Mariana Souto-Manning flashed an image of a square with a diagonal line through the middle. The associate professor at Columbia’s Teachers College asked a crowd of educators what they saw.
A box with two triangles? A couple of sandwich wedges? How about tally marks?
Souto-Manning explained this is how she learned to count by fives in Brazil: Instead of the hash-mark method used in American schools, students draw the four lines of a square. A slash through the middle signals a group of five.
Souto-Manning was making a point about the cultural nature of knowledge, and the need to be aware of that in diverse classrooms.
“We need to do away with the idea of a single story, of a curriculum, of a master narrative — as if that was the only story,” she said.
Across New York City, parents are calling for more racially and economically integrated schools. But for many, enrollment policies that mix students of different backgrounds is a just small piece of what’s needed to make schools more inclusive.
In order to truly integrate, advocates say educators need to take a close look at the lessons they teach. In other words, schools need to be adept in culturally relevant teaching — making sure students of all identities are reflected in what is taught and how it’s taught.
“Rethink who is the curriculum, who is the teaching, centered on?” Souto-Manning said.
Teachers College recently hosted educators from around the world to explore diversity in a way that goes beyond simple demographics. Among them were three New York City teachers who explained how they weave culturally relevant lessons into their practice.
Here is a glimpse into each of their classrooms.
Who discovered this classroom?
With Columbus Day nearing, Jessica Martell wanted her second-graders to take a critical look at the narrative that European explorers discovered America. Working with fourth-grade teacher Abigail Salas, she hatched a plan: The fourth-graders would swoop into the second grade classroom while the younger students were out for gym, taking over the new territory they had “discovered.”
A video clip shows that when the younger students returned to their classroom, they found the fourth-graders settled on a large rug. The second-graders stood frozen at the sight. One little boy elbowed his way to the front of the bottleneck, his chin dropping once he laid eyes on the scene. Someone declared she felt like crying.
“This is our room. It was empty,” Salas informed them. “We discovered this room.”
Students quickly made the connection to Columbus’ interactions with native people. They wondered how someone could be credited with finding a place that others already called home.
Among the questions students asked: “Why couldn’t the two groups just share?” and “How did Columbus communicate with the indigenous people? Did they speak the same language? If not, we know the story is untrue.”
For Salas, such critical questioning signals the lesson was a success.
“I wanted to get away from that story of the people in power,” said Salas, who works at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side. “Story acting is a culturally relevant teaching tool because it helps students develop empathy and understand multiple perspectives.”
Going beyond birthday cake celebrations
Birthdays are a big deal for elementary school students — especially in Martell’s second-grade class.
Martell, who teaches at Central Park East II in East Harlem, makes it a point to celebrate every child’s birthday in a particularly personal way: She invites parents into the classroom to tell the story of the day their child was born. It’s a year-long project that includes family interviews and reading Debra Frasier’s children’s book “On the day you were born.”
“Each child has a history. That history is important,” Martell said. “How do we learn that history? Not from a cumulative file that we get at the beginning of every year, nor from an assessment binder.”
The visits impart valuable lessons about different places, periods in time and all the different forms a family takes. In one instance, an adoptive mother told the class about the tribe in Africa that her daughter was born into. Another time, a boy served as translator for his grandfather who communicates in American Sign Language. And in another case, a lesbian couple assured the class they were both “real” moms.
“Through these oral history projects, students come to understand the importance of each other, and what a treat it is to learn from and with families,” Martell said.
Learning how to pronounce everyone’s name correctly
One student in Carmen Llerena’s kindergarten class often needed extra reminders to follow directions. When she spoke with the boy’s mother about his difficulties in class, the mother cut her off.
“He always says ‘Mommy, my teacher doesn’t know my name,’” the mother said.
It turned out Llerena, a teacher at P.S. 75 on the Upper West Side, had been mispronouncing the student’s name. She apologized, and soon the little boy was much better behaved.
Llerena doesn’t make that mistake anymore.
“I am committed to pronouncing my students’ names in the manner in which their families do. This simple act conveys to students and their families that they are welcome in my classroom and that their identities are honored,” Llerena said.
Now, she makes an extra effort to learn how each child got his or her name. Every year, she makes a class book that tells those stories. Each student gets his or her own page, with a photo of the child and their “name story” written in their native language.
Making sure every family is included is key. Llerena starts with a letter home in backpacks, asking parents to write down their stories. But for those who don’t respond, Llerena seeks translators, conducts interviews at drop-off and pickup, and even involves older siblings if needed.
“Instead of blaming family members for not sending information back, we re-sent the notices and gave them ways to know to look out for them,” she said. “It made space for family literacies to be a central part of our curriculum and teaching.”