This essay identifies some of the challenges staff development providers may encounter and identifies ways to approach the work to ensure the greatest impact on students. This includes clearly defining the boundaries and permeability of the work, looking for various entry points, and explicitly addressing adults’ mindsets. For teacher educators who support teachers and administrators looking to dismantle or challenge white supremacy in schools, the work can feel overwhelming but, through deliberate strate gies, the work is always possible.
Near the end of the first stanza in his song, “The Struggle,” Afro-Caribbean artist Bunji Garlin (2019) says, “The incorrect part of speech could make yuh end up inna d Gulf of Paria” (0:44 - 0:45). A skillful lyricist and musician who crosses multiple genres, most notably soca (modern Calypso music) and reggae, Garlin layers his lyrics with allusions, couplets, and assonance. His songs often capture the complexity of finding one’s space and place in contexts that prioritize white-dominant narratives. The quoted lyric captures a contradiction I’ve often seen when working with groups of teachers, administrators, and educational support staff; Garlin wants to express himself in a particular way, but if he uses “incorrect” English when speaking to someone in power, he risks getting in trouble, perhaps even killed. Educators, especially educators of color, want to orient themselves towards Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education (CR-SE) practices but are confined to white supremacist standards for learning, pedagogy, and how to “do” school. Developing ways to negotiate that tension has been a driving force in my work as a teacher educator.
I am a first-generation American and a woman of color. I’ve made the commitment to habitually speak from and about my experiences and purposefully center students when working with schools. Administrators at School “A” need a system to create quality assessments? Great! How will we make connections to students’ lives in meaningful, and not just superficial, ways? How will we ensure the tasks reflect a wide breadth of talents? Teacher teams at School “B” need help analyzing data? No problem! How will we ensure these numbers are never disassociated from names and faces? How will we use asset-based language to infer what students know versus what they don’t? How will we adults ensure we are educating towards what can be, not to what was? I model what it looks like to embody the philosophy and advocate for student voice in everything I do with educators, including asking lots of questions that challenge the white supremacy of schools.
I’ve found, through trial and error, that one subversive way of challenging the white-centric norms of school is to bring every conversation back to CR-SE practices and pedagogy. I consistently, almost repetitively, ask questions related to CR-SE even when the conversation is about
something else. If expectations come up, I ask questions like, “Who sets these expectations? Why are they mandated? What purpose do they serve? Which students do they serve?” Same for other topics like homework, assessments, or reading logs. I’ve learned that the process
of engaging schools and their constituents, especially those comfortable with white-centric norms, requires profound adjustments in:
- understanding the nuances of CR-SE
- considering the implications for authentic execution in the context of standardization
- addressing white supremacy
- confronting the smog (Tatum, 2017) educators implicitly espouse
- legitimizing and prioritizing student voices
In this article, I share how I navigate supporting the use of CR-SE and how my professional struggles have helped me understand the critical need to focus on adults’ mindsets and the actions they take as a way to bring about sustainable, foundational change.
Stepping into the Struggle by Recognizing Who Holds Power
As a former teacher, and now a parent, I encourage children to stay true to themselves. I am painfully aware, though, that for children to gain access to institutions that further stimulate intellectual and social growth, they must do school in a way that may conflict with who they are as a person. They must use the “incorrect part of speech” to avoid negative consequences (Garlin, 2019, 0:44). American public education has little tolerance for differences and seems to hold little regard for students’ eclectic skills and talents, despite generations of children who have struggled within its parameters. Recognizing that the language that is prioritized, codified, and emphasized is an academic one that has little regard for students’ authentic selves is key. Furthermore, we must acknowledge how educational policies and practices such as mandated standardized tests and seat time requirements have capitalized on supremacist notions to mandate what’s worth learning.
School reform advocates, such as E.D. Hirsch, assert that instruction has become romanticized. According to Hirsch (2006), teachers and schools of education need to provide students with the skills and exposure necessary to become critical thinkers like those of the Enlightenment period. Hirsch does not explicitly reject the idea of including non-mainstream literature (e.g., Afrofuturism) in school, but believes that teaching students the mechanical aspects of literacy are crucial to their learning experiences. This sentiment is reminiscent of the claims found in A Nation at Risk (1983). The argument is that such instruction allows students to attain an equitable playing field. In practice though, centering American education traditions, such as the canon, delegitimizes cultural modes of thinking that present as other in the face of white supremacy.
In addition to understanding the language that operates in schools, students don’t expe rience the same level of autonomy within the system. My work allows me to toggle between schools with large and small populations of historically marginalized students. I’ve worked with well-resourced schools with predominant ly white student bodies and schools with limited resources and predominately Brown and Black students. In most cases, however, the faculty is overwhelmingly white. These experiences have allowed me to witness firsthand how the rules of school can be bent based on a student’s, or their parent’s, access to power. As an example, a small, mostly white, district in northeast New York State has created a work-around for the state exams that allows children to pursue courses of interest or take advanced courses without prerequisite courses. Teachers are discouraged from teaching to the test and instead are given the necessary tools needed to design complex and authentic tasks such as auto-ethnographies. Meanwhile, high school students just 40 miles south in the Bronx take several different Regents exams, often multiple times. They are unable to graduate without passing a minimum number of assessments. In those schools, teachers tell me they want to provide authentic assessment but feel beholden to state exams.
Stepping into the work of CR-SE in the suburban New York district means that when I’m working with teachers, regardless of the content or topic, I advocate for centering mar ginalized voices or provide ways for the mostly white teaching faculty to reflect on their racial identities and how it impacts their pedagogy. In the Bronx school, I help teachers address dual goals: teaching children the academic knowl edge they need to pass the exam and providing units that feed their intellectual curiosity (Hammond, 2014). The more willing we are to describe those differences and talk openly about power with students and adults, the more likely we are to move the work of CR-SE forward.
Confronting the Language of the Struggle
The New York State high school exit exams emerged from a push in the late-1800s to standardize education across the state. Every five to ten years, in each of the various subject areas, the State Education Department has adopted, revised, or updated outcome expectations, described as the New York State Learning Standards. In each iteration, content shaped by the mostly white, mostly male, mostly non-disabled school leaders has informed the demands placed on students and teachers. This white, ableist, hetero-normative curriculum does not account for the nuances that present in educative topics and the lives of its learners. If anything, it prioritizes and further empowers voices that have been a part of the dominant narrative. It also leverages an elitist perspective on what constitutes appropriate educational experiences.
Take, for example, a sixth grade New York State Next Generation English Language Arts standard adopted in 2017:
[D]termine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative and connotative meanings. Analyze the impact of specific word choices on meaning, tone, and mood, including words with multiple meanings. (6.R.4)
Implicitly, students are told that their interpretation is not accurate unless it reflects a larger understanding of the author’s craft. Even a cursory review of most schools’ curriculum shows patterns around which authors are considered worthy of craft analysis.
Following the latest rounds of revisions to the Learning Standards, NYS education leaders collaborated with luminaries in the field (Paris, Sealey-Ruiz, Kirkland, Ladson-Billings, etc.) to create a framework for CR-SE that was finalized in January 2018. The framework includes four pillars that, if actualized, would make a place where student voice is non-negotiable. The four pillars are:
- A welcome and affirming environment
- High expectations and rigorous instruction
- Inclusive curriculum and assessment
- Ongoing professional learning for adults aligned with the tenets of CR-SE.
The fact the CR-SE standards exist makes me hopeful. The intense focus on the Learning Standards via state-mandated tests and exams, though, makes me fear we’ll never operationalize them. Absent accountability measures, the framework becomes more of a suggestion and less of a mandate to aspire to, thereby prompting the concern that CR-SE will eventually become a peripheral thought for those who are not immensely invested. The implication is again that technical, white-dominant knowledge that’s assessed on the Regents exams is what is most worthy of students’ time and energy. Several years ago, I sat on a call with a district administrator outside the capital region of New York. When explaining the importance of CR-SE to the district’s goals, the administrator replied, “No, thanks. Our priority is only on curriculum design and assessment.” In that moment I was unable to find the words to persuade her that quality, engaging curricula simply won’t happen without embracing CR-SE.
Leaning Fully into the Struggle
I remain optimistic because I know it’s possible to work within the system while challenging white-dominant ideology to ensure students are truly centered in schools. Adults committed to CR-SE can do that by considering the connection of the skill in relation to culture and reflecting on:
- What is the real-world relationship between the skill and my students’ lives?
- How does the standard or skill dismantle supremacist practices?
- In what ways will my practice need to change?
- What asset-based language is needed?
Using the example of standard 6.R.4, and keeping in mind these questions, we can reconceptualize the standard as:
Students can use their social and linguistic background to examine the language used by an author in a text. Using their linguistic funds of knowledge analysis of the text’s terminology should reflect a personalized understanding of the concepts of mood, tone, and theme.
If differences between the author’s methodology and student practice arise, space should be afforded to reconcile the two. In restructuring the standard, the emphasis is placed on student voice in the interpretation of the concept. Coupled with this, there is attention on explicitly including students’ socio-linguistic heritage – a key attribute for literary analysis (Rosenblatt, 1995) and one that ensures that students can be producers of knowledge.
One could argue that New York State has an ethical responsibility for holding all districts responsible for the implementation of the CR-SE framework across districts and that until they do, we’ll continue to see the disparities as we do between Putnam County and the Bronx. Studies have shown that students of all ethnic, social, racial, and economic backgrounds benefit from responsive educational practices (Denson & Chang, 2009). Yet, district leaders are given different degrees of slack to pick and choose when or how they will attend to it. We then must persuade school leaders the impetus is on them.
By no means does a shift in ideology and mindset occur in a matter of days. The process can often take years. When faced with systems that feel impossible to maneuver, the endeavor is daunting. It is essential to be persistent and hold teachers accountable for their responsibility to CR-SE and equity in schools. My responsibility as a teacher educator is to provide a way forward and I’ve found the most reliable, consistent, and the best first step is the simplest: ask the students.
As a professional developer and professor, I frequently engage in collaborative or co-generative dialogues with my constituents. The feedback and information garnered yields a dynamic, dialogical shift in learning practices because the individuals I support feel valued and heard. When I encounter particularly resistant teachers, I often engage their students in a co-generative dialogue to provide the teacher with feedback. The feedback typically addresses misconstrued ideas about the teacher's efficacy as a responsive educator. Hearing straightforward feedback from students can be challenging but after working through the process, teachers are more likely to see them as co-conspirators in the fight against white supremacy and less like passive participants, just doing school.
Had Bunji Garlin (2019) released “The Struggle” while I was in the classroom, I would use the song to teach my students about allusions. I would have to weigh the pros and cons of bringing in text to self-connections about their Caribbean heritage, the references to prominent landmarks of Trinidad and Tobago, and perhaps even emphasize how one might codeswitch the analysis of the song. If I chose the assimilationist pedagogy path and focused on a close read, I would miss the opportunity to explore the migration of people from other Caribbean regions via the Gulf of Paria, Garlin’s (2019) commentary on limited economic opportunities (e.g., “was either music or badness”), or even the false narrative associated with defining wealth (2019, 0:45). The very line of “using the wrong part of speech” is a reflection of the tension all those who speak a non-conventional form of English must navigate (Garlin, 2019, 0:44). Who gets to determine where a verb should be placed? And whether or not it conveys the same idea? Doesn’t wah going on convey the same idea as what’s up?
When I began my career 15 years ago, I believed that I was a culturally responsive educator. I wrote an undergraduate dissertation about complimenting canonical texts with Indo-Caribbean young adult literature. The members of my committee lauded me for giving insight into literature that was not currently referenced in the traditional classroom context. The problem is that despite these surface level monikers, I had only begun to scratch the surface of what it meant to center students’ voice. As Garlin says, “I come from a different timing” (2019, 0:18). I had yet to probe and unpack my understanding of language and its impact on how I perceived the idea of doing school.
Since then, I’ve learned that I need to be clearer about the language of supremacy in schools. I needed to recognize that centering students requires adults negotiating their own identity and stepping back. Every time I step in front of a group of mostly white teachers at the behest of an administrator who wants me to focus on the quality of the written curriculum, I need to make a judgment call. Will this cohort of educators hear the importance of CR-SE, or will they immediately shut down because they assume I am questioning their character? In what ways can I tap into my own schooling experiences to build empathy and accessibility for CR-SE and most importantly for students’ voices?
In the first stanza of “The Struggle” Garlin (2019) focuses on finding space as a young emcee. Regardless of the circumstances, he says, “but the mic right and the light bright and you fight like a warrior” (Garlin, 2019, 0:47 - 0:48). Our children fight like warriors in spite of the attempts made to nullify learning experiences that connect to their respective lives. They see the brightness of their cultures and know its value. Through supremacist practices and ideology, we mitigate the importance of students’ cultural, linguistic and racial assets. The current state of the nation has forced a reckoning across many school districts. It is no longer acceptable to engage in pedagogical and curricular microaggressions. Educators are being held accountable. Instead, the space must be made for additional voices at the table. Now, as Garlin says, “we have to celebrate, we have to celebrate” (2019, 3:07 - 3:09). We no longer have to ask for permission to celebrate our full selves in the classroom.
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Reshma Ramkellawan, Ed.D. is a part time lecturer with Rutgers the State University of New Jersey, NJ as well as assistant adjunct faculty, The City College of New York. Her research centers on these themes and associated findings. Adhering to the ideas of Paulo Freire’s critical pedagogy, she believes that the only way to improve schools is to be disruptive in practice. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org