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How does culture impact our ability to learn?

Some insight into how culture can impact a student’s ability to participate and learn

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.

How teachers can address these gaps

Schools should be striving for equity, where every learner is getting what he or she needs to be successful. Providing equity initially means understanding the areas of instruction that influence the achievement gap and how to tailor lessons to different learning and cultural needs.

Regarding literacy, Berry-Jones identified four key areas that can impact achievement and are affected by culture:

  • listening and speaking
  • thinking
  • reading
  • writing

For example, when approaching how students think, teachers need to consider students’ life experiences before the classroom, their world view, and the ways in which their thoughts have been shaped by their community.

In addition, Berry-Jones advocates for teachers to develop a culturally self-sustaining pedagogy, which requires deliberate instruction and practice.

  1. First, teachers need coaching and constructive feedback to understand how they can improve their skills; they also need to be open to learning new ideas and techniques.
  2. More important, educators must offer consistency and persevere with even the most difficult students. The problem is not that students don’t want to learn, but there are other cultural influences interfering with their ability to learn. Teachers must provide opportunities for students to share their worldview and take charge of their education.

“We can push our learners so much further, not by putting more and more information in front of them, but by…believing that they can do what we’re asking them to do and stretching them and giving them opportunities through discussion,” said Berry-Jones. “Let them talk peer-to-peer about what they’re seeing, what they’re learning, what they’re reading. Furthering that conversation is what keeps students interested and engaged in instruction. It’s not our song and dance routine.”

About the Presenter

Almitra Berry-Jones, Ed.D., is a nationally recognized speaker, author, and consultant on the topic of culturally and linguistically diverse learners at risk. Her research focuses on academic achievement in majority-minority, high-poverty, large, urban school districts. She is author of the book Effecting Change: Intervention for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Learners. Berry-Jones has taught, trained, and supervised reading/language arts implementations (regular, intervention, bilingual/dual immersion, and special education) throughout the United States with an emphasis on direct instruction. She has presented at scores of state, national, and international conferences on the topics of leadership, curriculum reform, and meeting the needs of students at risk.

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This broadcast was hosted by and sponsored by Achieve3000.

The recording of the edWebinar can be viewed by anyone here.

[Editor’s note: This piece is original content produced by View more events here.]

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