Uncertainty, Insight, and Hope: My Personal Journey in Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

  • High School
Jeniffer Pitharoulis

Had I come across the phrase “culturally sustaining pedagogy” six months ago, I would have struggled to grasp its meaning. As a new teacher 13 years ago, with the help of education sites like Teaching Tolerance and ReadWriteThink, I employed learning activities to help students identify and analyze diversity-enervating attitudes, beliefs, and practices. While such discussions and assignments were valuable to my students’ perceptions of themselves and others, and while they did help create a safe, respectful classroom environment, on Banks’s “Levels of Integration of Multicultural Content,” they mostly fell into Level 1: “Contributions Approach” and Level 2: “Additive Approach” instead of reaching Level 3: “Transformation Approach” or Level 4: “Social Action Approach.”

Banks four levels of integration of ethnic content Source Banks 2009

James A. Banks, a leader in multicultural education, identifies four levels of multicultural integration into the classroom.

This school year, I began my personal foray into the exploration of culturally sustaining pedagogy and its implications for today’s classrooms.

As an instructor of the AP Capstone Seminar course the past two years, I experienced first-hand a curriculum that explicitly integrates an inquiry-based approach to students seeking out, evaluating, and synthesizing multiple diverse perspectives. This transformative way of teaching and structuring the classroom helped me understand the possibilities and the power in having students explore viewpoints that differ from their own. Ironically, since the program’s 2015 inception, the annually shifting selection of required short texts are nearly exclusively from White male authors/artists.  Only four of its total 24 required in-class assessment texts thus far are from women authors/artists (literally one per year), and the solitary minority-authored text from last year was also the only one authored by a female. The topic of that lone diverse text? Feminism.

For me, just as mortifying as College Board’s dearth of multicultural representation is the fact that it took me nearly two years of thoroughly incorporating the texts into the classroom to notice it. Perhaps that was my first wake-up call.

“As educators, we must first examine our own positionality, or how our values, race, gender, social class, and other aspects of our identity shape our understanding of the world.”

According to Kristin Kibler and Lindsey Chapman, authors of “Six Tips for Using Culturally Relevant Texts in Diverse Classrooms,” honest self-reflection is the first step toward growing a culturally rich classroom. “As educators, we must first examine our own positionality, or how our values, race, gender, social class, and other aspects of our identity shape our understanding of the world.” This tenet is reflected in personal goals I wrote for myself a couple months ago, which include to “continue to build my capacity for empathy and to increase my open-mindedness” and to “purposefully assume best intentions in others.” Changes like the local legalization of marijuana and a shift in our nation’s leadership brought to light my tendency to use my personal choices and lifestyle as a barometer to judge others’ decisions and circumstances. Fortuitously, as I have been working on my goals, I have both formally received and randomly stumbled upon multiple resources and opportunities in their direct support.

One facet of my new role as a district literacy and humanities facilitator is my participation in work sessions on tribal sovereignty curriculum as outlined in OSPI’s Since Time Immemorial (STI). My collaboration with educators who are members of the Tulalip tribes in Marysville both inspires and challenges my thinking about how to change the structure of curriculum and delivery (Banks’s Level 3) and create opportunities for students to make decisions and take actions to solve important social issues (Banks’s Level 4). As a language arts teacher endeavoring to achieve maximum student engagement, I worked hard to incorporate experiential and narrative-based learning experiences in my classroom, but nowhere near the level modeled by native educators and described in the STI resources. On a personal note, this work has also helped me analyze my perception of time. In last month’s STI session, we read and discussed a chapter titled “Finding Sustenance: An Indigenous Relational Pedagogy” from Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies by Django Paris and H. Samy Alim. A reverential description of the ways and beliefs of Rosalie Little Thunder, a Sicangu Lakota elder, described her traditional, self-determining approach to time: how she valued the journey as opposed to the arrival and made sure to indulge in relationships and visiting instead of fulfilling agenda items. This relationship to time is reflected in the readings I completed as I studied for the West-E Exam to earn my EL endorsement. I learned that students from “polychronic” cultures value flexibility over punctuality and value relationships over task-completion. This is antithesis to my regimented lifestyle, and I wonder to what extent my fastidiously structured lessons and our school system’s highly ordered schedules have helped and hindered students from diverse cultures.

"Paris and Alim's Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies provides valuable insights and resources for educational justice and cultural pluralism"

Another organization that has supported my journey in culturally sustaining pedagogy is the Literacy Learning Network through the Northwest Educational Service District. In the November convening, I engaged in a self-directed learning exploration of resources on diversity. In addition to the importance of recognizing my own socio-cultural identity and determining its effects on my choices and behaviors in the classroom, I created a list of key questions based on my takeaways from the research-aligned best practices:

  • Does your classroom bookshelf reflect a range of diverse texts with regard to race, culture, socioeconomic status, geography, interests and hobbies, family structure, gender identity and sexual orientation?
  • Does your curriculum reflect a range of diverse peoples with regard to the above descriptors?
  • Do the walls of your classroom reflect the personal identities, backgrounds, and work of your students? What about the walls of your school?
  • Do your learning activities, assignments, and assessments offer opportunities for student voice and student choice?
  • Do you provide community-building and discussion structures that create and maintain a safe learning environment that values a variety of perspectives?
  • Do you provide opportunities for students to learn with, from, and about one another?
  • Do you consistently demonstrate high expectations and encourage a growth mindset for all students?

While I have gained some ground in developing an understanding of culturally sustaining pedagogy and building a collection of tools for supporting educators in our collaborative endeavor to enact culturally sustaining practices, I feel overwhelmed by the challenges. The work is imperative, but it is resource-intensive. Where will we find the funds, the time, and the expertise necessary purchase or create curriculum, train teachers, and transform classrooms and buildings? More daunting is the challenge of converting people’s hearts and minds. Phrases like “white privilege” and directives or even implorations to change ingrained teaching practices often make educators feel attacked and defensive.

"The younger generation can offer educators lessons in acceptance and inclusion."

Even so, I am optimistic. My 19-year old son has more friends of minority than white backgrounds. His peers’ families, most of whom immigrated here within the past few decades, have included him in their daily activities, formal traditions, and dinnertime conversations. He is mystified about why my generation has so much baggage around race, culture, and gender identity, and he is especially bemused by the “backwards” beliefs of his grandparents and great grandparents. I have noticed similar trends in my students over the past several years. They are generally interested in and supportive of one another’s diverse experiences, backgrounds, and beliefs. These young people make me believe in the certainty of Martin Luther King Jr.’s Dream. However, we must act in accordance with related truth also described by that great leader: “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.”

  • English Language Arts
  • Teacher Leadership
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