When I meet my students, they can see right away that I am a “white” teacher, and I can see that they are “black” and “brown” students. These are the first things we witness about one another. I wonder what the students assume about me because of my skin color, and I’m sure they wonder what I assume about them. This same wondering applies to meeting my students’ families the first time or even calling them on the phone. I wonder if they hear the “whiteness” in the cadence of my voice.
I also wonder about my students’ cultural identities, keeping in mind how deeply language shapes culture. I began working in Boston Public Schools in 2005, just three years after Massachusetts voters dismantled bilingual education in public schools in favor of English-only education. In the school where I currently work, the classrooms are filled with students who speak Spanish as their first language, their heart language. Yet, the classrooms are largely void of representations of the Spanish language and cultural symbols of the Caribbean and Central America. The curriculum pays little attention to history period, much less to the history and achievements of the indigenous peoples of those regions. So, I often wonder about how students and their families can trust me when their language and culture are rejected the moment they walk through the front door of the school.
After dedicating an intense and rewarding decade to cultural exploration, travel, Spanish as a Second Language learning, and critical interrogation of my whiteness, I still find myself eager to talk “culture” anytime. After meeting YES! co-directors Benjie Howard and Wade Colwell-Sandoval and pouring over their Youth Equity Stewardship Series Workbook at the March 2016 Teaching and Learning Conference in Washington, D.C., I found myself talking “culture” with them for about six hours. We agreed to continue the conversation in Addison, Illinois, where I had the opportunity to witness their work with student leaders in DuPage High School District 88. Viewing and experiencing the curricula of the Youth Equity Stewardship series has allowed me to deepen and refine my practices of cultural affirmation and community building.
Affirming Our Individual Journeys in the Classroom
I really love my family and friends because
they’re always there for me.
I like myself because I am who I am:
funny, fun, and sometimes annoying.
I like my curly hair; It looks like water waves.
I am from Puerto Rico, the beautiful island.
I love music – it makes me happy.
Ilyanis wrote this poem during her first weeks in my ESL class last school year. Each time I begin to work with a new group of students, we begin with identity—what each student brings to the classroom. This has taken different forms over the course of my career—essays and collage, identity sculptures with accompanying artist biographies, “Where I’m From” poems—but the goal remains the same: to provide the students with the opportunity to present themselves to the community through writing and art. I also create an identity piece myself to share with the students, providing them the opportunity to know me beyond my outward identity. These pieces are shared during a classroom celebration during the first weeks of school.
YES! presents a fresh variation on the “Where I’m From” poems in the form of “In My One Beat” poetry. In writing the “In My One Beat” poem, students are first guided to visualize the beat of a hummingbird’s wing—a powerful movement that occurs in a short yet precious instance. After viewing a sample poem, students are encouraged to write an “In My One Beat” poem to use sensory details to share their cultures, passions, and origins.
A high school junior in Addison was eager to share his poem with me, even allowing me to photograph his workbook so I could recall the poem when reflecting back on our meeting. I was honored to be allowed to know this young man through his poetry, and I wonder what will how his thirst for understanding and deep empathy will continue his journey into adulthood.
In my one beat, I’m everything and nothing –
Learning everything, but knowing nothing.
From a culture so diverse, it doesn’t affect anything.
In my one beat, I’m alive with stress,
But what am I worrying about?
In my one beat, my grades are perfect.
In my one beat, my family’s whole
From the open air of the stage,
From the open air of my backyard,
Filled with emotions that could only be shallow.
In my one beat, I’m white, male, straight.
In my one beat, I’ve got no prejudice,
Only filled with what makes sense,
But how can I know what hardship is?
In my one beat,
I’m not oppressed or depressed,
But only stressed.
In my one beat, I’m living with life,
But that’s not enough.
Building a Classroom Culture
In addition to affirming and celebrating students’ individual cultures in the classroom, it is essential that teachers deliberately and strategically work to build a classroom culture that engages students and fosters the development of their knowledge and skills while setting high expectations for their academic achievement. The engagement is an essential first step toward academic achievement. I have achieved this fairly well through providing students with a safe classroom environment with clear routines, rules, and grading policies, as well as curriculum grounded in culturally relevant readings and current events.
While this has worked so far, a goal of mine for the upcoming school year is to provide students with more ownership of the classroom culture. It feels like too big of a risk to have my middle school students design their own rules and consequences. However, in the upcoming school year, I would like to try facilitating the creation of Community Agreements based on two broad categories adapted from YES!—Participate Fully and Seek to Understand. In past years, when I’ve ask students how they should participate in the classroom, they have often said they should be quiet. That is the opposite of what I want my ESL students to do because it is essential that they develop proficient listening and speaking skills. It will be important to unpack what “Participate Fully” means in relation to language development, particularly with regards to oral language. As for “Seek to Understand,” developing a set of agreements at the beginning of the year will support my students in persevering through difficult tasks rather than relying on the learned helplessness that many of them have learned as long-term ELLs.
Powers of Stewardship
In From Rage to Hope: Strategies for Reclaiming Black & Hispanic Students, educator Crystal Kuykendall encourages educators to replace negative labels with positive descriptors when describing students in order to develop them into a positive adult. For example, an “overtalkative” student becomes an expressive and loquacious young man, or a “sassy and hostile” girl is rather a quick-witted young lady who often feels misunderstood.
YES! takes this idea a step further by encouraging students to identify the powerful characteristics they already possess and identifying those that which they aspire in relation to their membership in a classroom culture. Their workbook contains an alphabetic list of power traits, and I found it energizing and exciting to try this exercise out for myself. I turned my work into a short name poem.
I am an Experienced, Responsible, and Persistent educator who Plans Carefully and Takes Risks. I Aspire to be more Compassionate and Observant.
I imagine this exercise taking place in my classroom at the beginning of the year and having the students actually post their positive traits and aspirations on the classroom walls, framed by their names. As a teacher, this will serve as a visual reminder for myself of a student’s positive traits when I am faced with a challenging moment. Additionally, it provides the student with a point of reflection on how he’s staying to true to himself or working towards his aspirations.
From Classmates to Allies
Being alone is my personal comfort zone—I am intrinsically drawn to activities that involve the comfort of my own self: writing, solo piano, solitary walks while wearing headphones and moving to the beat. At the beginning of my career, I was the teacher who isolated myself in my classroom, working hard and working alone, and it went well. But, when I acknowledged how hard I needed to fight back against the oppression my students faced, I realized I absolutely needed allies. I had to work hard on myself to have the courage and facility to find out who shared my beliefs and who was willing to talk back alongside me to challenge monolingual and Eurocentric education. The allyship I have found is a source of strength that holds me up during the times when it is hard to believe in myself.
I hope the same for my students, and I aim for my classroom to become a space in which my students develop into allies who push encourage one another, especially through difficult times. I keep in touch with many of my former students through Facebook, and it warms my heart to see that many of my middle schoolers cheer one another’s achievements on through high school and beyond. Building a classroom culture based on respect for individual identity is an essential piece of ensuring that students have the support they need to persevere in spite of obstacles.