“And How are the Children?”

By Nafeesah Symonette

Editor’s Note:  This is the third in a four-part series by Nafeesah Symonette on the important topic of culturally responsive teaching. Be sure to check out her first two posts here.     ~ Joni Starr

The African Masai Warrior greeting, “Kasserian Ingera,” meaning “And how are the children?” connotes a deeply rooted understanding amongst the people that if the children are not well, the village is not well. As educators, one of our most important tasks is to teach students how to create a life of quality through a commitment to learning. To achieve our task, we must place the well-being of every child at the center of our teaching practice.

In the first of this four-part series, The Brushstrokes of all Folks, I introduced a universal understanding of an educational theory from Gloria Landson-Billings, who identified and defined culturally responsive teaching. She writes, “Culturally relevant teachers believe that all students can succeed by using an engaging curriculum that represents students’ culture and background.” She asserts that culturally responsive teaching is a student-centered approach to teaching that focuses specifically on the student’s unique cultural strengths. By identifying and nurturing these strengths, by virtue, culturally responsive teaching promotes a sense of well-being, thus increasing student achievement and connectedness to learning.

In this writing I’d like to introduce a new consideration, culturally responsible teaching. This approach can serve as a challenge to how we incorporate and assess the effectiveness of our culturally relevant practice. To protect the well-being of every student, we must understand the difference between being culturally responsive and practicing culturally responsible teaching, including how it impacts teacher behavior and student outcomes. When we engage authentically in relevant cultural infusion in our classroom, we make space for authentic student participation and connectedness. This is when we are moving from being culturally responsive to culturally responsible.

Understanding culturally responsible teaching means that you know the American educational mainstream asks that on the third Monday of every January we dust off the beloved I Have a Dream speech by the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and recite our hearts away. You, in addition, choose to weave his work into multiple layers of your teaching throughout the school year. Culturally responsible teaching means that from February 1st through February 28th we celebrate the contributions of Black Americans, as if their contributions were isolated and infrequent. You, however, have introduced black artistic contributions as a weekly discussion point for each of your art lessons. You recognize that celebrating culturally themed months is not culturally responsive teaching. It is a reactionary measure to cover one’s bases, cloaked in good intentions that unfortunately fall short. In your visual arts classroom, you reconsider introducing cubism by way of Picasso, and instead you visit the genre while creating a cultural connection to the African wood carvings from which Picasso “borrowed.” In your dance class, after teaching classical ballet movement, you introduce Hiplet, created at the Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center, which fuses ballet and hip-hop, thus making a professional career more accessible to dancers of broad backgrounds and physicality, who embody multiple movement sensibilities and techniques. Dance students learn that the world of professional dance, including ballet, is slowly expanding away from the exclusively white-body ideal, and into a more representative aesthetic which can honor the dancer as well as the value of dance. Culturally responsible teaching is shifting out of the reactionary and into responsiveness with integrity.

You might assume that when the student population identifies similarly with their teacher, employing cultural responsiveness is unnecessary. On the contrary, this is where cultural responsibility is of greater importance, even though it can feel uncomfortable when asked to step outside of your own cultural box. Remember that the charge we are faced with, to do our best to reach every student, far exceeds the protections of our own comfort. If we accept EVERY child as capable and exceptional, then it is in the uncomfortable space that we grow as educators and push our students to expand to the capacity that we know lies within their abilities.

What if we use teaching materials and resources as mirrors and show students a reflection of themselves? Or what if we create windows into a world unknown? When students daily see themselves in an authentic way or are introduced to new cultures, how might they then fare in their educational and life trajectory? By asking ourselves the tough questions and engaging in these best practices, when asked, “And how are the children?” each of us can truly say, “All the children are well.”

Nafeesah Symonette is a former visual arts educator with thirteen years teaching experience and over twenty years working in and through the arts. She is an arts education consultant focused on the intersection of arts education and culturally responsive teaching and is on faculty at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

Ladson-Billings, Gloria. The Dreamkeepers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers. (1994)

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