What is Culturally Responsive Teaching? “It’s About Us”

Written on 28 April 2015, 10:21pm under Homegrown

Last week in a downtown Chicago hotel I heard education wonks and education writers mix it up on testing, free community college, digital learning and a host of education topics. Innovation. Deeper learning. It was a potpourri of education buzzwords. Then I took a field trip to the South Side to visit Gregory Michie’s middle school social studies class at Seward Academy. And my deeper learning kicked in.

“History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.” – Napoleon Bonaparte

Every historical event can be retold through the lens of the victors and the vanquished. And how we view history is shaped by our understanding of events – as conqueror or conquered. Watching this teaching concept unfold in a predominantly Latino class was eye-opening and utter bliss.

I don’t remember a lot about 7th / 8th-grade social studies. I think we took a trip to see the Liberty Bell. I know we never explored the Latino experience. And the Mexican-American War, if it was taught at all, was probably summed up with, “Booyah! We won!”

Walking into Mr. Michie’s classroom and hearing a corrido written to hail the achievements of Chicago mayoral candidate Jesús “Chuy” García was just a hint at what was to come.

An overview on lynching and other forms of racial violence inflicted on Mexicans following the war was the preview for an enlightening lesson on Gregorio Cortez, a Mexican folk hero who was portrayed in news reports of that era as a murderous villain.

“Why is it important for us to look at multiple sources when trying to learn about a historical event?”

“Based only on the newspaper, what would you think of Gregorio Cortez?”

These prompts from Greg elicited sharp and focused replies from his students, because they had the freedom in his class to turn a critical and questioning eye on what is commonly known as the truth. After listening to “El Corrido de Gregorio Cortez” and watching a clip from Hollywood’s adaptation, “The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez” gradually a fuller story emerged.

“What did you learn that wasn’t in the New York Times?”

“Why was Gregorio Cortez seen as a hero by so many Mexican Americans at that time?”

Greg’s school is in Back of the Yards, a working-class Chicago neighborhood made famous as the setting for Upton Sinclair’s landmark 1906 exposé, “The Jungle.” Today the community is populated largely by Latino immigrants and their children. Children who deal with stereotypes and misconceptions about being Latino with Mexican ancestry.

The students soaked up the knowledge that Greg showered on them, with the growing realization that there are two sides to every story and somewhere in between lies the truth. Historians believe that the legendary tale of Gregorio Cortez circles back to a language miscommunication. Most gratifying was watching these young faces smile and bloom as clarity came into focus.

Prior to the current unit Greg’s social studies class delved into the history of Native Americans and Blacks in America. One of his students proudly introduced himself by eagerly telling me that he was the one who presented on Ferguson at Chicago’s Teaching for Social Justice Curriculum Fair last November.

The value of ethnic studies is its ability to uncover the truth of racial and cultural histories that have been misrepresented and distorted for students of color and white students. It is empowering to see students experience communities of color in a new, radiant light. Greg’s class broadened my perspective and made it more relevant and real.

In academic speak: Culturally responsive teaching increases student engagement, fosters a sense of belonging, and helps students critically examine race, ethnicity and culture with fresh eyes. All important. Though nothing compares to seeing this through a 7th-grader’s eyes: “It’s about us. We can express ourselves. It’s fun.”

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