As is obvious from the history and undeniable evidence presented in the Brown Lecture by Teresa McCarty, that culturally responsive pedagogy is extremely successful in bringing about positive change, not only in education as a whole, but in providing students, their families, and communities, a voice…not only through the application of their first language, but through social action, activism, and applied cultural traditions and life-ways, within the framework of American Education. In reading from The Cultural Responsive Teaching website, I found this quote foremost on my mind:
“Parents are the child’s first teacher and are critically important partners to students and teachers. To help parents become aware of how they can be effective partners in the education process, teachers should engage in dialogue with parents as early as possible about parents’ hopes and aspirations for their child, their sense of what the child needs, and suggestions about ways teachers can help. Teachers explain their own limitations and invite parents to participate in their child’s education in specific ways” (The Education Alliance, Brown University ).
It has become increasingly important that we include parents in the conversation about what is best for their children’s education. In my experience, most parents expect the best, but may have come to the conclusion that it is outside of their power to say anything, or to try to change “the status-quo”. When I ask them what they wish to see in their child’s English Language support program, I get very little response, or the exchanges go something like: “I want my child to speak English to do well in school”, or “I don’t want them to get held back, I want them to be as successful as their (mainstream) classmates”. They are terrified that their child will be singled out for failure, or looked at as “less than” (a deficit condition) because they are thought to need “special” support in English. And although it is my job to teach them English, I can understand their point of view.
What they don’t seem to get is that, although I am not fluent in all the students’ first languages, I intend that they stay “bi-literate”…that is to say, as they are learning English, I wish their parents to still instill in them a love and learning of their first language, alongside their second language acquisition, English. I make this very clear at the outset. But I feel as if they do not believe me, or are just agreeing to whatever I tell them, because one does not “argue with the teacher”.
In most of these exchanges, I’ve tried to share the students’ data, their strengths, as well as their misconceptions and areas needing intervention, with a sensitivity to their cultures and individual needs. But it has become clear to me that, sometimes, the parents do not feel they need to be more involved, particularly if they do not themselves speak much English. And this may be the reason: I send home communications in their home language, translated by district Language Acquisition specialists. Up until fairly recently, when I was unable to get district help with this, I would rely on online transcription (Google Translate, Babelfish, etc.). It was some time before I found out that this was a bad idea.
But it was not a parent who told me. In one case, an Arabic-speaking student of mine said (when I queried him about whether his Dad understood a letter I sent home in Arabic), “My Dad said it was unreadable. It was not the right dialect, and was in the wrong direction (left to right)”. From that time on, I have tried hard to seek out correct translations, or even ask district interpreters to call their homes. But this has been hit and miss, because there is such a shortage of reliable interpreters, even with our Meaningful Access mandates. I feel it is difficult for parents to take anything we (teachers and representatives of the district) say seriously, when we can’t even get through to them in their preferred or home languages.
This also goes for state testing and adopted curriculum concerns. Parents I have met do not seem to question the assessment process, or understand it fully. We, as teachers, currently have little if any say in what is to be found in the Common Core. We can adapt material to the curriculum, yes…up to a point. I feel very fortunate that my curriculum, as an ELD specialist, allows for more cultural awareness and appreciation, but it is still a bit dated. So I am constantly adapting and updating it with resources I find: Online videos of traditional dancing, and music in other languages; artwork and creation/folk stories (The Big Myth comes to mind, a really cool resource); Realia that I find, or that the students bring from home, that exemplifies an aspect of their cultural identity; sharing my own ancestry and traditions (anecdotal information), as they relate to their own; Collecting language phrases for a “first language” word wall. These are just some of the things I have implemented. I am fortunate to be able to do this, because I know from when I was a mainstream classroom teacher, how difficult it was to get the administration or grade-level colleagues on board with anything outside of the regular curriculum offerings.
I have not forgotten either what I have learned about the “Multiple Intelligences“. When I was studying for my Bachelors in Elementary Ed, I did my thesis paper on the Multiple intelligences theory and the theory of “Indigo Children” (a comparative study). Neither of these theories are subscribed to in the mainstream educational environments I have worked in over the years, with MI being only barely touched upon, when I was taking Structured English Immersion courses for my endorsement. But to this day, I feel that the different ways in which students learn is still relevant, now more than ever, and particularly among bi-cultural students. All students learn differently, and have strengths in different “intelligences” (ie: Artistic, spatial, linguistic, to name a few)… that is patently obvious. This is what “differentiation” in instruction is supposed to address. But I’ve noticed, in most classrooms, that “differentiation” mainly occurs in the form of more varied “activities”, more tasks. Applying this directly to individual student learning styles is largely an after-thought. So, I believe by sharing what I have seen work well with students from any culture, especially when it speaks to their personal experience and interests, is worth sharing. Some teachers I have worked with have been very receptive to this…but largely, most keep to the way they’ve “always done things”. This comment from Ms. McCarty’s lecture stands out in my mind:
“Educators and parents in these schools understand that sameness, uniformity of approach does not equate with fairness. So, for example, having equal access to a Common Core, whose Common Core, whose languages, knowledge and voices are included and which notches, languages and community futures are placed at risk? These education projects take seriously the promise that any child may be expected to succeed, understanding that not every child succeeds through the same experiences or measures, and that definitions of success themselves are race, class, and power linked. If we are to fulfill the promise of Brown, we must fight for policies whereby these types of self-determined education practices are not mere examples” (McCarty, 2015).
We need a major paradigm shift in our approach to teaching all students, but particularly bi-cultural students. Some of them do not even realize what they are missing, culturally. When I share something of their culture, I am sometimes surprised that they did not already know something about it. Often, they say that it is not relevant to them. When I ask them why, they say it is something from their parents’ or grandparents’ experience, and not their own. As sad as that is, I must then try to integrate this knowledge of their ancestors’ past cultural identity, with their current cultural identity, because it’s all relevant. This includes the real history of the United States, and their place in it. Many of my students of Spanish-speaking cultures have family from Mexico. The majority do not even realize that they are the result of hundreds of years of racial blending; that they may be of Indigenous and Spanish decent. The fact that their parents do not always share this gives me pause, and I wonder if it is my place to tell them of this possibility. But I feel that they need to question where they came from, so they can more fully develop their identity. I do not want them to go on thinking they are one thing, what society tells them. They should have access to as much information as they can get. I do this at great risk, sometimes. But so far, it has only helped them, and myself, to build a trusting, meaningful teacher-student relationship. And that is a start.