I stood shivering next to her.

We were discussing a text we had read by a black author and with a black protagonist.  More accurately, I was asking questions about aspects of black culture that had arisen, and she was providing monosyllabic answers. I don’t remember the details of my questions. I am sure that they were misdirected, however well-intentioned they may have been. Perhaps they were insulting. I do not remember many of her responses, save one.  The one with which she dismissed me, forever: “You can never understand,” she asserted.  “You will never understand.”

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I was stung. I believed then – as I believe now – in the power of the written word to convey the human experience. That is the magic and the lure of reading and writing.  The Holy Grail I sought in every book I opened was that I would, upon conclusion, be able to honestly say about the author, “I know how she feels.” I was incensed that she believed I was incapable of understanding, or that even well-chosen words were incapable of conveying these truths. I invoked Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker, and I held them up to Roberta. “Are you really arguing that these authors are incapable of expressing their perspective? These women, among the greatest authors of our time, are unable to explain the black experience?” I argued incredulously. Roberta looked at her watch, dropped her cigarette butt on the dock and ground out its flame with a twist of her foot. A cloud of cigarette smoke and the fleeting wave of her fingers underlined her dismissal as she briskly walked to the door.

I had started my intentional search to learn about others who were different from me years earlier while still in college.  That is where I learned the transformative power of reading and writing. Under the tutelage of John Edgar Tidwell at Miami University, I was exposed to experiences of African American people who intrigued and fascinated me. I saw heroes and saints and villains and sinners. I experienced a range of lyricism and storytelling that matched what I had read from a canon of mostly white authors in the Anglo-Saxon tradition at Ashland High School. Ashland, Ohio is a rural town in north central Ohio, predominantly white, and at the time the largest minority population were a handful of first and second-generation families from India. Almost exclusively, my reading featured white male authors writing in the English language, with an occasional nod to other cultures. (Although it was there that I composed my first stanzas to my first song, an imagined additional two stanzas to Langston Hughes’ poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.”)

Somehow in that limited range, I nonetheless had come to believe in the power of literature to reveal a new world and convey it entirely. At Miami University I awkwardly bumped into the edges of that world, calling home almost breathlessly one morning to tell my mom I had seen seven black students sitting at a table together. I had never seen such a gathering. I believed I was in the heart of diversity. I still clung to my mother’s teachings about race, which was the simple mantra that we are all the same.

I had much to learn.

Some of what I learned over time was that my reading had taught me seemingly nothing. For just as Dylan Thomas’ poem cannot prepare you for the death of a parent, The Color Purple does not prepare you to teach in a predominately African-American school. So I asked questions. I paid attention. I was exceedingly polite. I learned about code-switching and ciphering and I learned to admit my earnest desire to do right by others.

Nearing the end of my college experience, still four years away from being dismissed on the Hughes Center loading dock,  I was assigned to observe a teacher and then do my student teaching at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.

It was here, at West High, that I had a chance to experience life in a predominantly black school. The things I had read about were all there: the passion for learning, the aching poverty, the respect for educators, the ciphers, the storytellers, the Anansis. A depth, a resonance was added to my reading and, more importantly, to my understanding. But I had so many questions, and much more to learn.

It was also here that I learned about another minority group – white Appalachians. A decade later I would encounter Other People’s Words and The Education of Little Tree , meeting a group of people very conscious of how they were viewed by others, and quick to engage formally educated folks such as myself in conversation so they could “take me down a peg.” I proved adept at beating them to it, by insulting myself while proving my success, and quickly fit in.

The author with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.
Jack takes a selfie with some of his students at the Harvest Home parade.

Twenty years later I would be a veteran principal at a predominantly black urban Montessori high school just over a mile away from my home. In between I learned that one must read about every issue from multiple perspectives. I read Gandhi and Orwell to learn about Indian culture and to question a Eurocentric view of conquest and authority. I read Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel and learned about a Jewish culture not created by the Holocaust but forever haunted by it. I read the words of Chief Joseph which permanently dispelled any notion I may have held that Native Americans had been somehow less noble or brave than those who drove them from the lands that contained their entire history. Alone, reading is not enough, of course. One must take this information and apply it in interactions with others.

Cincinnati Public Schools house students from countless countries who speak over 60 different languages. In Gamble Montessori alone there are first and second generation Americans from over a dozen different countries on multiple continents.

The opportunities for mistakes are many.

How does one create a classroom and a school community that is racially and culturally responsive where there are so many cultures? How does one find the space and time to teach about all of this? How does any person ever come to understand a culture that is different from their own?

I can start by revealing there are two wrong answers. The first wrong answer is to impose one culture on everyone, using the term ‘melting pot’ to suggest that ultimately all that will separate us is a middle name revealing a secret ancestry. The second, equally misdirected wrong answer, is to try to eliminate any vestige of culture at all. Both are equally impossible, and both rob us of the great gift of experiencing new cultures. My mom was partially right: in some ways we are all very much the same. However, it is our differences as much as our similarities that make us more than merely the object of curiosity, but which extend us to a greater sense of what it means to be human, and to challenge our concept of equality. Culture infuses every action, rule, and conversation in the classroom. Your culture, and your students’ cultures, will seep through no matter what you do. So instead of pretending they don’t exist, they should be learned about and celebrated.

Here are some ways we have found to create a place where students are welcome and appreciated for who they are:

Get to know your students.

  • Go to your students’ sporting events or concerts at school.
  • Personally call to invite their parents to Open House and Student-Led Conference nights (you do student-led conferences, right?)
  • Allow students to choose what they research for assignments.
  • Ask questions about their interests, perhaps using a start-of-the-year survey, and then follow up.
  • Go to other sporting events or religious events where they will be performing or working, or visit them at work.
  • Pay attention to their needs.

Learn about other cultures, individually and as a class.

  • Read books or articles by or about people from other countries and groups, especially those represented in your classroom.
  • Intentionally diversify readings and experiences, perhaps by asking “What cultures and countries are you interested in learning about?”
  • Work cultural and ethnic studies into your thematic lessons.

Standardize and teach the rules of grace and courtesy in your classroom – this softens the edges and creates space for being gentle when we make mistakes

  • Expect polite language for even common interactions.
  • Practice what to do in common classroom situations: someone gets angry and storms out, someone drops something fragile or loud, two students bump into each other, two students disagree on an important issue, a class divides over a thorny topic, etc.
  • Provide a place or a time for students to talk to you individually to address concerns about something that happened.
  • Teach students how to mediate their own differences, and include the practice of stating the other person’s position.

Keep reading books and articles about culturally responsive practices and apply what you learn.

I don’t claim to have gotten it all right. I have certainly made mistakes. I have, unfortunately, said things that were offensive in the moment or in hindsight. When these setbacks happen, the best thing, generally, is to acknowledge them and own them, and offer to try and make it right. Ultimately the best approach is to get to know each person individually, and try to meet them where they are.

Last year, one of our seniors had organized a walk through the neighborhood to raise awareness about abusive relationships. The group of twenty or so walkers who had gathered was comprised almost entirely of African Americans, students, and family members. We were milling around in the lobby, talking to each other as we waited for the signal to begin. I recognized a former student in the group and, as I spoke to him, my stomach growled. I had postponed lunch because I knew my senior had planned a lunch with green beans, mashed potatoes, wings, and my personal favorite: fried chicken.

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I was about to make a big mistake as a white guy standing in a crowd of blacks. I asked my former student, “Tell the truth: you’re here for the fried chicken, aren’t you?”

As if hitting a switch, the group got noticeably quieter. I realized what I had done. I had just blurted out a stereotype of black Americans. I owned it. “Oh my God. That sounded really racist, didn’t it?” As he started to nod, and say, “Yes it really did,” I added, “I just said that because I, myself, am here mostly for the fried chicken, I hear her mom can really cook.”

From behind me a voice said, “She can cook, but it was MY recipe. And you can have two pieces.” There was laughter. A reprieve. Another lesson learned.

2 thoughts on “Make your classroom culturally responsive

  1. In integral theory there is a thing called “we space” what this means is that we can understand something from the outside looking in but that will always be a different view than from the inside of the “we space” looking out. I think sometimes we put too much stock in trying to understand, I don’t have to understand you to extend grace, love and compassion to you. Maybe even a part of my ability to do so depends on me knowing that I could never fully understand your “we space” unless I am in it. I learned this when my ex-husband’s mother died. I felt love and compassion for what he was going through as well as my own grief but I never fully understood what it meant to loose a mother until mine died.

    • Quanita, I think this is an important observation. In the opening conversation of the article, neither of us had the same sophisticated language and understanding that you have here, and my frustration was that I believed I could fully understand all of it, and I took her words to mean I could never understand any of it. Somewhere in between is “we space” where seekers can get answers to their questions and all of us can share our experiences comfortable that the other person will be respectful and understanding to the limits of their capability. And we can’t hold each other accountable for understanding more than we are capable of. I made the Dylan Thomas reference for that very reason. One cannot understand fully the impact of the death of a parent until one has experienced it. Thanks for your insight and perspective!

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