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Because of bell: On Sustaining and Generating Culture in Schools

Updated: Mar 9, 2022

When people say things like, "Keep Culture Out of Schools!" I'm always perplexed since schools have long been cultural institutions. They've just historically focused on White culture or forms of multiculturalism, which were centered on distinct cultures sacrificing parts of themselves in exchange for a fusion of cultures (think melting pot) that merely results in whiteness at the heart.

If we are to create a collective future where all can thrive we must move from a culture steeped in whiteness to a place of plurality and appreciation, not erasure and melting pots; there is beauty, power, and potential in our diversity as illustrated through the bell hooks quote above.

At Educating Marissa, are inspired by the definition of culture as outlined in the Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Framework and Zaretta's Hammond's Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain.

  • Culture far transcends practices such as cuisines, art, music, and celebrations.

  • Culture exists on multiple levels. There are our shallow, surface, and deep forms of culture. Our deep culture informs how we navigate the world: our ways of thinking and being, our values, and our forms of expression.

  • Culture is an amalgamation of our identities: including our race, economic background, gender, language, sexual orientation, nationality, religion, ability, and so on. We move through the world from these unique intersections of ourselves.

  • Culture informs how we connect with others.

  • Culture, like our identities, is not static. It is in constant flux, renegotiation, and evolution.

Institutionally Generated Culture

Schools and other socially established institutions are meeting places for distinct cultures as generators of new ones. We've all heard of educational, corporate, and organizational cultures. This is because there is an emergence of a unique culture formed in any environment by both societal and internal forces.

These environments then become containers for children and adults who bring with them multiple facets of their identity, along with unique experiences and perspectives. From this standpoint, learning is founded in people's lives and experiences and cultivated by activities that they consider meaningful.

Teaching, therefore, should be rooted in students' lives. If not, then learning suffers and worse yet, there is the potential for perpetual harm. Biases take the place of curiosity when biases are left unchecked; deficit mindsets become commonplace on both the micro and macro levels of the system. From a superficial disconnected viewpoint, student failure is attributed to numerous factors. The students are blamed, their families are criticized, the teachers are condemned, and the curriculum is faulted. Because schools reflect many cultures and generate their own culture, culture has a profound impact on how students experience schools.

Sociocultural Consciousness

Teachers who haven't developed sociocultural awareness will rely on their own experiences to make sense of students' lives—a thoughtless habit that frequently leads to misinterpretations of those students' circumstances and results in miscommunication and mistreatment.

Students from cultures with a more collectivist worldview may be disregarded in class, assumed to be less capable than their classmates, and/or overlooked because they do not seek individual attention.

To develop sociocultural consciousness, teachers need to look beyond individual students and families to understand inequities in society. In all social systems, some positions are|accorded greater status than others, and such status differentiation gives rise to differential access to power. Members of the school community need to be aware of the role that schools play in both perpetuating and challenging those inequities.

Social Learning is Key

From the earliest years, children are socialized into their culture. In some cases, schools reinforce dominant cultural values and practices, while in others schools may work to resist or interrupt such tendencies. The important point is that culture matters—to individuals and to society as a whole. It is incumbent on all of us who work within the educational system to try and understand the multiple and diverse cultures that we encounter in our work and how these cultures influence education.

Professional development carried out in groups and guided by an experienced facilitator who is knowledgeable about culture is vital. There should be spaces for reflecting on the well-documented fact that a person’s social class is the best predictor of academic success and future social standing (Natriello, McDill, &Pallas, 1990). By reading and discussing accounts of successful teaching and learning in diverse settings (see Garcia,1999; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Nieto & Rolón,1997), members of the school community can develop a vision of how they and their schools can challenge such inequities.

Start Here...

Inspirational Reading: Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

bell taught us well. In here loving memory, I want us to remember that we are all in this together (cue High School Music), and it will take all of us at our best to co-create a liberated future where all can thrive. More on bell...

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