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Engaging Every Student

August 24, 2020

Cultivating Culturally Responsive Ideals in Classrooms

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An illustration of a teacher with a group of diverse students

This week’s guest blog post was written by Victoria Thompson. Victoria is a STEM Integration Transformation Coach. She moved to the Seattle, WA area in 2018 with her wife Kourtney, where she focuses on K-12 STEM instruction with research on decolonizing mathematics curriculum for teachers and learners, creating inclusive math environments, and using technology to bridge equity gaps in math education.  

When speaking with fellow educators regarding building a culturally responsive classroom community, I often get the question: “Victoria, how do you do it?!” I begin by stating what I believe to be the truth: a culturally responsive community is created and cultivated, not forced. You cannot strongarm and police your way into building community with your classrooms. If community happens to come organically (which does happen at times), that is wonderful! But for the vast majority of us, we need to make conscious choices to create and cultivate community in our classrooms.

It has always been paramount for us to create classrooms that are culturally responsive, but the unfortunate truth is that many of us are just beginning in this journey to unpack bias and look at our curriculum and instructional practices through an anti-racist lens. Now more than ever, we need to intentionally create classroom environments that promote and practice equity, anti-racist pedagogy, and safe spaces for our students to grow and flourish. Two ways that you can do this in your classroom are by having meaningful conversations and by creating shared classroom ideals.

What is a meaningful conversation?

A meaningful conversation is a discussion that you facilitate with your students that intentionally brings in topics of social justice, race, and identity. They typically begin with an opening question that drives the conversation. This opening question should be authentic, relevant, and grounded in current topics, yet broad enough to spark many facets of discussion. If you employ this practice, it is paramount that you hold these conversations all throughout the year—these topics should always be at the forefront of people’s minds!—but especially within the first month of school, where an extra emphasis is often placed on building classroom community and establishing relationships. Examples of meaningful conversation topics can be:

  • How can we facilitate conversations about race in a math classroom?
  • How can we be our most authentic selves at school--either face-to-face or virtually?
  • Are we responsible for the energy that we bring into this space?
  • How do we address discrimination of race and gender in social studies textbooks?
  • What kind of scholars do we want to be?
  • How can we look at the year through an anti-racist lens, and how can we continue doing this once the year is over?

It is often misunderstood that meaningful conversations need to happen independently of academic content. These are topics that can be easily woven into content and instruction. For example, the question “How can we facilitate conversations about race in a math classroom?” brings up a plethora of opportunities to speak about, and bring in, statistics regarding race and police brutality, statistics and data regarding race and discriminations such as workplace and housing, guest speakers (either virtually with wonderful platforms like Skype in The Classroom or face to face) of mathematicians of color to speak on their experiences in the field, and published articles about racial bias in mathematics curriculum. The possibilities are endless.

Quote that reads: "It is often misunderstood that meaningful conversations need to happen independently of academic content. These are topics that can be easily woven into content and instruction."

Similar to the concept of courageous conversations, students and teachers are encouraged to express their views openly and truthfully instead of defensively in a meaningful conversation. The most important considerations are to lead with empathy and also to assume positive intent. Leading with empathy means to be able to understand the needs and feelings of others. To assume positive intent, that means to never assume ill of another person--that what they are saying does not come from a place of malice, but rather from a place of emotion. These practices decrease the possibility that your meaningful conversation goes awry.

What are shared classroom ideals?

Meaningful conversations often lead to another portion of a sound classroom community: shared ideals, which are similar to classroom norms but with a twist—ideals are created by the classroom community as a whole instead of by the teacher, and ideals are not made after one discussion but rather a series of discussions. Ideals are fluid and are not “set in stone;” they can change. An example of this might be, after multiple conversations with your classes, they want a stretch break embedded halfway through class. Then, as a class, you all resolve to decide on a shared time for a stretch break and agree on the parameters for that stretch break (I know that’s not necessarily a culturally responsive topic, but it is a common ideal that I come across!). When I taught in the classroom (I am a STEM Coach now), I really disliked using the word “norms” or the phrase “class rules.” Rules and norms are often established by people in a position of power and are not agreed on as a community; people who enter a space of rules and norms are made to agree without a shared conversation. In the classroom, there is automatically a power imbalance between that of a student and that of a teacher, and rules/norms reinforce that narrative. With shared ideals, the power imbalance is leveled a bit and gives students agency to really be part of your classroom community.

So, how can meaningful conversations and shared ideals build community? Let’s begin by remembering that although we are the ones facilitating these activities, these practices are meant to decenter ourselves and recenter on what’s most important: the education and growth of our students. Remember that we have a unique opportunity to enact positive change. We cannot go back to “normal;” we need to disrupt “normal” and make it equitable by any and all means necessary. This means keeping in mind language and policies that may be harmful to students: some create separateness, and others promote and practice authentic togetherness. In order to promote and practice that, students need to actively be involved in the process.

Pull out quote reads: "...Although we are the ones facilitating these activities, these are practices meant to decenter ourselves and recenter on what's most important: the education and growth of our students. Remember to enact positive change."

Additionally, there are tools that can hopefully help ease some of the burden of finding technology that can support you and your students during this time. We can really use this as an opportunity to get creative with technology in the best way possible. Pear Deck has so many great templates for critical thinking and social-emotional learning that not only help with leading meaningful conversations, but encourage sustained inquiry and class community. For an example of a Pear Deck that I’ve created regarding a meaningful conversation and shared ideals, check this out (for the first in a mini-series I did on gender and racial bias and mathematics) and this (for the follow-up on having a meaningful conversation on this topic).

In the face of adversity over these next few months, try to remember the reasons for optimism – there is much work to be done, but the work will make our students, our classrooms, and our communities stronger in the long run. Look after your students and look after yourself – especially your health, both physical and mental. And, I encourage you to use learnings from this year to leave every situation better than it was when you arrived.

Illustration by Kate Moore

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Pear Deck Team

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Pear Deck

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