When educators think about diversity in the classroom, culture may be one of the characteristics that crosses their mind. But as they select their curriculum and develop their lessons, most teachers are not accounting for how culture will impact a student’s ability to participate and learn, says Almitra Berry-Jones, Ed.D., nationally recognized speaker, author, and consultant on the topic of culturally and linguistically diverse learners at-risk. In her edWebinar, “Cultural Relevance and Academic Equity in the Age of ESSA,” Berry-Jones explained how understanding the impact of culture, adopting a student-first mindset, and creating multiple points of engagement with the same content will help teachers move toward academic equity in their classroom.
First, Berry-Jones discussed culture—the values and beliefs students bring to the classroom. Culture is a social construct, not genetic, and most students have at least three: home, peer, and school. The language and behaviors for each one is different, and for many students, the language at home is so divergent that entering school is like going to a foreign country and speaking a new language. For example, students may come from a home in which children are told to be seen and not heard, so speaking up and participating in class seems wrong to them. Or, what some teachers see as a behavior disorder is just the contrast between the culture at home and at school.
Also, educators need to think about students who don’t “speak the language of school.” There is a connection between the poverty level a student grows up in, the educational achievement of the students’ parents, and language. Poverty often creates a developmental burden that manifests in a word gap and populations of kids who are not ready to learn. More important, there is also a feedback gap because most of these kids’ interactions with adults have been negative. The students arrive in kindergarten not understanding the role of the teacher or how to develop a positive relationship with him or her.