Monthly Archives: February 2013

culturally neutral or culturally responsive?: my students rate their textbooks

After laying a foundation of the notion of culturally responsive teaching in E402, we’re now moving forward to consider specific methods for teaching writing. I anticipate that the challenge of keeping the latter firmly in mind will become steeper unless we consider these priorities simultaneously. That concern played a large part in the way I set up our first book clubs of the semester yesterday. Here’s a little background on the basic procedures we’re using:

Yesterday, students began discussing their book club books independently. I always circulate among the groups eavesdropping and occasionally participating in their interactions, but I can’t be everywhere at one time. That’s as it should be. My book club research over the years, which began when I was still teaching high school, has been focused on how students go it alone when they select books they’re interested among a range of books I’ve chosen because they are connected to our course concerns. Often these books are controversial in some respect, and even when they aren’t visibly so, students’ independent interactions apart from my facilitation often ensures that a wider range of perspectives as shared simply by virtue of the fact that they are discussing them in a smaller group. That always means that more students are able to participate in the conversation at hand. Norming, of course, must proceed these discussions, so students set those together; they also negotiate their own personal methods of responding to the text so that they don’t choose something they consider to be busy work, but at the same time come prepared to the group to share their ideas.

One simple tool that supports students in meeting these goals is the book club discussion record. With the input of students and the help of teachers with whom I’ve worked over the years, I’ve refined the structure to its current form. It’s deliberately designed to reflect several purposes on my part:

The first section requires students to assume various roles over the course of several book clubs, including leading the discussion at some point and scribing the group’s interactions.
The second section is designed to help students document their interactions of the course of several weeks as they discuss the book by recording each group member’s most significant contribution to the discussion. The unspoken expectation, then, is that everyone will make one and that differing perspectives are welcome.
The final section of the form–“Today’s Questions”–is my way of being at least obliquely present within the group by providing what my high school students referred to as “real questions,” that is, authentic questions that even I as the teacher haven’t quite figured out yet. These questions also allow for a modicum of continuity across the groups as everyone is inquiring into the same topic that I’ve raised because of its connection to broader course concerns. At the conclusion of each book club meeting, we make this focus evident by sharing out highlights of the conclusions groups have reached in regard to these questions in a quick whiparound.

Since, of course, we’re thinking together about our positionality as teachers in an effort to teach in more culturally responsive ways, I asked students yesterday to consider this set of questions that also synthesizes some of the other themes reflected in our course readings at this point in the semester:

  • So far in this class, we’ve been talking about factors that shape writing development and instruction, including historical developments (e.g., technology), external mandates (e.g, standards), and teachers’ and students, cultural identity and positionality. How, if at all, does your book address these concerns?
  • Where would you place your book on the follow continuum based on the kinds of teaching practices recommended by the author(s) of your book? What do you make of this?

I was especially interested in their response to the second set of questions because we haven’t formally defined what “culturally neutral practices” and “culturally responsive practices” are. This, too, is be design. Though we’ve certainly been using the latter term, I want students to inductively arrive at their own definitions and to see how these evolve over the course of the semester as they explore concrete methods for teaching writing and take these up through the SOS Project.

Students’ “ratings” were insightful. Of the five books their respective book clubs are reading, only one met their evolving definitions of “culturally responsive.” That didn’t mean that students found the other books unhelpful, yet the question did allow them to use this lens to think about the implications of books that don’t explicitly deal with the specifics of classroom context in their presentation of methods for teaching writing–at least so far in their reading. As recorded on their book club records, here are their ratings about 1/4 of the way through the books:

narrative book - jim

So What’s the Story?”: Teaching Narrative to Understand Ourselves, Others, and the World


by Shelby, Sergio, Bethany, and Anna


opening the common core

Opening the Common Core: How to Bring ALL Students to College and Career Readiness


by Devyn, Amber B., Chelsea, and John


oh yeah - michaelOh, Yeah?!: Putting Argument to Work both In School and Out


by Nick, Andy, Tyler, and Mike

argument - bc 1

get it done - jeff

Get It Done!: Writing and Analyzing Informational Texts to Make Things Happen


by Josh, Steven, and Stacy



Teaching for Joy and Justice: Re-Imagining the Language Arts Classroom


by Jake, Linda, Shelby J., Jake, and Emily T.


Again, I want to emphasize that students found the instructional methods explained in the books so far to be useful overall, so the ratings weren’t damning, and students weren’t dismissive about the books. As well, as I said, they are only about 1/4 of the way in, so it’s possible their ratings might change once they’ve finished the books. What I found to be most interesting, though, were their rationales for the ratings and their provisional thinking about the potential for these instructional methods to be adapted in ways that might actually take up a culturally responsive approach.

Students’ rating of Opening the Common Core was particularly insightful. In describing their rationale during the whiparound, Devyn–the group’s spokesperson–pointed out that even though the book apparently intends to make challenging academic standards achieveable for students that traditionally struggle in school, it does so by homogenizing them. They put it this way on their discussion record: “Our book wants us to expect our students to be at certain levels and gives us ways to be there despite their cultural identity and positionality.”

This group’s critique echoed for me Geneva Gay’s indictment on p. 23 in Culturally Responsive Teaching (2010) of a common misguided assumption that teaching students uniformly is a way to enact high expectations. Gay points out:

Many educators still believe that good teaching transcends place, people, time, and context. They contend it has nothing to do with the class, race, gender, ethnicity, or culture of students and teachers. This attitude is manifested in the expression, “Good teachers anywhere are good teachers everywhere.” Individuals who subscribe to this belief fail to realize that their standards of “goodness” in teaching and learning are culturally determined and are not the same for all ethnic groups. The structures, assumptions, substance, and operations of conventional educational enterprises are European American cultural icons (Pai et al., 2006).

I also want to emphasize that students could most likely make similar observations about my own first book The Book Club Companion. Early on in the book, I do contextualize the methods I recommend as “provisionally best practices” by making the point that contexts differ and students differ from year to year and sometimes even class period to class period. I urge readers to keep this in mind as they adapt the methods for their own teaching, but that’s about the extent of my attempt to cast the instructional approach of book clubs as “culturally responsive.” Consequently, I bet my students would rate that book as falling primarily on the “culturally neutral” end of the spectrum. I hope my second book Tough Talk, Tough Texts, would fare better since I explicitly urge teachers to pay far more attention to cultural concerns through their selection of a diverse range of books which highlight race, class, sexual identity, and so on. I also present methods they can use to help students confront the often difficult issues that arise in them in productive ways that are likely to challenge their existing world views.

As the semester progresses in E402, I want us to continue collaboratively defining and the terms “culturally neutral practices” and “culturally responsive practices” as our understanding of them emerges. I need help making these distinctions myself, and I think there’s great potential to build on the ways that students are already taking them up. Here are some questions I’d like us to keep thinking about:

  • When books aimed at teachers implicitly assume a homogeneous student population, how might students adapt the methods to be useful for the actual kids in their classes?
  • What are the consequences of these kinds of assumptions?
  • What are some specific methods teachers might develop to design lessons that capitalize on their students’ cultural backgrounds and thus enrich the classroom community as a whole?

Yesterday, Danielle Filipiak was gracious to participate in the above Google hangout with my Teaching Composition class (and Antero was gracious enough to record it for YouTube perpetuity).

Wow. I do not have exclamation points and ALL CAPS enough to emphasize how TERRIFIC Danielle was!!! I think the greatest testament came from a student, Stacy Hosek, who stayed after class to talk with me about how helpful the hangout had been. “She made all this real because she’s really done it,” Stacy said.

I agree. Even after all my years of teaching, truly enacting culturally responsive teaching, especially when you’re a white teacher in a diverse setting, can be tricky. One of my favorite responses from Danielle was in response to this question from my student Andy:

If you consider yourself and outsider to your students’ community (in terms of race, etc.), what’s the best way to be effective in that community?

[Isn’t that a great question? Ding-ding-ding! Extra points for reflecting our focus on positionality.]

Danielle’s advice was to be your authentic self as a teacher, to try to learn from your students, and to be vulnerable in that learning–though she admitted that can tricky. Even though her background wasn’t identical to her students, she described their common ground as “coming from a place of struggle.”

Here’s the full set of questions my students generated for Danielle (special thanks to Chelsea, John, Linda, Andy, Bethany, and Stacy for taking the initiative to pose them and to converse with Danielle during the hangout, even though, as Chelsea put it, it was a little nerve-wracking to “talk to someone famous!”)


Some clear themes emerged for me during the conversation. First of all, I was struck by how relational all this work is. I’ve always believed that the relationships you form with your students are the what makes teaching the hardest job I’ve ever loved. Danielle described it as “teaching from a place of vulnerability” and explained that even though students may hate you sometimes and think you’re crazy, as long as they know you love and respect them and where they come from, they will take risks as learners and human beings. She emphasized that one of the most important habits we can enact as teachers is LISTENING. (This reminder is important for all of us, no matter how long we’ve taught. I bet that for most of us, the image that comes to mind when we envision ourselves teaching is of us standing at the front of the classroom talking. But what does listening look like? How do we configure our classrooms to foster that behavior in ourselves? How does a listening stance shift, quite literally, our positionality in the classroom?)

Another theme that emerged was the notion of teaching and learning bravely. It was clear to me that Danielle really puts herself out there and does so from a place of inquiry and intention. She poses difficult questions for her students to address in sustained ways throughout the year: What does it mean to be a human being? How is this related to language, power, and agency? What role does education play? Even though these questions can seem daunting, she insists that “TEENAGERS CARE ABOUT THESE THINGS.” That’s what makes the struggle to address them together worthwhile.

Finally (though I’m sure I’m missing something), I was very interested in Danielle’s pedagogical eclecticism. It was clear to me that a wide and varied set of tools, texts, and practices make brave teaching and learning possible–print-based, multimodal, and digital. Her students wrote, interviewed, and interacted with community members and one another to tackle the essential questions that guided her course. She also emphasized that the texts that surround students are as important as the texts that teachers bring into the classroom. She wants her students to know, “You are writing yourself into being” and to select the appropriate tools to achieve that purpose.

WHAT I’M WONDERING NOW: I want to know more about that practice of “writing yourself into being” because it seems hugely important for us to think about in E402. I also want to ask Danielle some more pointed questions about the complexity of teaching in a diverse setting as a white teacher. In class discussion last week, one of my students said that she would hate to think that she couldn’t teach in a diverse, urban context just because she was white (and middle-class, too, though I’m not sure she said that). What if you haven’t struggled in the way your students have? How can you teach with empathy without unintentionally communicating condescension? More than once, Danielle also mentioned activism and teaching with an agenda. I want to hear more about her experiences in that area, too, because I know from personal experience that teaching in ways that challenge your students’ (and their families’) world views entails risk.

Last thing: I really appreciated Danielle’s willingness to make herself vulnerable with us and her confession that this work isn’t easy, even though it may look that way on Digital Is.

teaching from a place of struggle

postsecrets and cultural identity

2013-02-01 09.47.34 amSo the experiment proceeds apace in E402, and yesterday went well. I wanted to reassure my students that introducing a conversation of positionality, privilege, and culturally responsive teaching was not meant to start the semester off on a guilty note. Rather, our goal is to help them realize or remember that we all begin our teaching from a particular position that we have developed over time to understand the world. This perspective inevitably shapes our teaching, too, so we’re confronting the issue head-on.

My and Antero’s goal is not to say, White people are bad. White middle-class people are really bad. And white, middle-class males are really, really bad. (As I told them, I’m married to a white, middle-class man, and I have a son. I like you guys a lot!) Instead we’re working from the assumptions I mentioned at the end of my last post–that they want to push their thinking and become teachers who will do right by all their students, including those who may not share their cultural identity. BUT we aren’t stopping at the point of raising consciousness; instead, we are using that foundation to inform their development as writing teachers.

They are going to learn teaching METHODS of supporting students’ writing development, designing curriculum, and assessing their work. In other words, all this hard conceptual work is inextricably linked to the practical. Danielle Filipiak’s rock-star teaching is helping us figure out what this looks like in the classroom, and we hope the SOS Project will also allow us to accomplish those joint objectives while also having real impact on kids. It’s one way we can do something. I confessed that thinking and teaching like this is HARD WORK that I certainly haven’t figured out entirely because the landscape is always shifting. Yes, we will fail, but we will fail forward. At the end of this post, you’ll find a poem by Bonaro Overstreet that Allan Johnson includes in Power, Privilege, and Difference. I shared it with them in hopes that it will remind us that we can do something beyond steeping in powerlessness and frustration.

One exercise that we tried that I also hope made this point was an exercise I made up using the concept of PostSecret postcards. I asked students to make postcards that told a secret about their cultural identity that they felt comfortable sharing with others. (My postcard is at the beginning of this post.) Students exchanged postcards with someone they didn’t didn’t know in the class and before having a conversation wrote to them on the back of the postcard in response to these questions:

  • What does this postcard tell you about your partner’s cultural identity?
  • What questions does it raise?
  • How do you think your partner’s cultural identity might shape her/his teaching?

Because we didn’t have an even number of students, I got to play, too, and at least in my conversation with one of my students, Amber, the exercise was worthwhile. We both got know one another better. I learned that for Amber, school wasn’t a resounding success. In fact, though she is obviously bright and capable (she started out in an IB program), she was a “bad girl,” as she put it. As a result she moved from school to school before eventually landing at the same high school that my own kids have all attended. There she met some English teachers who were straight shooters, and they made a difference for her. (I know one of them, and she is indeed a “warm demander” like the teachers Lisa Delpit describes in the chapter we’d read for that day.) As a result, Amber wants to be a teacher who has a similar influence in her students’ lives. I can’t wait for her to meet the kids at Centennial, the alternative high school where we’ll be working and piloting the SOS curriculum our class develops.

I talked a bit about my own postcard, which I hope illustrates my struggle with my accent as evidence of my Oklahoma background and the assumptions others have sometimes made about my intellect, my political persuasions, and so forth because of where I’m from. Indeed, all Oklahomans are NOT alike in these areas, although we do share some values (at least where I grew up) that I hold dear to this day–a strong work ethic, a general friendliness, strong connections with family and friends. Although things have changed a lot since I left the state in 1999 (and I’ve changed, too), I grew up believing that people ought to take care of one another, and that’s part of who I am, too, as a teacher and a human being.

Judging from other students’ postcards and the little bit of eavesdropping I was able to do, I know that they discussed some tough stuff–gender, multiracial identity, family, religion, linguistic background, sexual orientation, politics, and so forth. I’m glad to know them better and proud of them for being brave.

So all that came out of our short time (about 10 minutes) with one another in the postcard exchange. I want to debrief the activity on Tuesday and help my students think about the its potential in their future classrooms for building community and expanding notions for what counts as writing and for writing’s purpose to connect with others. (Which I now realize is a little bit of my own cultural identity peeking through.)

Many of them gave me permission to scan their postcards for our class website. I’ll provide the link once I’ve done that. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with the poem I shared with them that I hope conveys that baby steps (like the postcard exchange) are one way of moving forward.

(To One Who Doubts the Worth of Doing Anything
if You Can’t Do Everything)

You say the little efforts that I make
will do no good; they will never prevail
to tip the hovering scale
where Justice hangs in the balance.

I don’t think
I ever thought they would.
But I am prejudiced beyond debate
In favor of my right to choose which side
shall feel the stubborn ounces of my weight.

– Bonaro Overstreet