Having worked in public education for over 20 years, I can say that the 2019-2020 is unlike any other. With the closure of schools due to COVID-19 and the implementation of remote learning, I experienced a system of education that I could have never anticipated. Added to this was the social change that occurred when the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis policy. This tragic event, coupled with many similar events of people of color dying in police custody, has forever changed the way that I will view the work that I do with all students going forward.
I am currently reading Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students.” This book, along with others, was inspired as I sought to make sense of the reasons behind the many protests occurring in my town and across the nations, I actively sought out a way to productively and intentionally respond in a way that affirms the dignity and worth of all humans, not just ones who look like me or have similar cultural experiences. As I processed the many thoughts and words of protestors in the media and my own social networks, I realized that I needed to spend deliberate time reflecting on my experiences and consider the privileges that I have that many students that I work with do NOT have. I have a 8 year old son who means the world to me. I thought about what his life will be like as he grows up and I begin to wonder if I am doing en.s been a season of reflection, contemplation, and intentionality.
This “lens” is how we view the world. It is shaped by the experiences that we have growing up as well as many unspoken practices and rules that can be observed and learned. He is growing in a world quite different from where I grew up. I grew up in rural Appalachian in the late ‘70s and ‘80s. My family was not very wealthy but I had a lots of love and support from others. The world that I grew up in involved eating “soup bean and fried taters” (pinto peans and fried potatoes for those outside of my lens) at lead five nights a week. This was out of necessity because this meal was cheap and easily obtained. Both my parents worked hourly jobs. We had clothes, but they were not designer brands. We did not mind this as we realized that designer brands were simply a status symbol anyway. What we did have was lots of great experiences back in our “holler,” where we played late in the evenings in the woods, creeks, and the mine dumps. Yes, you heard that right, the mine dumps, an area where rocks and other minerals had been mined with remnants of dirt left behind. Mind you, these remnants were not toxic as best we know. We lived in an area abundant with minerals and rocks known throughout the state and nation for these resources. Most of my relatives and neighbors had worked in mining at some point.
As I reflect on my childhood, I now realize that I grew up in a very collectivist culture where we all had to work together for survival. The church served as the focal point for the community and we often would assist others in our community. I recall going on a weekend to a widow’s home to help several men with re-roofing her home before the roof was being to “cave.” I also recall that when someone died, the grave was dug by locals and there was no charge to the family for the digging of the grave. We had only one high school in our county and we all knew each other by graduation. When I would make new friends, my parents would ask me who the parents of my new friends were. Often I discovered that many of these parents were individuals that my parents were friends with in school. My parents were leery of letting us go to anyone’s home that they did not know their parents. We were raised on and taught the value of working toward a common goal and to make sure that we had everyone with us. One of the lessons that I still carry with me to this day involves the process that we would go through when dropping off our friends at their home or cars after an evening out. We were specifically instructed to never leave a friend until we saw that they got into their home and turned on a light or that we made sure that their car started and was moving before we left. It is these and so many more lessons that has helped shape the lens in which I view the world.
When I went to college, I left home and went over four hours aways. Even though four hours away is not far, I found a world drastically different from the one where I grew up. This part of my state was heavily industrialized and more diverse. It was faster paced and seemed more impersonal in many ways. My college experience provided me with many unique experiences and more importantly more exposure to new ideas and lens. I went to the beach for the first time as age 19. I remember running around a cow as part of a World Religions experience where I visited a Hindu temple. I interned in a school in London where most of the students were Bengali immigrants. I taught a summer camp for inner city kids from Cincinnati. I purposely sought experiences that would challenge me to grow and help me to expand my cultural lens. I took lots of Anthropology courses and spent time volunteering with AIDS education programs, recruiting campus speakers who would introduce new ideas, and working to better understand the experiences of an increasingly more diverse student population. Part of my teacher education program allowed me to focus on diversity (what we would now call Culturally Responsive Teaching) and how I can best support all students.
When I landed my first teaching job, I taught at an inner city high school with roughly an equal number of White and African-American population. Over time, the LationX student population grew and the percentage of White students declined. I loved the challenges of this school though but my first year was tough. I struggled in many ways connecting with some of my students. But it is not the students who you may think. I struggled connecting with students who looked much like me. While we looked similar, my experiences were so different from there’s. For the students who looked like me, they had large homes, played multiple sports in many cases, and took nice vacations over the United States and Europe. Many of these students had experiences that I could not related to since I never had them. The students that I seemed to most connect with were students who on the surface did not look like me. However, we had similar socio-economic experiences such as worrying about how certain bills may get paid, or how we can support our neighbor down the street who may be going through a difficult time since he/she was laid off their job at the mill. As a i reflect on this unusual experience, I think that much of what allowed me to connect with students who looked quite different from me was a shared experience where we knew what it was like to struggle to survive. We understood the challenges associated not being able to pay all our bills that month. We knew the value of making sure to support our neighbors in need since we never know when we may be that neighbor needed help.
As I prepare for the next few weeks before our new school starts, I am reminding of the importance of understanding our lens and how it impacts how we see the world. Hammond actually refers to that lens as an aperture which is what allow more or less light in a photo. It can also be used as a metaphor to describe how we may or may not allow more experiences in to help shape our own individual picture of the world. As I continue to read Hammond’s book, I am reminded of the importance of making sure that we are supporting all learners in our classroom and ensuring that we challenge all students to learn at high schools by creating a system in which ALL students transform into independent learners. Too often, more most dependent learners are not provided opportunities to be challenged and learned at high levels. My next few blog posts will involve I am reflecting on my experiences and expanding my lens by allowing more light through my aperture to ensure that ALL students will have challenging learning experiences to become independent learners. This is my journey toward addressing the lack of equity experienced by many students.
The ideas shared here are my own and do not necessarily represent my employers, associations, or organizations. These thoughts are entirely my own.