Where Do You Belong?

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The first day of school…especially middle school…is one filled with excitement and dread wrapped up in one. I think most students approach the first day of school with the question of where do they fit in among their peers? In other words, where do they “belong”? And to be honest, it’s something they will likely revisit over and over and over again. I mean, adolescence and puberty. ‘Nuff said.

What I was thinking about today is how can I get to know my students beyond what they want to show me (and their peers)? I’ve thought about giving students a getting to know you survey on the first day of school, but for some reason, I haven’t taken that step. Until now.

This summer as I contemplated how I can shore up my skills regarding culturally responsive teaching practices, two areas come to mind: developing a cultural diversity knowledge base and cultural congruity in classroom instruction (Gay, 2002). I believe having students fill out a survey during the first couple of days of school is one way that I can get the background information I need to design a learning environment that supports the diverse needs of my students.

The Google form survey that I plan to use is called Tell Me About You. It’s a bit on the lengthy side so I may break that up into two different surveys so that it’s not too taxing on my kiddoes. I’m also thinking about sending a note home to parents/guardians to ask them how I can support their child in my class. However, since many of the families speak a different language other than English that might pose a problem in getting responses from them. I need to think this second part through a bit more.

But I think the Tell Me About You survey is a good place to begin the process of not only getting to know my students, but also getting to know about their strengths, concerns, dreams, etc. Perhaps using this as a starting point for a discussion between peers might be a way to help them develop a sense of community as well. I haven’t incorporated Bingo as a getting to know you scavenger hunt in many years, but maybe this year I will resurrect that activity.

So many ideas…


Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106–116. doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003



Resource: Facing History

Teachers can be easily overwhelmed with the number of resources available to help us do our jobs…but I’m going to add another one anyway.

Facing History and Ourselves is a site that challenges teachers and students to “Be the change that you wish to see in the world” (Mahatma Gandhi). This website contains lessons and activities that teach students how to critically assess historical events that epitomized prejudice, hatred, intolerance, and racism (to name a few). Children–our students–are constantly exposed to dysfunctional relationships and interactions in video games, movies, and TV. What they see informs their mindset and potential actions.

To address social justice issues, it is important that teachers use events from history to teach students to ask the difficult questions, develop empathy, and critically analyze the details. Social justice focuses on equity and equality as a basic human right, empowerment, and promotion of social responsibility. But social justice issues are not solely regulated to the past. Unfortunately, our current social and political climate continues to offer a plethora of social justice issues. Some of our students (or at least their parents) fled their home countries because of civil unrest, injustice, and even genocide. What better way to make learning meaningful and relevant but to have them explore the historical events that prompted their parents to seek a better life here in the United States? And why not also explore why others have not been able to leave? What barriers exist that prevent people from escaping the various types of injustices inflicted upon them?

So all this begs the question, how can we help our students to become informed citizens? To give them the confidence that they voices matter? To show them that they can BE THE CHANGE?

Well, I think one good place to begin is by exploring the Facing History and Ourselves site. But this stuff isn’t just for the history classrooms; social justice issues do not exist within a particular realm or discipline. All educators have a responsibility to teach students about their civic duty, to empower them with knowledge, and to give them a voice.

Let’s be the change.


So what? Now what? 

I will be the first to admit that I don’t utilize TED Talks as much as I should. But when I do, I am always impressed with the topics and speakers. One video, in particular, resonated with me “How to fix a broken school? Lead fearlessly, love hard” by Linda Cliatt-Wayman. Growing up in an impoverished neighborhood in Philadelphia, she returned as a teacher and then an administrator. Her TED Talk is posted below.

I think this video is a must-watch for teachers at least once a year. It’s a good reminder of why we do what we do. Now, I don’t work at an inner city school with the same obstacles as Cliatt-Wayman, but I do work at a Title I school with its own share of issues. But no matter where you work or the issues your school has, I think her slogans are spot-on:

  • If you’re going to lead…LEAD
  • So what? Now what?
  • If nobody told you they loved you today, remember I do, and I always will

Cliatt-Wayman never referred to culturally responsive teaching practices in her talk, but the way she went about changing the school culture at Strawberry Mansion utilized several components that empowered students, gave each of them a voice, and displayed empathy for what they (her students) were going through. One component of culturally responsive teaching practices that Cliatt-Wayman exemplified without a doubt is demonstrate cultural caring and build a learning community (Gay, 2002). She changed the school culture and climate not only for her students but for the faculty and staff by her actions, words, and follow-through.

Some aspects of her talk that resonated with me include the following (most of these are direct quotes):

  • Non-negotiables for positive behavior.
  • I love my students. I only see what they can become.
  • Spend time with them. Talk with them.
  • Weekly Town Home meeting (for students).
  • Every moment is a teachable moment.
  • My reward? Their earned respect. Because of this, we can accomplish things together.
  • Focus. Tradition. Excellence. Integrity. Perseverance.
  • Education can truly change their lives.
  • Every one of our students is a child.
  • We should always provide them with hope.

How can one not be inspired to do what’s best and what’s right by our students after watching her TED Talk? I believe the students were attracted to what Cliatt-Wayman had to say because she was once one of them. She wore those shoes. But that doesn’t mean that those of us who did not grow up with the same challenges as our students cannot be effective educators. It just means that we need to listen with our heart. We need to break the pedagogy of poverty cycle (Haberman, 2010). Our students–still children–want to learn. We can begin by providing a supportive, caring, and safe learning environment for them.

So what? Now what?


Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106–116. doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003

Haberman, M. (2010). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 92, 81-87. doi:10.1177/003172171009200223

Mind the Gap


I cannot believe that summer is almost halfway over. Where did the time go? Luckily, I still have time to figure out how best to inform my colleagues about what I’ve learned regarding cultural competence and social justice. Because I’m a visual learner, I put together a mindmap (a revised version of Buzan’s format) to see areas where my school could address gaps in our efforts to offer a supportive and nurturing environment for our diverse learners.

Because I serve on the instructional leadership team, I am in a position to offer suggestions for our faculty PD day which typically occurs in February. I think perhaps sharing some resources (see below) along with a presentation with key points about multicultural education would be a good place to start. While our staff is ethnically and racially diverse, most of us were educated in America which means that many of us may not be aware of the unconscious bias that may be reflected in our non-verbal and verbal communication with students and parents.

Reflection is an important aspect of personal growth. Most teachers spend quite a bit of time in reflection, of that I have no doubt. But perhaps the reflection needs to be more targeted in that we should consider how we interact with students–our actions, our words, and, more importantly, our expectations for their academic achievement. In other words, we need to take some time for some serious introspection. Perhaps our faculty PD day could offer time for that.


Au, K. (2018). Isn’t culturally responsive instruction just good teaching? Social Education, 73, 179–183.  Retrieved from http://www.socialstudies.org

Borba, M. (2009). Caring closes the language-learning gap. Phi Delta Kappan, 90, 681–685. doi:10.1177/003172170909000915

Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for culturally responsive teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53, 106–116. doi:10.1177/0022487102053002003

Haberman, M. (2010). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 92, 81-87.doi:10.1177/003172171009200223

Lam, W. S. E. (2013). What immigrant students can teach us about new media literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 94, 62–65. doi:10.1177/003172171209400416

Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18–29). Washington DC: Teaching for Change.

Learning Spaces

IMG_9714.jpgWhat I love about Twitter is that I am constantly exposed to questions, advice, and reflections from educators around the globe. It’s both a fishbowl and a mirror.

The tweet that you see to the right came across my Twitter feed a few days ago and it resonated with me in light of the book I’ve been reading Cultural Diversity and education: Foundations, Curriculum, and Teaching by James Banks (2016). 

One of Banks’ (2016) five dimensions of multicultural education focuses on an empowering school culture and social structure which is defined as “grouping and labeling practices, sports participation, disproportionality in achievement, and the interaction of the staff and students across ethnic and racial lines” (p. 4). And then it dawned on me…what is the non-verbal story of my school?

When students walk through our gates, what do they see besides an immaculate campus? Do they see evidence of the cultural diversity that exists on our campus? Are there images or media that reflect the multicultural makeup of our local community? What about the MPR? The library/media center? The individual classrooms?

And then I thought…what do our parents see when they walk through the doors of our front office? Our school was newly modernized so parents will see a clean layout in the front office. Our front office staff is super friendly (and represent a variety of ethnicities and races to boot)…but is there anything else that represents the diverse and multicultural makeup of ALL our stakeholders? Are there any connections to local businesses and the community?

I’m not proposing that we hang up posters that represent the various nationalities, ethnicities, and races of our faculty, staff, and students and leave it at that. Because that’s just cosmetic (Nieto, 2008). What my school needs to consider is what is the non-verbal story our school is telling students? What is the non-verbal story our school is telling parents? What is the non-verbal story our school is telling the community?

To foster an empowering school culture and school structure, we need to put our heads together to figure out how our current school structure and physical environment can reflect our multicultural and diverse student body. Because right now, the non-verbal story of our school is pretty benign. I mean, the campus is certainly pretty, but the story is pretty benign.

Looks like we have our work cut out for us.


Banks, J. A. (2016). Cultural diversity and education: Foundations, curriculum, and teaching (6th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

Nieto, S. (2008). Affirmation, solidarity and critique: Moving beyond tolerance in education. In E. Lee, D. Menkart, & M. Okazawa-Rey (Eds.), Beyond heroes and holidays (pp. 18-29). Washington, DC: Teaching for Change.

Reality Bites

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Empowerment Mindset

I work at an urban school. The students who walk through my doors come from a variety of cultures, ethnicities, races, and geographic regions. I have students who are immigrants and those who were born here to immigrant parents. Most of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. My school is surrounded by a concrete jungle, jam-packeted between single-family homes, apartments, and strip malls. We are located in an area that used to see quite a bit of violence due to gang warfare (which has luckily died down in the past 10 years #knockonwood). With all that, I have to say that I was unaware of the concept called pedagogy of poverty…but apparently, this is something I have be unconsciously supporting with my teaching practices.

That bites.

What’s the pedagogy of poverty, you ask?

Here’s the cliff notes version:

  1. Teaching is what teachers do (Haberman, 2010, p. 83)
  2. Learning is what students do (Haberman, 2010, p. 83)
  3. Compliance is an expectation for students
  4. Ranking or tracking is unavoidable due to the wide disparity in academic achievement
  5. Basic skills are a prerequisite for learning and living (Haberman, 2010, p. 83)

The pedagogy of poverty rests on the idea that compliance is what students know how to do. It’s easy. All students have to do is follow the directions of the teacher. And let’s be honest, it’s also easy for teachers because it means we are in control. But that does not mean that students are learning and it certainly does nothing to empower them in their learning process.

How do we break this cycle?

While, I cannot claim any type of expertise on this matter, I do have an idea of what we can do to empower our students in their learning process. As educators we need to equip our students with the knowledge that they (students) are in the driver’s seat (Haberman, 2010). The extent of their learning and the personal growth they achieve is entirely up to them. But it’s not enough to just tell them that (in-one-ear-and-out-the-other, right?). They have to be reminded of it. Like, a thousand times.

So here’s my plan. Since student blogging is something I plan to add to my curriculum next year, I think I’ll have my students blog on ways that they can develop a mindset for empowerment (see image at the beginning of this post) or maybe it’s more a reflective piece about how they were empowered. Whatever the case, the pedagogy of poverty cycle needs to be–must be–broken and it begins with a mindset change. Both for me and for my students.

Challenge accepted.


Haberman, M. (2010). The pedagogy of poverty versus good teaching. Phi Delta Kappan, 92, 81-87. doi:10.1177/003172171009200223


What’s in a Name?

I had to take a multicultural course as part of the credential program at California State University, Long Beach (#gobeach). In that class, we read the book The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros. It was an interesting read and as a bibliophile, I naturally kept the book as I figured at some point, I’d go back and reread it.

I find it funny how the universe seems to circle back.

When looking at lesson ideas for my student blogs on the Facing History site, I came across a lesson that I think would be the perfect first day of school activity and one that would serve as the starting point for their blogging project. The lesson is called What Shapes Your Identity? This lesson has students reading an excerpt from Cisneros’ book called “My Name” which chronicles the story and feelings about what one’s name truly means. I found the excerpt from the book online and a couple of writing prompts from two different teachers. While I don’t know that I would have students answer all of the prompts, I think that giving them a few of these would be a good segue to getting them to think about their cultural identity. I was also thinking that this might be a great way to connect school and home because several of the questions require students to ask their parents about the origin of their name (Borba, 2009; Lam, 2013).

A springboard assignment is a Bio-Poem which has students creating a structured poem about their identity (also from the Facing History website). I’m always looking for fun things to do on the first day of school and I think this lesson ties together my goals of developing a culturally responsive learning environment and incorporating student blogging. The bio-poem is something that students can include on their About Me page and if they are so inclined, they can do their first blog post on one of the writing prompts or they could simply do a reflection about this activity.

Though I’m not entirely sure what I’m going to do on the first day of school in August, I do know that I’ll be keeping this as one of the front-runners. Meanwhile, enjoy my bio-poem:

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Borba, M. (2009). Caring closes the language-learning gap. Phi Delta Kappan, 90, 681–685. doi:10.1177/003172170909000915

Lam, W. S. E. (2013). What immigrant students can teach us about new media literacy. Phi Delta Kappan, 94, 62–65. doi:10.1177/003172171209400416