by Alexis Valentin | 07.20.17
In my seven years of teaching, I’ve come to see that one of my most important purposes as an educator – even as a colleague and a learner myself – is creating an environment that raises the cultural consciousness around me.
I identify myself as Mexican: My mom, a teacher herself, is Mexican, and my father is white European. Unlike my mom, who was one of the only Mexicans in her school, I grew up in the very diverse Palm Beach County. I teach there now, and my ethnicity is one of the ways I’m able to form connections with my students and their families.
Even still, understanding the importance of raising cultural consciousness wasn’t immediately clear to me – especially as a kindergarten teacher. I started off assuming my little kids, just five or six years old, would be totally immune to things like racial bias. But after joining the Teachers for Equity fellowship and learning ways to identify and overcome bias, I realized I had been naïve. Yes, even five- and six-year-olds are susceptible to racial bias. And yes, I could do something about it.
One day I used a resource from Teaching Tolerance, a short story called SWOOSH!, that starts with a drawing of a girls’ basketball team – the player in the middle wearing a hijab. I asked my kindergarteners, “What do you notice?” “What do you observe?” After a few minutes of basic answers like “They’re all girls” and “They’re all wearing uniforms,” one student said the girl in the middle was “from a different country.” I asked why, and he responded, “Because she’s wearing different clothes.”
I so desperately wanted to react in that moment, to correct him and teach the whole class you can’t know where someone comes from just by looking at them. But I had to curb it. I’ve learned through my trainings with the Teachers for Equity fellowship how critical it is to listen mindfully – that is, listening not to respond or draw conclusions, but simply to understand. I’ve found these mindful inquiry techniques and Lee Mun Wah’s The Art of Mindful Facilitation very helpful here.
I’ve learned to ask myself how my students’ beliefs – like those that caused this student to say the player in the hijab was from a different country – affect how they make friends, what books they pick up at the library, how they treat their peers in the hallways.
Then, from that understanding, I can step in as an educator and offer texts, activities and resources that can expand my students’ knowledge. That’s how I promote equity and build cultural consciousness in my classroom.
I’ve seen the significant difference pursuing equity in class has made: An example is in my students’ “author bios,” where they decide how to portray what’s important for others to know about them. Now, after talking about race and equity in class, they’re writing “I’m Jewish” or “I’m Indian.” One student even wrote, “I’m caramel brown.” I’d never seen that before. But now they know it’s another thing to celebrate about themselves. It’s something that matters.
I’d encourage all teachers to think about what you can do to raise cultural consciousness and promote equity in your classrooms. Try mindful listening with your students and see what you learn. With mindful listening as your new approach, I bet you’ll start looking around and identifying inequitable practices on an even wider scale.
At my school, that same awareness helped us realize that our student body was 22 percent black students – but black students made up only eight percent of the gifted/high-achieving program. That’s not equitable. Enrollment had been based on teacher referral, and research shows that teacher bias is one of the biggest players in racial inequity in gifted programs. So we added a universal screening process for gifted students, and I can’t wait to see how the new process will improve equity next year.
No matter how you decide to approach equity and raise cultural consciousness around you, you’re empowering the next generation to have a bigger worldview and providing them with what they need to succeed – and I think that’s one of the most powerful and important things we as educators can do.