‘One Size its All’ or ‘All Cultures Must Shrink to Fit?’ Culturally-Responsive Education in the No-Child-Left-Behind Era
Of all the presentations I visited at this year’s Cs in San Francisco, this one was my favorite. This was due in large part because, as audience members and fellow presenters arrived, speaker Meredith Lee opened by describing how this session was originally a panel but they had decided to present together more as a roundtable. So everyone helped organize chairs into a circle and we settled in.
Sonia Apgar, “Making Waves in Washington State: Native American Culturally-Based Education vs. Mainstream Educators”
Apgar set the broad context of this—scrutiny of “one size fits all” views of multiculturalism— roundtable with a synoptic historical background, discussing the privileging of a positivist epistemology in the white western intellectual tradition. Winners take all. 1960’s social improvement movements emphasized inclusion of non-whites but also encouraged assimilation rather than valuing diversity. But, Apgar expressed, even though “we’ve come a long way baby,” we(sterners) still privilege the individual winners/ losers in our agonistic educational model—evidenced by No Child Left Behind. We expect diverse students to be deficient, subsequently emphasizing correctness over critical thinking. But, Apgar argued, diverse students need more collaboration, and acknowledgements of diversity. Unfortunately, this has led to stereotypical whitewashed seasonal representations of “others” (diverse students). Cultural sensitivity means celebratory white western “culture of the week” views of diversity take over—denigrating home cultures. Apgar set the stage for her fellow speakers by claiming that indigenous schools might be the best thing for indigenous groups in order to be supportive, to allow members to value themselves as members of a larger group, and to allow success in school and beyond.
Meredith Lee, “The Ebb Tide of Culturally-Based Education in Hawaii”
Lee narrated her experiences working with native students at the Kapi’olani Community College, most students from low socioeconomic backgrounds. Following Apgar’s thread above, Lee lamented how she wants to her campus to move beyond celebratory representations of Hawaiians. She talked about students trying to do math with made-up numbers and scenarios. Students did not respond to made-up numbers for math class when they were given a “word problem” that asked them to perform math with cartons of milk that cost five cents. Students could not perform this task. When asked why they could not, they expressed the fact that they knew a carton of milk cost more than five cents—that the problem didn’t make any sense. Lee went on to talk about Emerging Schools—how they gave native students the ability to reclaim identity. This led them to critique teaching their cultural history—but in English only. This in turn led to charter schools—but these schools have to meet requirements as well, including assessment. Lee, rather than supplying any tidy endings, concluded with a series of questions: Do we focus on cultural understanding or skills? Lee asked what our responsibility is in dealing with this situation. Get involved? Advocate? For what? In meeting students where they enter—what is our charge?
Koreen Schroeder, “Educational Narratives: Bridging the Cultural Gap”
Teachers teaching to Hawaiian students need to become more educated about their students’ cultural background. At her college students come from very diverse backgrounds—so what to do then? There is no way possible “in a million years” to know everything I need to know about each of their cultures, she said. Narrative writing has worked for her in her FYC and remedial writing courses. She talks of the importance of ancestral history for Hawaiians and how the ability to use this history in useful ways has been underutilized due to some teachers’ fears that the narrative mode and writing in the first-person I are not critical. This causes several audience members to gasp and shake their heads. We talk of Bruner and narrative theory. One African-American woman notes how this also applies to her African-American students as well. Schroeder, bolstered by these remarks, argues that narrative is culturally responsive and makes students comfortable writing, “sharing voices.” She talks about how she might then moves students in this sequence to an “I hate…” essay which subsequently moves them from narrative to argument. They often are even uncomfortable with narrative. But through the process(es) of group work, reading each other’s essays, they became more comfortable with their own cultural authority. Schroeder talked about how in some places like Samoa corporal punishment is still allowed, or some places in Hawaii where if students speak in their native language and not English they have to clean the bathroom.
Shawna Shapiro, “The ‘Ripple Effect’ of the Remedial Mindset: Reforming Language Policy at the University of Washington”
Shapiro continues the thread on narrative into the idea that we look for error first—then ideas later. She talks passionately and critically about a program at her school at the University of Washington, Seattle where a course is based on citizenship that works via modes-based essays and includes a final writing test that determines pass/fail. Shapiro argued “A remedial model of instruction is not culturally sensitive.” Her university likes disciplinary autonomy; but students end up having a disjunctured experience. Shapiro argued that for students it is a holistic experience, but for the institution everything is separated out. “Why aren’t international and immigrant students thought of as culturally diverse?” Shapiro wondered. “Race is part of who you are, language is part of what you do,” she said. One audience member noted that her African-American students come to school with rich linguistic and cultural histories and stories, but these things are down-played and erased by the institution. An earlier speaker says that International students are not embraced as culturally diverse; rather, they are viewed as bankable. ESL courses at her school, for example, are non-credit bearing but cost students a sizable additional amount. For Shapiro, this is not a diversity model but a deficiency model, all based on standardized tests. A fellow presenter says these standardized tests tell us where you belong—are you deficient and what do we have to do to fix you?
In counterdistinction, Shapiro offers her idea of a “Mediation Model” versus remediation model as a way to tackle this dilemma at her institution. She talks of the idea of give and take and the fact that there are multiple stakeholders in this important game. She elaborates on her “mediation model”:
Shapiro ended with the possible depressing scene now— with the current economy remedial programs might be the first things to go. Several students she interviewed asked; “Is the institution making money off of me?” One presenter brought up the fact that English Faculty are mostly teaching Lit and do not want to teach FYC or remedial classes. An audience member said that at her school all faculty must rotate into teaching FYC. But one presenter suggested that these tenured professors are not held to the same accountability as typical FYC instructors.
Overall, this session provided much-needed interaction; well-received emotion, passion, and engagement; and some ever-pressing things to seriously think about in the turbulent times ahead.