Hello Dear Marshmallow Peeps! It was been a while, and for that I must apologize. Both Maki and I have been underwater with our respective families since March, when quarantine started. I’m sure this situation sounds familiar to most of you. And now, well, here we are. Another school year is upon us. For us, it is happening online. I’m not sure what to expect from this, though it means a lot of screen time. Not great. But better than getting COVID-19, so there’s that.
During these past few months, I have been reflecting on a great many things. Things are messy and complicated, and because of the threat the pandemic poses, we really have had to slow down and evaluate everything that has happened. This slow down presents us with a unique opportunity. One that allows us to rethink how things are done.
I’m sure many of you noticed there were certain aspects to distance learning that actually worked better for your child than when they were in their usual classroom, at least in the iteration of distance learning that was experienced at the end of the last school year (2019-2020). According to a report presented in Psychology Today (the survey was conducted by the non-profit Let Grow), children ages 8-13 actually coped well with the school closures. The majority of children stated they felt more calm and less stressed than when they were attending their regular school in-person. Though they missed many aspects of in-person schooling, the children also reported they liked being able to work at their own pace (this was for distance learning programs where the majority of the lessons were happening asynchronously). There are some obvious lessons to be gleaned from these survey results and begs us to question how to better our children’s schooling.
Can we bring some of the positives that we have experienced from these atypical pandemic-driven circumstances back to the in-person school experience? And can we make the current distance learning experience more equitable? The majority of public school curricula are written and presented with a white middle class world view. Clearly this is problematic, especially considering 50% of children attending public schools are not caucasian and come from a wide range of cultural, social and economic backgrounds.
Celebrating and exploring diversity in cultures is an important part of creating a more equitable classroom experience. Children need to see themselves and their experiences reflected in the curriculum. I came across a compelling approach to achieve this goal in KQED’s Mindshift newsletter and podcast. They were covering a concept called Cultural Relevant Teaching. Cultural Relevant Teaching is an effective and meaningful approach to creating a more engaging learning environment. By centering diverse cultural examinations, students’ confidence and self-worth increases and they, in turn, become more engaged in their learning experiences.
When I think back on my own experiences as an elementary school student, I can’t help but see how this approach would have brought a much more positive experience to all of us in the classroom. Even small gestures expressing curiosity about our different cultures would have made a big difference. But back in the 80s, this, of course, wasn’t even on the radar. I distinctly remember in second grade (and forgive me if I have already written about this experience, but it is one that I recall fairly often) having a project where the class was making holiday cards. Our class had a choice of either making a Christmas card or a Hanukkah card for our families (I grew up in central NJ where there is a large Jewish community, so the Jewish holidays were recognized in the academic calendar and in the holiday-centric curriculum alongside the Christian ones). In our class there was a handful of Indian kids whose families were Hindu and did not celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah. When one of the Indian kids raised his hand and asked the teacher, “What should we do if we don’t celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah?” The other Indian kids looked expectantly at the teacher, nodding their heads to silently say, “Yes, this question is also relevant to me.” Our teacher looked at my classmate and simply said, “Oh, just pick one.” The Indian student sighed, nodded and said, “Ok,” in a rather resigned tone and got to work on a Hanukkah card which would surely be met with slight confusion when offered to his parents later in the week.
Clearly, for our class, this moment was a missed opportunity. We could have had a chance to talk about all of our different holiday traditions and learned something new about each other and our greater community. Instead, we were indirectly told that we must conform to a majority standard.
Research has shown when trust is built within a community, that community stays connected. Makes sense, right? So it seems we are currently in a moment where Culturally Relevant Teaching practices can effectively build relationships while students are home engaging in distance learning. It is a chance to bring family histories into our children’s classrooms, contextualizing the moment we are in now through the lens of the unique experiences of classroom parents and grandparents. Did they participate in marches and demonstrations in their youth? What stories were in the news when they were 9 years old? How did those stories affect their lives at home? With these histories blended into the distance learning classroom, it can enrich, broaden the vision of who are the people in any given class, and instill the values of equity and inclusivity. A celebrated, culturally diverse classroom allows teachers and students to see themselves for who they are, and not for who they are not.
Let’s dare to re-imagine the classroom experience and do the work to make sure the education our children experience is fair, inclusive, and respectful of each individual. If we do not take the time to imagine what we want, how can we effectively troubleshoot the problems we experiencing now?
In deep gratitude,