This Stuff is Hard

Today's School Reform class was about culturally relevant pedagogy; what started as a lecture ended up being an incredibly valuable and insightful discussion.

Professor Labaree projected an excerpt by Gloria Ladson-Billings, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison Graduate School of Education:

“I have defined culturally relevant teaching as a pedagogy of opposition not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment. Culturally relevant pedagogy rests on three criteria or propositions: a) students must experience academic success; b) students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and c) students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order."

I'm grateful that the room was filled with former teachers, because my question was basically: "What does this actually look like in practice?" 

There were some really valuable stories shared. A math teacher from DC Public Schools who had to explain to here students that while she understood what they meant when they said "the one on the bottom," they had to learn to use "denominator" instead. Some students in class referred to this kind of language (denominator in this case) as “white language," and I am not comfortable with that label. It reminded me of Barack Obama's 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention, when he spoke about the need to "eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white." White people do not and should not have a monopoly on academic language.

Another former teacher spoke about bringing traditional Korean food to school so he could eat lunch with his students as they ate their arroz con pollo. To him, this was a more effective and authentic way of validating the students' culture than a half-hearted attempt at teaching curriculum he wasn't even familiar with. On this thread, another former teacher spoke about "social justice math curriculum," a concept that no one in the room fully understood.

Last week in class, we talked about the idea of "cultural capital." Some elements of cultural capital, from Labaree's presentation, include: "standard English, with an acceptable accent," "appropriate dress, demeanor, manners, and social norms for interaction," "picking up behavior cues," "verbal skills like writing, speech, and persuasion," "reading between the lines and understanding literal vs. actual meaning," and even "anticipatory socialization, or adopting the culture of the community you want to join," and a few others. These are the skills that, supposedly, will help students get ahead. 

There's an argument that says schools have to teach cultural capital for their students to be successful, take advantage of opportunities, and ultimately achieve a higher status in society. Cultural capital, one could argue, is a critical part of social mobility.

You can see where there might be tension between the teaching of cultural capital and culturally relevant pedagogy. If we embrace the teaching of cultural capital, are we asking students, particularly low income students and students of color, to abandon their culture? Are the implications of teaching cultural capital that the dominant culture (in America, middle class white culture) is somehow better than the others? These are the questions we wrestled with in discussion. I think most students decided, myself included, that we need to do both; we have to both help students achieve social mobility through the teaching of cultural capital and validate a student's background and culture so they feel safe and welcomed in an academic environment. This is no easy task for a teacher to accomplish.

I guess one point is that this stuff is hard. It's nuanced. It's hard to get right -- especially because "right" means many different things to many different people. There is no singular "correct" answer. From a policy perspective, this poses some significant challenge in a loosely coupled system.

An example that came to mind is the ethnic studies curriculum legislation that recently passed in Oregon. Ultimately, the bill was a huge win for Oregon students, and it will empower many underrepresented students to see themselves in a greater, more accurate context than what is often presented. Beyond that, it matters a lot that Oregon is investing time and resources and attention to ethnic and social minorities. This is how institutions grow and change and include. 

Of course, it's more complicated than many claim it is. There are many who hale this as a significant step forward toward a culturally responsive education for all students -- and for many students, I am hopeful it will be. But I wonder whether the concept will do more harm than good in some classrooms where the educator does not believe in or embrace the new curriculum. Will it be implemented faithfully, or will it be glossed over? Ridiculed? Downplayed? Will it become a box that has to be checked so we can move on to the "real" curriculum? I hope not, but I think we ought to grapple with those questions and mitigate them as best as possible.

After all, this stuff is hard.