English Learner Portal welcomes our guest blogger and new online course developer, Sarah Said. Sarah is currently a Director of English Learning in the suburbs of Chicago. She has been an advocate, writer, speaker, and constant learner about English learners for over a decade. Sarah has firm beliefs that all students have the potential to be successful. In July of 2018, Sarah will join the Mawi Learning team as the Director of English Learner Impact where she will have an impact on the education of students worldwide. Sarah’s new online course on cultural responsive teaching and learning will be available through English Learner Portal’s online classroom in September 2018!
Engage your School Community and Keep it Warm with Engaging All Cultures: Cultural Responsiveness in the Classroom and the School Community
I grew up in what is proudly today one of the largest Arab and Muslim communities in North America. In my youth, the Bridgeview area was in its prime and growing to become what is now called today “Little Palestine” on Google Maps. We were one of the first groups of families to move into the community thirty years ago. Still today, the community is thriving as the epicenter for the Arab and Muslim communities in the Chicagoland area. As a child in the early nineties, my teachers were just beginning to learn about our culture. When my Grandmother came for Grandparent’s day to eat lunch with me, teachers asked why she covered her hair. In grade school, I quickly learned to remind teachers not to order me sausage pizza and give them an explanation of why I don’t eat pork products. I was well versed in telling adults who were not of the Muslim faith that I couldn’t have jello or marshmallows if I did not know what was in them.
Now, some schools across America have peanut free tables in the lunchroom. My school cafeteria had a different type of table one month out of the year. From second grade on up, I began to practice fasting during the month of Ramadan. To fast during the month of Ramadan means to not have any food or drink from sunup to sundown. At this young of an age, I didn’t practice it to its full extent. Sometimes I fasted half days, other times I completed whole days. The “fasting table” that I shared with my Muslim peers was placed smack dab in the middle of the cafeteria, so the cafeteria ladies could keep an eye on those “fasting Arab kids”. Yes.. I said it.. the fasting kids (who were not eating lunch) sat in the middle of the cafeteria. As we sat, we tried to entertain ourselves with by playing UNO or drawing pictures. It was not easy for a group of kids who chose to fast because they wanted to be a part of their families’ traditions to continue to maintain their fast while watching their peers drink juice boxes, eat sandwiches, and trade bags of chips. Oh how I wanted a Lunchable when I got home and it was sundown! I’ll admit it, there were times where I would not continue to fast because I would want to eat with my friends and enjoy a Snackpack and a bag of Doritos that my mom had packed in case I got hungry and couldn’t handle fasting.
Was there a bad intention here? Not at all, these were great people who did have it in their hearts to care about kids. They thought they were doing the right thing for us, by putting us on our own table. We did need to be supervised after all. However, they really needed more education on appropriately accommodating students culturally. This would have required them to first learn about how culture and a child’s brain activity go hand in hand. They also needed education on the different cultures in the building and their traditions. After gathering all the information, their school leaders really needed a plan on serving the specific population. Yes, thirty years later districts in the Bridgeview area now have plans to accommodate students during the Ramadan holidays. After thirty years of dialogue between our parents’ generation and school officials and then our generation later, districts now have better plans for our children during the Ramadan holiday. There needed to be a bridge built between the community and the schools in order for staff to develop an understanding of our needs. School leaders now see the asset our community is to their school climate.
How Do Culture and a Child’s Brain Activity Go Hand in Hand?
The human brain has the ability to stretch and grow. It adjusts over the time given the environment provided for growth and the circumstances. With that said, it is time to think about the environment that we provide in our classrooms. Some of the questions that we need to ask ourselves are: 1) Am I creating an environment that is safe that makes children feel physically and emotionally safe? 2) Am I creating an environment where children are confident in sharing who they are?
When answering these questions, it is important to think about the science behind them. “The brain’s two prime directives are to stay safe and be happy.” (Hammond 2015) With that said, learning is difficult when a child is preoccupied about their safety. Yes, physically safety is key. But emotionally safety, can also really impact a child’s learning. I attended a school where teachers really did their best to make me feel secure about who I was. With this, I was able to focus on learning because I didn’t feel that my identity put me in jeopardy.
As a teacher and administrator working with English Learners, I have spent years searching for the right strategies to assure my students felt safe in my classroom. As a teacher, I worked mostly with upper grades. I also believed in starting the period off by having students volunteer to share something about their day, something exciting their anticipating, or just something they like. When students are encouraged to share and learn about each other, it really does support a strong classroom climate for all student populations. Our English Learners who may not want to share in the beginning, will eventually share later.
Also, having students create projects related to content that share information about their identity is key in the classroom. Yes, we do our “star student” and “all about me” projects at the beginning of the year, but we need more depth in how we have our students really express themselves. Lots of teachers are trying something new by having students create “vision boards”. Vision boards not only teach teachers about a student’s background, they also teach teachers about students’ goals. Students can use the vision board later to refer to their own goals. A vision board can take form in any way. It just has to be goal oriented.
This vision board was made on a software called Canva. As you can see, the board is a visual of the student’s future goals and ambitions. This could support the child feeling validated in the environment by their teacher. Continuing to integrate these types of projects into the curriculum could foster a classroom climate that builds student confidence.
In addition to creating projects that truly allow students to express themselves, knowing the type of literature or content that really appeals to the group of students you have is key. If a teacher is teaching English Language Arts, having a diverse selection of titles related to students and their culture is vital. Students need to see role models that look them in order to build their confidence levels in the classroom and outside of the classroom.
When these experiences are being provided in the classroom, it gives the child a pleasant memory of their school experience. Valuing that child goes a long way for a lifetime of confidence in who they are. Going back to brain science, the schema that is built for a child of experiences in the classroom will help reduce anxiety towards future classroom experiences. It will also help the child overcome adversity when they experience it because a teacher helped build a foundation of confidence.
Educating Staff on the Different Cultures in the Building
Teachers and staff need education about the communities they work with. This is not something that can be done in a one time professional development. Yes, professional development on the different cultures in a school community is helpful. Actually, there is now a mandate in Illinois and other states that requires school districts to train staff on understanding the different populations in their district. In addition to professional development that is ongoing, staff really need to engage with the community. It cannot be a one time deal. Some districts hold community dialogues where community members come by to have conversations with school teams about their needs. Again, this is not a just one time event. This needs to be constant.
There are some districts that have teachers visit local festivals and community centers. There teachers learn first hand about the community their students reside in. It’s important for school officials, teachers and staff to really explore the community- shops, places of worship, and attractions. This gives staff a day in the shoes of the students and families that they support.
The most valuable resources in learning about cultures are students who are willing to talk to teachers about where they come from. When I was student teaching about fifteen years ago, I was placed in a neighborhood that I no background on prior to the assignment. I was placed about an hour north of where I grew up in a community called Humboldt Park. I drove around the neighborhood to learn more about it. One day, during a time where we were working students collaboratively in the classroom, I mentioned to a group of ninth graders where I had been and what I learned. Suddenly, this group became very excited with the fact that I wanted to learn more. They then spent ten minutes telling me all about their community. This is a community in Chicago that has a large Puerto Rican population. It was my first exposure to the Puerto Rican community. My conversations with my students taught me so much about traditions. I continued to engage in them. Years later, I ended up working in a Middle School fifteen minutes away in Albany Park that served a large Hispanic community. The school had a significant Puerto Rican population. My conversations a decade prior to that with students helped me build relationships in my new environment as a language arts teacher then later as a Dean of Instruction. Students felt safe with me because I tried to learn their culture and bring it into the school and classroom.
Have A Plan for Working With The Different Communities In Your School
The best way to begin a plan for culturally responsive classrooms and schools is really to develop a survey for your students and stakeholders on the needs of students and families. From there, you can really look at your data to measure where you are strong and where you are weak in fostering students’ identities.
Here are some questions that you can ask:
- Do you feel that your child is included in school activities? Why? Why not?
- Do you feel that your child’s classroom accommodates your home culture?
- What are some ways that the school can value your home culture more?
- Do you feel confident in participating in classroom discussions and school activities? Why? Why not?
- Do you feel that your classroom values who you are?
- What can the school do to value who you are?
The answers to this survey may surprise you. They will also give you a guide to making your school more engaging towards the cultures that are represented in the population.
Some aspects to think about for planning to be more responsive to students needs are dependent on your population and also budget. Finding teachers that the home language is vital for schools with large English Learner populations. If the school can afford paraprofessionals that speak the languages of the majority of English Learners to support them in general education settings, this is key in making students feel engaged. When this is done, it is important to train paraprofessionals with teachers in the various school initiatives. With paraprofessionals they need to be trained to support students in the classroom for language. They should learn to support student agency and give students a rigorous push when needed rather than only translating for students.
In addition to paraprofessionals, family engagement personnel that speak the home languages are needed for language groups larger populations. They can support parents at IEP meetings and parent conferences. They can also be a resource for school leaders to understand different populations and parents to understand a school environment. They could hold trainings for parents who need more support from the school in the home language.
In developing a plan, leaders need to assure that teachers are also involved in creating it. Teachers know what their students need because they are the ones who encounter them daily. Teachers are on the forefront for communicating with families and realizing their needs. They want to assure that schools are serving the child in the best manner.
All students matter in school environments. It is important for a school to malleable in adjusting to needs of all learners. When developing plans on the wider scale for school and district wide engagement or targeting key classroom practices all students needed to be considered. Think of it this way, your school is a quilt, every piece helps shape its design and the structure of the fabric. Without each shape, the quilt falls apart. Engage your school and keep it warm with engaging all cultures!
Hammond, Zaretta. (2015) Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Thousand Oaks, CA. Corwin, Inc.
For further reading on this topic:
Asgedom, Mawi. Even, Johanna. Empowering English Learners For Classroom Success: 6 Keys to Academic and Social-Emotional Growth. Elmhurst, IL. Mawi Learning, Inc.
Delpit, L. D. (2006). Other people’s children: Cultural conflict in the classroom. New York: New Press.
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