I really enjoyed the presentations by Tina Pasteris, Paula Savikko and Angie Lunda. The math trail was – somewhat to my surprise, because I’m not a math person – tremendously fun; when we were called back inside, I was sorry I didn’t have time to stay and finish the trail. I liked how varied the challenges were; it meant that each member of our team got a chance to be the one who figured out the problem and took charge of solving it. The hands-on, practical quality of the problems appealed to me; as a child, I always wanted to know how I was going to use the math principles I was learning, and I think the math trail would have made sense to me in a way that moving numbers around on a sheet of paper often didn’t.
The Japanese Knotweed mystery was a great illustration of how to make a lesson place-based and relevant. I particularly liked the idea of having the students present their conclusions to the community. When students learn to see school as a self-contained, walled-off environment, what they’re learning can seem abstract and pointless. This presentation showed me how opening doors between the school and the surrounding community can help give students a sense of purpose in what they’re doing.
In the moss assignment, I ended up playing the role of the clueless student who needs a lot of instructor guidance in order to figure out the assignment. It wasn’t deliberate – I’m just pretty terrible at science. But I was impressed by how subtly Angie guided my group toward an effective design for our experiment. She didn’t tell us we were doing it wrong, and she left the decisions up to us, but she managed to ask a series of questions that allowed us to see the problems with our experiment and fix them. One fun aspect of the moss assignment was that it opened up other avenues of inquiry; we had a interesting discussion in my group about how an effective moss-based diaper would be designed, and the discussion actually continued when our group visited the SLAM, because we found a diaper made of fur in one of the exhibits on the far north. One element of culturally responsive teaching, then, is that it offers students the opportunity to ask questions that go beyond the scope of the in-class assignment.
The visit to the Methodist camp was delightful. The student I interviewed told me all about the camp activities; the smokehouse the students had built, the 300 pounds of black cod and salmon they had smoked there, the seal they had processed, the meals they had prepared and served. But she also told me, with great conviction and pride, about the meaning and purpose of what she was learning. The Elders “don’t want anything to die off,” she explained – not the language, not the traditions, not the songs or the dances – and she is a part of keeping those ways alive. Right now, she can only speak a few words of Tlingit, though she understands a good deal more. But after coming to camp and learning about the importance of the language, she plans to become a fluent speaker. It’s too bad, she said, that they don’t have camps like this one for grown-ups.
I was very impressed by thoroughly she understood the philosophy of the camp, and how clearly she was able to articulate it. Students often have trouble moving from facts to analysis, from the concrete to the abstract. Yet she did it automatically, because the lessons she is learning from the Elders about how to exist in the world are just as central to her education as the lessons about how to build a smokehouse or process a seal.
As an English teacher, I think there is a lot I can do with CRT. For one thing, it is easy enough to find local texts and source material. Students can read Alaskan literature, watch Alaskan movies, listen to Alaskan oral histories. For another, English composition is a subject that can poach from many of the other subjects. English students don’t always have to write about literature; they can also write about language, culture and history, or they can conduct outside research to provide context for the literature they are reading.
There’s another aspect of CRT that I think it’s important for English teachers to consider, and that has to do with why we teach literature in the first place. David asked on the first day whether our stories teach us how to be human. My instinct, as an English teacher, is to say yes – that all stories teach us how to be human, teach us about being human; that this is the purpose of stories. But I think it’s important to remember that different cultures have different ways of reading stories, and that the way we approach a story has to depend in part on where it is coming from and who it is meant for. We can’t use the same approach for all texts, and we can’t assume that as English teachers we are the ultimate authority on how to read a given text. Sometimes a student who has the same cultural background as a story will be better equipped to understand it than we will, and we need to be prepared for that
UPDATE: I enjoyed all the presentations, but I was most struck by Ernestine’s reading. Through the stories of her childhood, she conveyed very clearly how the effects of culturally unresponsive teaching, bigoted teaching, careless teaching, are cumulative. I was particularly struck by the story about the music teacher and the class where the students chose their instruments. I was half expecting, as she told the story, that the teacher would simply pass over her – would assume that she was too poor to afford to play an instrument. The damage the teacher did was much more subtle than that. Part of the story, of course, just has to do with a child’s misconceptions. The child in the story has been educated in an environment filled with images of white, harp-playing angels that function as a symbol of good behavior, and so she chooses the instrument that she believes will win her the teacher’s approval. To her, the teacher’s rejection of her choice says that she’s not good enough, that only white children can play the harp.
Now, it may be that the teacher would have recommended the piano rather than the harp to any child. But because the atmosphere of her class was not welcoming to Ernestine, she made each interaction between herself and Ernestine into a kind of decoding exercise, in which the child tried to find the exact behavior that would finally win her the teacher’s approval. And because the teacher allowed and perhaps fostered a bigoted environment, a suggestion that could otherwise have been innocent became a means to further suppress and marginalize a child.
The reading highlighted to me how important communication is in culturally responsive teaching. It is not enough for a teacher to feel sympathy for all students; it is necessary to convey, actively, that all cultures are equal and accepted. And if we fail to do so, we will be responsible for trauma that we may not even realize is taking place.