title page from Running the Road to ABC by Denize Lauture
I came to elementary education out of a desire to teach multiple subjects. First as a college student and then as a potential applicant to secondary education certificate and masters programs, I found it stifling, almost painful, to have to focus myself on one discipline alone. How could I choose just History or just Science or just English? How could I write creatively and reflectively without drawing on the profundity of the natural world or the logic and patience needed to complete complex mathematical equations? I firmly believe in the interconnectedness of all things and am thankful to have realized that transmitting this conviction and enthusiasm for all forms of knowledge, is a principle role of the elementary school teacher.
Although mastery of all four or five subject areas is a lifelong process I feel confident in my ability to find infinite connections across disciplines. During this process it will also be critical to make room for other worldviews and explanations for the way things work that may be different from information systems I was originally taught. I want my teaching to continually reference “the disruption of the idea that Eurocentric or middle class forms of discourse, knowledge, language, culture, and historical interpretations are normative [and] to challenge injustice and disrupt inequalities and oppression of any group of people. “ (Howard p.70)
I believe the practice of Culturally Responsive teaching in the context of inner city, multiethnic Providence to be an extremely exciting layer of the interdisciplinary teaching practice I aspire to. During the Fall Practicum, I explored more how these two components, culturally responsive teaching and a depth of knowledge in all elementary disciplines, fit together. During the Spring I used this knoweldge to develop my social studies unit.
Connecting Across Disciplines
During Summer Prep with my sixth graders I had my first chance to make connections across disciplines. In science class students designed and buil parachutes. On the last day we dropped them in order to calculate which fell the slowest and was thus the best parachute.
After our parachute drop I gave students an opportunity to really consider what the numbers being spit out of the stopwatch meant. Here was a connection to our Place and Value Unit in math and the subtopic of magnitude (rounding). As students recorded data after testing parachutes I had the whole group re-examine the times for each drop. Was 0.0532 seconds about one second or not even a full second? How could we use rounding to better grasp real world situations? How could we use math skills to help us make scientific statements?
Another pearl of wisdom to drop into our laps with the parachute lessons was the concept of accuracy. Students observed that the lack of standardization in many aspects of the parachute drop made the overall experiment meaningless. Some parachutes didn’t even make it to the floor; others were dropped from uneven heights; still others were dropped at different times. How could we better engineer an accurate test? And, more importantly, how could we make a substantive scientific claim if none of our data was tested accurately?
The following day in Morning Meeting we discussed “why does accuracy matter?” Students spoke about how you have to set things up precisely in order to produce reliable data. You have to base your claims on things you actually see. I took this opportunity to connect conceptually to our Judgment Unit in literacy: “Isn’t it also necessary to form your opinions on others based on your own real life interactions with them rather than what you “hear” about them from somebody else?” I asked students. We talked about how it is important to be accurate both in science and also social interactions.
Summer Prep Poems
Our Judgements Unit in Summer prep afforded many wonderful opportunities for culturally responsive subject matter. We read texts on sterotypes such as Wings by Christopher Meyers, When Tia Lola Came to Visit/ Stay by Julia Alvarez and Weird by Erin Frankel. At the end of the unit we performed student created choral readings.
A central aspect of both groups’ performances involved one group of characters chanting, “You’re the only Spanish kid, you’re the only Spanish kid” to another character. Students beautifully illustrated the all too common phenomena of racial discrimination that plays out in schools across the country every day. Alejandro, the author of the narrative which prompted this line, took a risk in sharing this story and even as he was writing I could tell there was more to his story that he felt uncomfortable telling. How empowering it must have felt for him to see so many of his classmates reenact this scenario and, in many ways, reprocess it with him. The resolution of both choral poems involved “the Spanish kid” becoming victorious and receiving recognition and friendship from a more enlightened character. The abstract and ambiguous nature of the choral readings allowed us all to consider when have we been judged too? How? When have we ourselves judged?
“Culturally responsive pedagogy embodies a professional, political, cultural, ethical, and ideological disposition that supersedes mundane teaching acts; it is centered in fundamental beliefs about teaching, learning, students, their families, and their communities, and an unyielding commitment to see student success become less rhetoric and more of a reality.” (Howard p.67)Our mentor texts and the choral reading project helped students understand that our classroom was a place to discuss, process and dissect real world experiences. I hope to continue to build on these themes in future lessons and units as I see Culturally Responsive teaching to be critically necessary for all students.
Honoring Student Identities
During my spring practicum in Willaim D’Abate's fifth grade I developed a unit on the Caribbean. We studied Spanish, West African and Taino roots of Caribbean culture today. I read up on and researched many aspects of Caribbean history in order to craft a unit that was interesting and meaningful for my students, many of whom were Dominican, Puerto Rican, Haitian and Cuban. My goal was to make a unit that was culturally responsive, honoring students lives outside the classrooms and inviting them to bring as much of it in to share as possible. Students were invited to collect oral histories from parents, share recipes, write a biographical poem and contribute their knowledge of food and traditions. My unit allowed students to creat their own knowledge by comparing and contrasting different viewpoints on history and linked to other disciplines. (See our Columbus lessons.)
One of our best days was the lesson on food. Having lived in Puerto Rico for a year, spent time living with a friend in Jamaica and eaten at almost all of Providence’s best Dominican restaurants, I was familiar with many traditional Caribbean foods. I was able to research several and had a good handle on pronunciation. I prepared a powerpoint presentation for our class and developed interactive questions for each slide, which would introduce a food. Each dish was connected to a location in the Caribbean and also explained the culture responsible for bringing it to this region. Knowing many of my students had more expertise in these dishes than me, I posed each question in a way that solicited student knowledge. I set the class up so that they were actually teaching me about the foods.
Sample questions for varying food slides included: (for casabe`) How do you eat casabe? Where do you see it in Providence? How do you buy a good yucca? (for tamales) Have you ever had these? Do you know a different name? What are some other things you put in them? When do you eat them? Does anyone know this food from another country? (for Arroz con leche) When your family makes rice, do you rinse it first? How many times? Why? For each set of questions students turned and talked in groups. The classroom was loud and excited this day. Later, when I gave a survey asking for their favorite day of the social studies unit, many students listed the food lesson!
At the end of several of our turn and talks I reminded students “you are teaching me today!” I told them how a lot of this information I had read, but I wanted to check my source! I wanted to check with them in order to do better research. In this way I also connected our social studies content to the Reading Like a Researcher skills we had been studying from the Stanford Curriculum. Together my research framework and student knowledge of various Caribbean traditions built a comprehensive, accurate and useful inventory of Caribbean dishes.
Howard, Tyrone C. 2010. Why Race and Culture Matter In Schools Closing the Achievement Gap in America’s Schools. Teacher’s College Press, Columbia University, New York, NY
Landay, E., & Wootton, K. (2012). A reason to read: Linking literacy and the Arts. Harvard Education Press, Cambridge, Ma
Wineberg, S., & Martin, D. (2009). Tampering With History: Adapting Primary Sources for Struggling Readers. Social Education, 75(5), 212-216.