Growing up, I did not want to be a teacher. School, especially in middle school, was the last place I ever wanted to be. I grew up in north Minneapolis and as a 7th grader I was the only white female student in my grade. Fights broke out constantly, teachers often cried in class, and it was common for teachers to quit midway through the year. Education was not the focus: school was not a place I associated with learning.
When I got to high school, it was still a very diverse setting but there were other white students. There were advanced classes where education and learning was actually the focus and the classroom was full of students who were there to learn. I thrived in this environment, learning from my teachers and peers who all had a variety of cultural backgrounds that brought in many different perspectives.
For those without my experience, maybe it is best to think about a school lunchroom. The lunchroom in a diverse school is a fascinating place. While in the classroom you will walk in and students of different cultural backgrounds are learning and working together, in most lunchrooms students tend to be pretty segregated. The black students sit with other black students, Hmong students with other Hmong students and white students with white students. There are always a few exceptions, but for the most part this is what a lunchroom looks like in my experience.
Once I became a teacher, and was no longer a student who was part of this segregated-by-choice system, I began asking “why?”. Why do we choose this? Why can’t we create the atmosphere--the one so many college pamphlets show when trying to demonstrate their diversity--where all students are friends who are able to cross the barrier of race to all eat lunch together. Personally, I have always thrived in diverse setting and can see the importance of the different perspectives but have also struggled with the idea that when given the choice we tend to gravitate towards people with similar skin tones and backgrounds when in social setting.
Before coming to John Marshall this year I taught at Fridley High School in Fridley, MN where I was first introduced to Dr. Hollie and his CLRT strategies. It was the first year I was teaching at Fridley, which was very similar to the cultural makeup of John Marshall. I had been teaching for three years when I was introduced to CLRT, and I can honestly say there had not been a college course, a teacher training, or a professional development day that had affected my teacher and classroom culture the way this training did.
Dr. Hollie was about to outline the “why” behind the lunchroom conundrum. He explained why my peers in middle school where not interested in the content nor how my teachers were presenting it. He went through our differences, the different rings of culture, how we communicate with one another, and how much we lose when we do not understand the cultures that those around us have grown up in. As a student in north Minneapolis, I was very aware of other cultures. I was invited to and attended many events, family gatherings, and birthday parties that were very different from my own home culture. Even when writing this, I feel it ridiculous that it took this long to truly understand my educational experience as a student and now as a teacher.
Using CLRT strategies is so important, especially when working with students with other cultural backgrounds than our own. Creating a space where all students feel you understand, at least a small part of their home culture and that you want them to be able to express themselves in this way, builds a bridge that impacts the relationships you have with your classes as well as individual students in your classes. As a student who identifies with white culture yet grew up in a diverse school setting, it would have been really beneficial to have had teachers use CLRT strategies in my classes because other students would not have always had to code switch into the mainstream traditional teaching strategies that have been typically used in the United States over the last 200 years. The students as a whole would have been more engaged and I would have been able to focus on my education--even in middle school.
I have only been teaching in the Rochester Public Schools the last four months and in that time I have talked with teachers in my building who are aware I do quite a bit with CLRT and have said, “I understand why this is important but I just do not feel comfortable, or just do not understand how to even start using some of the strategies.” First, I want to say, I get it. I too was once uncomfortable with the idea of using ‘call and response’ because it felt like it did not fit my personality. However, I would say now that I do not go a class period without using it. Now, I love ‘call and response’. Starting is the hardest part, but once you do you will not go back.
Below, I have outlined a few of the strategies I use on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
Call & Response
This is the easiest strategy to use; yet, I think it can be a really intimidating. I did not feel comfortable with this one right away, so I found a way to engage the class in the process that made it feel more natural. I asked students to help create the ‘call and response’. he first one that one of my classes decided to use was “When I say Holla, you say Back!” It was fun because they came up with it and it was specific for that class.
As I have become more comfortable with ‘call and response’, I started to come up with them on the spot and students come up with them as well. Together, we might have different ones that relate to the unit we are studying, others that students know are more serious, and some others that are more fun. It is a full-class engagement tool to use!
I use ‘silent appointments’ a lot when I am trying to get students to have conversations with people whom they do not tend to gravitate to in the classroom. Students must use eye contact to choose a partner. I tell them they have to make an appointment with someone on the other side of the room. They all look down at the floor and when I say, “One, two, three: look up!” They then have some time to make eye contact with someone. Once they have a partner, they put their hand over their heart. If they are still looking after 20 seconds I tell them to put their hand in the air so they last ones can find each other. It works really well!
This is a strategy I use when I want students to get a lot of different perspectives from their peers. They must answer a prompt or begin a compare contrast assignment task independently (that’s the “1”). Then, they move into a group of three to share and elaborate on ideas (that’s the “3”). After a set amount of time, I finally have them move into a group of six to discuss (that’s the “6”) For added learning, I also usually have a full-class Venn Diagram or an example on the board that groups can take turns filling out as they are working in or finishing up their six-person conversations. At the end, we discuss the topic as a whole group.
**These are all strategies that can be found in Sharroky Hollie binder “Strategies for Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching and Learning”.
A Work in Progress
I am still a CLRT work in progress. The reading strategies still feel foreign and forced when I use them which is why I do not have many listed above. I am still working through them in my classroom. Honestly, I have failed many times when using these in my own class, but part of it is owning the failures. Students are more willing to be real and understanding with you if you do the same with them--that has been proven time and again in my own classroom.
It really is fun to shake things up, try a new strategy, and sometimes even fail. I enjoy this work and feel it is really important, especially in districts with a growing diverse population like here in the Rochester Public Schools.
This post brought to you by Michaela Sperl, social studies teacher at John Marshall High School
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