Matching Cultural Relevance to Curriculum
If what we teach and how we teach are to have ongoing value, then we must reconsider all the components of an evolving K-12 education and have those critical conversations about cultural relevance.
Part of that language is the frequent use of a racial pejorative discussed in polite society as the “n-word”. It is a novel widely taught, frequently banned and sometimes misunderstood. Its anti-slavery message can be overshadowed by our revulsion at Jim’s characterization.Some educators and school districts have banned the book. Others have used a version where Jim is, instead, referred to as a slave. Others give students alternatives more relevant to their culture but equally challenging.
In fact, the list of books deemed unsuitable for one reason or another include “The Grapes of Wrath,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Diary of a Young Girl” (Anne Frank) and “Moby Dick.”
Anna Stubblefield is interim superintendent of Lawrence, Kansas Public Schools. To her, the answer is not the banning of one book or another but recognizing the diversity in today’s classroom and choosing works that not only relate to students but inspire them.
“The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and its suitability was a recent subject in a school newspaper in her district, but she has a specific methodology in place to defuse these kinds of issues.
“Every one of our schools has an equity team and we do professional development around equity for all marginalized groups – race, gender, sexual orientation and religion,” Stubblefield said. “We really try to be intentional about making sure our students are connected to the curriculum, see themselves in the curriculum. Making those changes, given the history of schools and what’s been taught, isn’t easy, but it’s something we attack head on.”
“Reflect upon the ways you think about your students and the causes of low student achievement. How can we focus more on factors within the system, rather than within children, that create barriers to effective schooling for poor and/or culturally and linguistically diverse students?”
The backlash against efforts at cultural relevance or sensitivity is increasingly virulent. In California, an educator at a high school with a large Hispanic population decided to celebrate Mexican culture on Cinco de Mayo by advocating the display of Mexican colors, including flags.
In apparent protest, several other students came to school wearing shirts emblazoned with the American flag. They were asked to remove the shirts or turn them inside out. They refused, and as is increasingly the norm, a lawsuit followed. The school administration prevailed but it is hard to imagine that the episode did not have a chilling effect on future attempts to celebrate or understand another culture.
If we believe that these sorts of conflicts exist only outside the school room we are naïve to the fact that society has become not only more polarized but more tribalized, increasingly incapable of appreciating differences.
David Brooks, columnist for The New York Times, began 2018 with a truly fascinating piece called “The Retreat to Tribalism.” In it, he discussed children forming a chain around a maypole and running with their arms linked together.
“The faster they run, the more centrifugal force there is tearing the chain apart. The tighter they grip, the more centripetal force there is holding the chain together. Eventually, centrifugal force exceeds centripetal force and the chain breaks,” Brooks said.
He cited an NYU professor, Johnathan Haidt, who saw this dynamic as tearing the country apart. “A funny thing happens,” Haidt said, “when you take human beings, whose minds evolved for tribal warfare and us/them thinking, and you fill those minds full of binary dimensions. You tell them that one side is good and the other is bad. You turn on their ancient tribal circuits, preparing them for battle.”
Brooks also quoted the French intellectual Pascal Bruckner, who cautioned against a cult of individualism that released a person from social obligation, “being guided only by the lantern of his own understanding, the individual loses all assurances of place, an order, a definition. He may have gained freedom, but he has lost security.”
Therein lies the challenge to the educator striving for cultural equity and relevance. Our students often come from families and cultures that are not only unaware, but cultures and families that want to remain unaware.
A commitment by educators to a K-12 curriculum that is culturally equitable and relevant to all may be our best chance to reimagine an enriched society where those instincts that are centripetal govern who we will become.
Tips for Making Decisions about Advancing a Culturally Relevant Education
From Anna Stubblefield
Have conversations with students to learn about who they are and how/if they see themselves in the curriculum.
Engage community members who come from diverse backgrounds.
Prepare for and don’t back away from resistance. Lean in and find common ground.
Recognize that it is not as simple as saying we won’t teach a particular lesson anymore. Explain the reasoning, then offer alternate choices.
Prepare for it to be messy, yet stay engaged.