Teaching is cultural work.

One day I was leading a group of four kindergarten students in a word-hunting activity; we walked around the school looking for words starting with certain letters, and they would write them down in a list to show the class. One of the ELL students was struggling to find his words; another student that was with us motioned at me to lean down, and she whispered in my ear, “We should just be patient with him, he will take more time because he is Mexican.” This was such an important teaching moment, but I was at a loss for words and unfortunately said nothing. She made this statement from a position of total innocence and compassion, yet the idea she was expressing—that her peer was at a disadvantage due to his racial, ethnic, cultural identity and membership—could become damaging and harmful. Has the term “Mexican” become a restricted code for the context of immigration and struggles of learning a new language? What factors, in and out of school, have socialized this young student to believe the status of “Mexican” innately makes someone less intelligent or capable? What should I have said in response to this innocent expression of status culture?

Especially in the context of diverse classrooms, teachers have immense power and potential to shape the way their children view and understand racial, ethnic, and cultural differences. We need to make sure that we talk about culture not just as something “out there,” but also as something “in here”; in our classrooms, our families, our communities, our selves. Localizing our curriculum to allow students to explore their own immediate worlds, contexts, and communities is essential. It allows students to better understand themselves, their peers, discuss differences. It also provides a lens through which to view the culture that is “out there”; when we understand the complexity of the culture of the “home” and “self,” the culture of the “other” becomes more real and authentic. And the site for critical and creative study and fieldwork is right in our classroom’s backyard! This can also display the diversity of cultures within our own classrooms, and give value to individual students’ cultures and backgrounds. I find myself drawn to activities such as collecting and presenting cultural artifacts, or allowing students to fill the roles of researcher, interviewer, and explorer in their own homes and communities. These ideas of bringing deep engagement with the world into the classroom make me incredibly excited to teach!

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