Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

I should be reading the new budget and writing about that, I know. That’s for another day.

Instead, I spent my Fourth of July family trip getting sunburned while reading Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. A much better choice, as I walked away with far less frustration than a close read of the budget likely would have offered me.

I have to admit that I rarely look forward to my summer “work reading.” Typically, my reading is more of a skim, dipping in when something seems to connect to my work. This book, however, seemed to connect at every turn.

I read this book with a specific purpose: When I and the other thousand-or-so staff return for our August kickoff meetings, we’re taking the idea of culturally responsive practice to scale. Specifically, the district Teaching and Learning team is working to design a common experience for the adults in our system to open us to more frank and meaningful conversations about race, inequity, privilege, and what culturally responsive practice should look like.

The challenge I’m facing, and which this book helped me with, is the reality of being a white male teaching is a largely white (generally affluent) community, and in this context trying to find the right way to communicate with my fellow white teachers that culturally responsive teaching isn’t about using rap music to “connect with kids” or putting up posters of famous nonwhite scientists or changing John to Juan in a story problem and checking the “culturally responsive” box. Further, saying “but I’m not racist” and “I treat every student the same” isn’t an excuse for not learning about and adopting culturally responsive practices (and I think such statements constitute a neon sign pointing at someone who probably needs more than anyone else to read this book).

At the August kickoff, that common experience will help establish that as a district our focus for the 2017-18 school year will be on “seeing and serving every child.” Why? Simply put, the data over the last few years communicates it without question: We’re serving some kids exceptionally well, others well enough, and some not well at all. The dividing line is crystal clear and let’s just say the students on one side of the line are are more linguistically and culturally diverse than those on the other.

But our test scores are high and our graduation rates just fine!

That’s good, of course. However, my assistant superintendent shared with me the field-trip analogy: if we take 100 kids on a field trip and only return with 93% of them, that’s a problem. Yes, we can celebrate our successes, but we as responsible educators must make sure we do all we can for each child, not just most kids.

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain offered the kind of argument structure that I think speaks to many of us who’ve walked through life with unrecognized ease due to the privilege of our skin color. Specifically, this book breaks down what culture is in a different way than I had read about before, and goes on to articulate the brain processes common to all humans in order to explain how and why mismatches of cultural norms and cross cultural mis-communication results in what dominant white culture then interprets as disengagement, disruption, or disrespect.

Within the first few pages, this resonated with me immediately:

Every culturally responsive teacher develops a socio-political consciousness, an understanding that we live in a radicalized society that gives unearned privilege to some while others experience unearned disadvantage because of race, gender, class, or language…they mediate student learning based on what they know about how the brain learns and students’ cultural models. (18-19 … emphasis mine)

Recent conversations about “equity” and being “culturally responsive” have proven that these terms can throw people into an emotional rather than rational state…particularly white people who, like me, were raised in a sociopolitical context that left us utterly unaware that aiding our path through life was the absence of certain barriers we were not disposed to face.

Often, well-meaning the teacher at the front of the room does work to “see each child as an individual,” but Hammond’s book also points out that we see that child from our own cultural point of view. That is not inherently wrong, but it doesn’t necessarily render an accurate interpretation of that child’s experience. Particularly when the teacher is white, it often makes the teacher less likely to see the socio-political context that has a tremendous impact on students of color in ways which the white teacher simply is never exposed to. Hammond explains:

The sociopolitical context is a term used to describe the series of mutually reinforcing policies and practices across social, economic, and political domains that contribute to disparities and unequal opportunities for people of color in housing, transportation, education, and health care, to name a few. (28)

This is where the “just work harder and you can achieve anything” mythology illustrates room for growth among well-meaning white teachers: Yes, this “working hard is enough” narrative might be true for me, the white male raised in a two-income family. When I ascribe my sociopolitical context to the students sitting in front of me, my missive of “just work harder” doesn’t herald the same promise when kids are operating in a different socio-political context. Even how we each differently define “hard work” is culturally defined and tacitly constructed. When I can recognize that my students’ experiences aren’t inherently parallel to my own, I’m making headway toward cultural responsiveness. That personal awareness, to “know and own your cultural lens” as Hammond describes it, is a critical first step toward better serving each student.

While that kind of talk can easily rock the boat of those operating from a place of privilege (such boat-rocking is certainly needed), Hammond’s book adds to the discussion an examination of how the brain learns… research-based truths that transcend all cultures but which are processes that occur in the context of one’s culture. This latter, objective and scientific examination of learning and learners, is the kind of “easy entry point” that I think many can understand as practitioners. At worst, a reader of the book might walk away with solid culturally-responsive strategies based on brain research. At best, a reader has those strategies plus a much deeper understanding of self-as-teacher and how to maximize the teaching and learning relationship.

For me, this book came at the right time in my personal journey of understanding the role of race and culture in education, society, politics, you name it. I now just hope to find the right ways to act on my learning (which has been a long process, not just the reading of this one book), in order to change the way I and my fellow teachers do business day to day.

2 thoughts on “Summer Reading: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

  1. Jan Kragen

    Ok, you’ve added another book on my pile of things to read this summer. Thanks, Mark, for your thoughtful review!

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