Being a humble servant in the art of teaching has caused me to pause and reflect on my teaching regularly. In a previous post I wrote about how I wanted all my students to succeed, but what was I actually doing to make that happen? I started to learn how to better plan differentiation beyond just grouping students by high, medium and low. The head of school at my first international teaching post told me two important tips: don’t be afraid to be creative and always be humble; it is all about the children. By considering my student’s mother tongue I was able to better connect with each of my students. So again, I reflect on my teaching and take a deeper look on how I support every individual in my class to be successful so that achievement gaps close.
Study The Student
With the desire to support each individual, the logical start is to know who you are trying to support. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings said it short and to the point, “study the student”. Relationships have different levels and the deeper the relationship the more we reveal about ourselves; either willingly or through our behaviors. As teachers, it is our job to develop these relationships with our students and uncover who our students are. It is necessary that we build trusting relationships with our student if we want our students to learn from us (Hattie, 2009). To do this, we must determine their background, culture and learning styles. Over time we can build a complete picture which allows us to constantly improve our planning each time we peel back a layer.
Culturally Relevant Teaching
Culturally relevant teaching uses the “backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of the students to inform the teacher’s lessons and methodology.” (Coffey, 2012)
For me, it was a part of my practice to know my students and understand their background – this is a teaching 101 lesson. Previously, I would look at past scores or anecdotal experiences from other teachers. I may have known that they didn’t like a particular subject or if they had trouble in their class, but this was the extent of the background knowledge I collected. Now I realize that if you want to know about a students background, you cannot exclude their culture and home experiences.
In addition to students having a negative prior experience, it is interesting how Geneva Gay explains in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice how a student’s culture may also cause a negative experience even before they step foot in a classroom. Cultural factors can play a strong role in perpetuating negative views of a class or education/school in general by students. Regardless of the cause, we need to look no further than Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to know that it has to be addressed if we want our students to be in a mental state that is open and receptive to learning.
The diagnosis is the part that requires our expertise as effective teachers.
The Art of Storytelling
I love hearing stories. Having students share stories will help immerse you in their world. To view an important event from their perspective. It is a wonderful way for everyone in a class to make connections with each other. I see myself as a lifelong learner, and there is no better way for a teacher to learn from their students than to hear from their students. A great resource that I share with teachers and students to help explain the power of storytelling is through StoryCorps. I especially enjoy their animated audio stories. It helps to capture the emotion of a personal event that was important to an individual. I have seen growth in empathy and the art of story-telling by sharing these videos.
In 2008 the Ministry of Education (MOE) in Thailand made it mandatory that all international teachers must take and pass the Thai Culture and Language Test in order be issued a work permit to teach in Thailand. This was a difficult rule to enforce and ultimately failed, but the reasoning behind it had some very good intentions. Although I was able to easily pass it and thought it was a good move by the MOE, other international teachers that I worked with did not feel the same. Their general feeling, which at the time I agreed with, was why should teachers be required to take another test if they are already certified and in Thailand to teach in English at an international school. I can now see that the move would have helped teachers in Thailand gain a deeper understanding of their students if the test was maintained and improved.
The best way for me to learn about a place is being immersed in its culture. You can learn a lot from books, but some things are only possible by experiencing it. It provides a window into their world. To me, becoming a member of an ethnic group means being involved and going through the window. Going beyond just being an external observer and learning the knowledge of a culture. When you become actively involved you are able to take some of that culture as well. You become emotionally invested. With this connection, you can actively pursue the social justice for all members of your classroom.
I will never fully be a member or even fully understand a culture completely, nor do I feel I have to. At the end of the day, we are all humans and children of God. We all bleed, cry, and love. Our different stories make for a colorful collection of members in the house of God. Being a member or not, should not prevent us from trying to connect with each other. If we only learned from those who mirrored ourselves, we would lose so much potential. The advancements in society are due to the collaboration of humans that came from different backgrounds.
When considering our students, skin color may seem like an obvious choice of determining a student’s background. However, Dr. Geneva Gay made the important point in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice that educators should not group ethnic groups based solely on their skin color. Instead, we should take the data about how they possess different learning styles and use this information to support students better. This is a way to be preemptive in identifying problems and create effective differentiations during planning.
Upon reflection, this made more sense to me. It allows us to dismiss preconceived notions, or what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie coins in her powerful TED Talk speech as a “single stories”. Instead, we must go deeper than the surface of the skin and past our personal bias or superficial assumptions. This also applies to what students see in themselves. What is worse than someone believing a single story about another person, is a person believing a single story about themselves. In Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, Gay also shows the importance of why teachers are responsible for creating an environment that is conducive to this happening. We are the “cultural organizers, cultural mediators, and orchestrators of social contexts for learning.”
Poverty is a perpetual cycle that is difficult to escape from, especially children born into generational poverty. Low-income families do not only lack money and resources, they also lack the cognitive skills to become motivated to learn. Their brains begin to adapt to their condition. To help break the cycles it is important that educators understand the effects of poverty on the brain and then make the necessary changes in their educational practices to support these students (Jensen, 2008).
In addition to poverty being a demoralizing situation, it also causes neurobiological changes that are detrimental to their success. According to Nobel in Neurocognitive Correlates Of Socioeconomic Status In Kindergarten Children, the areas of the brain affected by poverty or the regions responsible for working memory, impulse regulation, visuospatial, language, and cognitive conflict. This is a result of exposure to toxins, chronic stress, chronic exposure to substandard cognitive skills, and/or impaired emotional-social relationships.
Types of Poverty
Poverty looks different for each person, culture or location. Eric Jensen categorized different types of poverty in his book Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Below is the breakdown of different types of poverty to assist with having a better understanding its complex nature.
Situational poverty is generally caused by a sudden crisis or loss and is often temporary. Events causing situational poverty include environmental disasters, divorce, or severe health problems.
Generational poverty occurs in families where at least two generations have been born into poverty. Families living in this type of poverty are not equipped with the tools to move out of their situations.
Absolute poverty involves a scarcity of such necessities as shelter, running water, and food. Families who live in absolute poverty tend to focus on day-to-day survival.
Relative poverty refers to the economic status of a family whose income is insufficient to meet its society’s average standard of living.
Urban poverty occurs in metropolitan areas with populations of at least 50,000 people. The urban poor deal with a complex aggregate of chronic and acute stressors which includes crowding, violence, and noise. These stressors are dependent on often-inadequate large-city services.
Rural poverty occurs in nonmetropolitan areas with populations below 50,000. In rural areas, there are more single-guardian households, and families often have less access to services, support for disabilities, and quality education opportunities. Programs to encourage the transition from welfare to work are problematic in remote rural areas, where job opportunities are few. The rural poverty rate is growing and has exceeded the urban rate every year since data collection began in the 1960s. The difference between the two poverty rates has averaged about 5 percent for the last 30 years, with urban rates near 10–15 percent and rural rates near 15–20 percent.
In all honesty, I felt that those in America who are poor are so because, at least in part, due to a lack of motivation and low ambition to work hard. I never even consider the different types of classifications of poverty. I have come to learn that the brains of poor children are different because our neurons are designed by nature to reflect our environment and not to automatically rise above it. Poverty also creates mindstates that can manifest as aggressive behavior or lack motivation when exposed to stressful conditions. There is no shame in admitting my ignorance, as long as I take the knowledge and put it into action to better support these students and families.
Poverty for me looks a lot different than poverty in America. What I knew about poverty was the observations of extremely poor and oppressed people. I never considered Americans to be “poor” by my definition of the word. That definition was defined by my visits to third-world countries and my early teaching. My first teaching job, I would visit rural parts of Thailand to teach English. Makeshift homes did not have running water, electricity, or much in the way of insulation from insects except an old mosquito net when they slept. Children piled into the back of pickups as they were collected from across the hillsides before the sun was up to travel to school. The school had no air conditioning and there was a single fan pointed at the teacher. Although education is mandatory, many parents in rural areas would pull their sons out as soon as they finished primary school to help the family. Students wanted to go school. Education was in many ways seen as a luxury because the alternative was to tend the farm or perform labor-intensive work to help their parents make money so the family could eat.
Poverty looks different. The extremeness of poverty helps us to classify it, and not serve as a means to dismiss it. This what I previously did when considering poverty in America.
An unfortunate statistic that the Pew Research shared from a UNICEF Research in 2012, showed that despite having the largest national economy, 23.1% American kids live in poverty. This is much higher than that of other advanced countries. Dig deeper and we find that of those in poverty blacks and Hispanic children have a higher rate of 36% and 31% respectively.
Something is not right and the closing of the achievement gap must be put at a priority if we want the children to escape this cycle.
So the important questions we ask are can those from poverty succeed if their brain has been changed. The answer is a definite yes. Positive experiences can change their brains for the better. Dr. Michael Dyume asked and answered this question in his publication, How Can We Boost IQs Of “Dull Children”?, He showed that even students with lower IQ could catch up to their peers if provided the right environment and experiences.
With the knowledge that change is possible, what can we as educators do to make this common in our teaching practice? The first is ensuring the school environment is supportive. They should be work in a collaborative manner. To treat a problem you have to first identify it. Having accurate data about individuals, not groups allows for targets assistance to support achievement of standards. Change does not have to occur over-night, but it is important that immediate action is taken in addition to building a longer-term plan for change.
Finally, the simple act of creating hope helps to bring about change. Create hope by providing examples and role models that they want to emulate. Changing the mindset to optimism. This cannot be something that happens once or even occasionally. It needs to become apart of the daily curriculum. It must permeate the relationships and community so that all stakeholders are involved.
I know the importance of differentiation and the results it has on the success of my students. Providing the content in varied formats that is delivered in a way that is meaningful for them helps me to achieve my mission as a teacher. During my Master’s’ courses I now understand the importance of culturally responsive teaching has on creating that differentiated instruction. I enjoy content that I can connect with, and my students are no different.
A story from another teacher in Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice conveyed a wonderful message about collaboration. She shared a similar viewpoint about life and learning. Just as we find enjoyment in living day to day, we should also in learning. The two should not be seen as different or separate. Learning should be an experience that we find joy in, desire to explore and want to take action in.
Learning will have fun times, struggles, and surprises. Most of all, like life, it should be shared with others.
By building genuine relationships with my students I will uncover their culture and background. This deeper connection allows us to create a learning environment that will all students to succeed. It will then become a place where students feel safe and free to express themselves. They will want to share their ideas and hear the ideas of others. My classroom feels open already since collaboration is a 21st-century skill that I actively discuss with my students. However, with the additional component of culture, I believe that my classroom will be a richer experience for my students and myself.
The building of hope will come from many avenues, but since teachers are the most important factor in a students success in school (Rand, 2013), it is vital that it also comes from them as well. The teacher wears multiple hats and one of those hats is being the coach. The person who will motivate our students towards their victory. No teacher enjoys the feeling of dragging a reluctant student (students do not like the feeling either). The motivation must come from within. This is known as self-efficacy. Building self-efficacy is different for each culture and student. Their culture and background will play a role in determining their initial outlook on education. The importance of building student-efficacy is presented Marzano’s research about the self-system. His findings of instructional strategies having the ability to impact the self-system to produce gains as much as 31% (Marazno, 1998).
Building self-esteem also means building resilience and determination. Failure is an experience everyone will share. However, from that failure arises success. Success naturally stems from failure and growth through reflection. This is such an important skill, that in my opinion, does not receive enough attention. When they fail, they can have to learn to self-correct and reflect so that they can push on. Students should be encouraged to take risks that go beyond what they view is possible. Many times students see failure as a bad thing or a negative connotation and the severity of failing is different for each culture. A failure that is coupled with determination is a characteristic that should be applauded. Picking yourself up after failing and pushing ahead is one of the most difficult things to do, but it can also be one the most rewarding feeling once we do succeed.
Building the self is the action of building lifelong learners. To begin this process, students must realize the importance of education and know that that it will make a positive difference in their life. Seeing students for only one period each week requires me to collaborate with our team of teachers in a committed effort. Ideally, it should also come from the home and community as well. However, I understand this is not always possible. Fortunately for me and my students, there is a high priority from parents to instill the importance of education into their students. An argument could be made that maybe they are a little too focused, but I will gladly take too much focus over not enough focus from parents any day. If parents are not involved, then it is important that the school find ways to help parents become involved. Educate parents as well as also providing them with resources to extend learning at home.
A student’s perceived self-efficacy is vital in the self-system. They must truly believe in themselves and know that are capable of greatness. Self-efficacy will have an effect on how a student feels, think, and behave. Scaffolding lessons to allow structured achievement makes this journey for a student manageable with progress viewable. They must understand what success looks like through clear instructions and examples. As we scaffold a learning journey, we must challenge, motivate, and encourage students to stretch beyond into what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development. Through this support, students will have a history of prior success which motivates them to continue on in the future.
Connecting with the community and finding role models that students are able to connect with I believe is a powerful method of building resilience in students to succeed. Teachers are an important role model, but when students hear the same message from someone from a similar background it carries more weight. When students are able to relate to individuals or groups, they are able to see that they too could be successful. Teachers should facilitate these experiences to occur regularly.
These role-models provide an example of the success that the students can emulate or at least begin to see as possible in themselves. They can believe they can also achieve it and what they do now in school will help them to accomplish it. In addition to being an example, they will be able to answer questions that they have which is unique to their background. Hearing how they had to overcome hurdles, barriers and problems are motivating messages.
Role models allow students to make real-world connections to their learning. It is great to make grandiose worldview connections that we find in our curriculum, but it is also important to make connections to the learning domestically or within the community. Students can make a better connection with the success made by those in their community or those that they share a similar culture with. This builds intrinsic motivation. They also become more emotionally involved as the learning is connected to their home.
Finding these individuals or groups may be difficult. A good first step is reaching out to parents. Next looking at the local community and those who work in it. The website Nepris helps to connect schools and businesses together. Searching online through LinkedIn or other social media websites is another good option for finding smaller local companies. Finally, tasking students with the task of searching for these role models is a great project. Many stars, authors, and successful people are very passionate about education. They are willing to connect with students and share their story. Many jump at the opportunity to even show up in person.
Learning should not start and stop based on if a child is in school, and neither should their exposure to success. For students to be successful in every part of their day, they need to learn a set of social and emotional skills. However, many students are at a disadvantage due to their race, culture or social status. In addition, the learning environment may not be supportive of their needs. Diversity is not a handicap, it is actually an advantage to our society.
Sonia Nieto went further to say that diversity and equity was necessary to create an environment that promotes learning. The relationships that students, teachers, and community all have with one another is an important factor in success for all students and creating a more conducive learning environment. To establish these relationships that consider race, culture, background and socio-economic factors; educators and stakeholders must go deeper than superficial relationships. They must identify the students as an individual if they want to help provide meaningful learning, scaffolded with success within an environment where students feel safe and free to collaborate, express themselves, and take risks.
There is no single teaching approach that will engage each and every student in our classroom at once. The building of relationships and creating an inclusive classroom takes time. By developing a strategy to consistently deliver culturally-responsive lessons, educators can help make learning meaningful, which will in turn increase motivation to be successful for all learners in our diverse classroom.
Adichie, Chimamanda. (2009, July) The Dangers Of A Single Story. TED Talk. London. YouTube. Web.
Duyme, M., Dumaret, A.-C., & Tomkiewicz, S. (1999). How Can We Boost IQs Of “Dull Children”?. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 96(15), 8790–8794.
Gay, Geneva. (2000). Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice.
Jensen, E. (2008) The Effects Of Poverty On The Brain. Paper submitted for: Brains R Us: The Science of Educating, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, La Jolla, CA. March 3, 2008
Nieto, Sonia (2008). Diversity, Access, Equity, And Learning: Conditions To Promote Learning And Principles For Practice. In Janette R. Hill, Bob Fecho, Jenny Penney Oliver, & Talmadge C. Guy, (Eds.). The Intersection of Diversity and Learning: Capturing a
Conversation. Based on a two-day conference at the University of Georgia, Athens.
Noble K., Norman F., & Farah M. (2005). Neurocognitive Correlates Of Socioeconomic Status In Kindergarten Children. Developmental science. 8. 74-87. 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2005.00394.x.
Patten, E., & Krogstad, J. M. (2015, July 14). Black Child Poverty Rate Holds Steady, Even As Other Groups See Declines. Retrieved April 01, 2018, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/07/14/black-child-poverty-rate-holds-steady-even-as-other-groups-see-declines/
Rand. (2013). Teachers Matter: Understanding Impact On Student Achievement. Retrieved April 01, 2018 from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/corporate_pubs/2012/RAND_CP693z1-2012-09.pdf.