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February 13, 2020
Vol. 15
No. 11

A Cultural Lens Leads to More Effective Teaching

Teachers in training often receive limited introduction to the importance of multicultural education. Many don't learn how to design culturally responsive curricula and instructional strategies. Such was my experience, and as I began my teaching career in a small rural school district in Southeast Alaska, I quickly learned how the layers of a local culture are critical components for effective education.
When considering what "culture" means, people most often examine its surface: the clothing, music, art, dance, and stories. These aspects are the low-hanging fruit. Although representative of students' experiences and important to understand, they do not reach the depths of who students are as people or inform teachers how to teach in culturally responsive ways.

An Unfamiliar Classroom

In rural Southeast Alaska, where I teach, indigenous people comprise the dominant culture in many schools. Nonnative teachers like me are often out of step with the community's (and therefore the school's) local culture. I had westernized assumptions about how people learn that weren't serving my students well. What I experienced growing up as an American military brat was different from what my students learned and experienced growing up in Tlingit culture. The classroom management strategies I followed (raising your hand if you had a question or adhering to rigid start times) went against local customs. Children are taught to listen and learn through oral histories and not to interrupt, which is seen as disrespectful. Starting right on time didn't make sense to my students' wilderness lifestyle, in which fishing patterns or the weather determine the schedule and demand a slower pace.
These differences manifested not only in the way I taught, but also in school customs. During my first year of teaching in a small village, the community held a welcome dinner for me. I invited my students to serve themselves food first and later learned I had offended one of the elders. It is customary for elders to always eat first, and I, as the rookie, didn't think to ask.
Though I've lived in Alaska for 30 years now and have adopted pieces of that lifestyle into my culture (storing food and firewood for winter, patience while traveling in inclement weather), I recognized long ago that there were parts of my students' experiences I would need to work hard to understand. Because of the internet, my students have a broader view of the world than I ever did, even though they live in a rural place. They connect with and learn from others locally, nationally, and globally on social media. In addition to their generational traditions, these experiences are also a part of their culture. I needed to learn from them to become a better teacher for them. I became the student.

Relationships First

I began by asking students about more subtle cultural aspects. They taught me about how, in many Alaska Native cultures, direct eye contact is offensive, particularly when young people are talking to adults. They taught me about local foods like fish oil, Indian cheese, and Eskimo ice cream and the techniques for gathering and preserving them. Understanding family relationships was especially crucial. In Tlingit culture, the maternal uncle teaches his sister's sons activities such as hunting and fishing.
Once I understood these dynamics, the level of connection with my students and families grew. I tried to form relationships with all the people who were in my students' lives and was far more respectful of students missing school. If there was a funeral, students would be absent for several days as they observed customary traditions, ceremonies, and feasts. In turn, students and families understood that I cared and wanted to learn.

Relevant Lessons

I've also witnessed how teachers in our district have made efforts to learn more about the strong connection between culture and student motivation. Students learn better when their cultural values and practices are reflected and respected in the curriculum. Our collective understanding has led us to create more relevant assignments. Because gathering food is an important part of community life, students write about trapping and fish wheels. We learn about making jam and preserving fish in class. Our writing and math centers around the price of furs and salmon and how much money you can make based on the season.
Singing is a large part of Tlingit culture, so we make room for it when we can. One spring, orcas came into the bay near the school, close to shore—a sign of good luck. One of the school's dance group leaders grabbed her drum and took students to the beach to sing and welcome the orcas. In our middle school, we use Classcraft, a point system with avatars and prizes for class rewards that motivates students interested in gaming. Instead of forcing students who start the school year late because they fish commercially to comply with a strict schedule, the district makes accommodations through migrant education programs that support their education without limiting their work on the fishing grounds.

A Page from History

While generations-old traditions serve as a foundation for local lifestyles and cultural development, other influences also leave their mark. I took my 4th and 5th grade class to read the stories they wrote in class to elders at the senior center. Over time, the elders shared their own stories about past injustices that still impact the community. Historical trauma caused by Russian and American policies led to the brutal treatment of Alaska Natives only two generations ago. These elders recall being beaten for speaking their native language, singing songs, or wearing traditional clothes. By helping students make sense of these histories and experiences in age-appropriate ways, the elders grew students' cultural understanding in ways a nonnative educator like me couldn't. Teachable moments about racism often came out and led to lengthy conversations when we returned to our classrooms.
For a teacher working outside of her or his "cultural zone," understanding different cultures is critical for more effective teaching. Knowing who students are as individuals and meeting their unique needs and interests is the foundation of learning.

Salili, F., Chiu, C., Lai, S. (2001) The Influence of Culture and Context on Students' Motivational Orientation and Performance. In: Salili, F., Chiu, C.Y., Hong, Y.Y. (eds) Student Motivation. Plenum Series on Human Exceptionality. Springer, Boston, MA. Retrieved from: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-1-4615-1273-8_11

Volante, L., DeLuca, C., & Klinger, D.A. (7 Feb 2019) Here's how teaching must adapt in the age of globalization. World Economic Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/02/culturally-responsive-teaching-in-a-globalized-world/

Kerrie Carl is a contributor to ASCD Express.

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