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Interview: Gloria Ladson-Billings

Excerpts from an interview with Gloria Ladson-Billings, Professor of Curriculum and Instruction, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Recorded July 29, 2002.

Discussion of culture and learning

There's always this question about the relationship between culture and learning. And I try to remind, people that much of our education has been based on one, maybe two disciplines – psychology and sociology. And for all that they have to offer us, they're incomplete without understanding that there's a third discipline that could be considered. And that's anthropology, whose major focus is culture. Culture is such an everyday, already there experience for us that we don't notice it. It's like the idea of being a fish in water. We just don't notice the water. So, I would say over the past twenty to twenty-five years we've begun to understand that culture really does play a very important role in learning. It's around us and with us. It's every moment. The way in which we think is culturally mediated. The way in which we understand the world is culturally mediated. And until we understand ourselves as cultural beings – not just the kids, but the adults also are cultural beings – then we really don't understand the way in which we do the things we do and why we do the things that we do. So culture is a powerful mediator of our learning and our understanding. The relationship between culture and cognition is so tight, that it's very difficult to even ferret out which part's cultural, which part's cognition.

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From my perspective, culturally responsive teaching, or, as I like to term it, culturally relevant teaching, has three main features. The first is academic achievement – that, by and large, no matter what else it is that schools are set to do, they are charged with the responsibility of helping kids to achieve academically, to learn something. The second part of it is what I'd call cultural consciousness. And what I mean by this is that kids have a firm and clear understanding of their own cultural background, its worth, its positives and negatives, but it makes sense to them in ways that help them link up with their academic achievement. And then the third component is what I'd call a social-political consciousness. It's not enough to "know something" and be smart, or to know about yourself. You also have to understand how knowing about yourself, knowing things, about others, and knowing information, relate to the larger social and political picture – so the kids can begin to, to really answer for themselves that question –  "Why do I have to know this?"  What social-political consciousness does for kids is help them place their knowledge in a broader perspective, to ask the hard questions about why the system does or doesn't work in certain ways, and to ask themselves, "What can I do about this?"

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One of the ways that we ensure that we're teaching in culturally responsive ways is to, first of all, understand the role that culture has on our own learning. The typical teacher is really sort of outer-directed and focused on the kids and how the kids are learning, and what the kids are learning. And I guess I would ask teachers to be a little bit more introspective and ask themselves, "How is it that I learned this in this way?  What was difficult for me to learn? What was easy for me to learn?"  There's an activity that I do with pre-service teachers in which I ask them to write an educational autobiography, and in it they write about the things that were difficult for them to learn and the things that were easy for them to learn. And as they share them with each other they see that even though they're all college students, all at the same school, you know – they needed to have had really high grade point averages and good SAT or ACT scores – there is incredible variation in their educational autobiographies, and that different people learn differently. Just that kind of awareness is very important as you go into a classroom where you have to deal with sometimes 25-30 children or 150 adolescents in a day – that you bring, everybody's bringing in a piece of cultural baggage, and the teacher's bringing in baggage, too.

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[looking at the memoirs sequence in "The Classroom Mosaic"]
The first teacher in the sixth-grade class was doing work with memoirs, and what I saw as really culturally relevant about that approach was that she was really asking kids to think about their own background, their own family histories and tying it to a larger project. So, the kids actually were bringing their own culture into the classroom in a very tangible way. What I thought was really powerful about it was the way in which they got to share that information so that it became really the stuff of the curriculum. It wasn't just study about myself, it was studying about myself so that you also can learn about me and learn about the places that I am from and my family.

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The notion of funds of knowledge is something that Luis Moll from Arizona helped us understand, that these families, these communities, actually do have resources. There's lots of things that people know that are not well documented, that are not well understood by a typical classroom curriculum. So the point of having kids or teachers go into the community is to have them be able to unearth – it's almost a kind of educational archeology where you begin to pull out of these communities information that is useful, that is important, that is relevant, and bring it into the classroom to make sense of it and to share it.

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The sixth graders that we viewed gave really good examples of the way in which one's own home culture and community can be brought into the classroom. They pulled on what Luis Moll would call funds of knowledge. That is, that they're incredible resources in communities, they're incredible resources in families that typically have been overlooked by schools and standard school curriculum. So what you saw in that segment was kids going home, talking to their parents, not just about, "How do I do an assignment," but, "What can you share to help me do this assignment to help make it understandable?"  And it was not just about kids focusing on themselves, so much as it was the combination of their understanding of their own background and sharing that background with other students, so that it becomes really a part of what Michael Apple would call the official curriculum – you bring into the classroom those ideas, those perspectives, those different experiences that you just can't get out of a text book.

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One of the interesting things in this segment with the sixth graders and working on memoirs was the teacher's response to the fact that our families are changing. Not everybody comes from a nuclear family. Not everybody comes from a family in which there's a mom and a dad who were birth parents. The sort of marvelous thing about the changing society is that what constitutes a family has been expanded and really reflects what people probably have been doing for centuries. And the classroom is finally catching up with that, the idea that some children may indeed come from families in which they have been adopted into those families, or they may come from families that represent particular social stresses where they have to be foster care or some kind of temporary family. That's still their experience, and that experience is still important to acknowledge – to have kids feel comfortable and willing to share. And here was a teacher who had actually come up with a way to make sure that all of the children were included.

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[looking at the segment in "The Classroom Mosaic" featuring William Dean and Jeff Gilbert]
In the segment from East Palo Alto, I think the teachers were trying to help the students, first of all, to take some ownership of the curriculum. The traditional classroom is one in which there is a hierarchical relationship between the teacher and the student. The teacher has the knowledge, the student is supposed to receive it. And what I think we saw in that segment is that teachers are trying to change the relationship between themselves, the students, and the knowledge. So, rather than the teacher being this sort of fount of knowledge, they were trying to get kids to, construct knowledge on their own, to share it, to recycle it. So you really didn't see a lot in the way of "teaching," if you think of teaching as the teacher standing up in front of the kids. What you actually saw were kids teaching themselves, teaching each other – which I think is really, really powerful because then kids understand that this knowledge is available on a lot of different levels.

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Discussion of metacognitive thinking

I think there's no way for a teacher to teach kids how to perform critically without demonstrating that kind of critical thinking themselves. I think one of the reasons that we are so much like our parents, or the people that we live with is because we see them day in and day out go through particular thought processes and patterns of behavior. What kids see in classrooms are often isolated segments and snapshots of teachers' thinking. So we have to be much more explicit in our discussion of our thinking. Teachers have to be willing to ask a question aloud that they have about their own work. They have to be willing to share with students – "This is what we're trying to do, this is what I hope we're going to get to; I'm not sure if we're going to get there."  And be willing to have kids understand that there are risks involved in both teaching and learning. The process of thinking critically is something that kids actually have to begin to see.

One of the things that we can begin to do in K-12 classrooms is to explicitly say to kids things like, "I used to think that so and so were so, but then I learned that it was this way. And that was really hard for me to think about this in a different way."  To actually do the kind of metacognitive work more explicitly for kids helps them understand that it's okay to be conflicted about an idea, to be unsure, to take a risk.

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In the two segments, both the middle school and the high school, we saw teachers who talked about their previous experiences in classrooms. They talked about the way in which they've tried to work. The sixth grade teacher for example, makes an explicit reference to having come from a country that one of the students identifies as the place of his family's origin. So right away, you have a teacher who's sort of made a connection saying, "This is not just about you, this is about me, too. That I, too, have a personal history that gets shared."  With the high school teacher, he talks about having taught for about 12 years and having had some successes with certain things, and struggling with them. So it makes him understand that there was nothing magical about whatever it was he started out with, that every context demands another re-looking and rethinking. And so his willingness to rethink his own practice is a good example of being more introspective and clear about his own professional work.

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I think we sell children short, we think that there are lots of things that they can't do or that they can't understand. And often it's not the concept that they can't get, it's the way it's presented. So kids can, for example, understand the concept of fairness. I had the delightful experience of being in a classroom with a first and second grade class where the teacher was trying to get kids to understand the way in which scarcity and want causes people to be under such duress and pressure that they do things that are socially unacceptable. And the way she did it was by distributing cookies unequally. She gave some kids two cookies. She gave some kids one cookie and she gave some kids no cookies. Well you can imagine having six and seven-year olds with unequal numbers of cookies. And it was so bizarre for them not to have everybody have the same amount of cookies. What was interesting is that they didn't get mad at her, they began to get mad at each other. "Give me one, you've got two."  "That's not fair."  And, when the kids began to do this, she was, of course, in control as teacher, and she'd say, "Well, stop and say, "Okay, why are you mad at Jesus?'"  "Well, he's got two, and I should get one."  "Well, Jesus, why aren't you giving?"  "Well, it's not my fault that he didn't get any."  

So there was this really sort of microcosm of the unequal distribution of wealth that was going on. And now she certainly couldn't start the class by saying we're going to talk about unequal distribution of wealth. Kids wouldn't get it. But they could get the fact that when you have huge disparities between haves and have-nots, have-nots begin to act in socially unacceptable ways and haves often work in ways that protect their own self-interest. So here with very young children you could teach a very sophisticated concept.

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Most of us grew up in a time when whatever an adult said was correct. We accepted it. We didn't challenge it. We didn't question it. We now know that knowledge is really something quite flexible. It's not fixed. Things that we thought we knew in the 1950s and 1960s, we know are not necessarily so. So we understand knowledge to be changing. If you watch the evening news, every night you hear a new thing about a new report and you understand that knowledge is changing. To view it critically is to always ask yourself, "Okay, in what context is this so?  For what population does this make sense?  Under what circumstances?"   And those are the kinds of questions that we want kids to be able to do. If you look at something like the work that Debbie Meier did with the Central Park East, the very questions that drove that program were questions that viewed knowledge critically – "How do we know this?  Why do we have to learn this?  Of what import is this?  What's the evidence?"  Those are the kinds of questions that we constantly want learners, whether they are in kindergarten or graduate school, to be asking.

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Discussion of parent involvement in creating classrooms that support learning

The question that often comes up with school change and innovation is, "What is the role of the community?"  And I would really press people to go back and look at high performing schools. There are very few high performing schools, particularly those in upper-middle class communities, that don't have a lot of parent involvement. And having that parent involvement or parent support doesn't necessarily mean that a parent has to be on every planning committee, or a parent has to okay or veto decisions, but that they have to be well-informed, they have to have access, and they have to understand that, their participation is not only welcome, but it's sought. When you look at a school that's doing well, parents have figured out how to do that. Often the question will become, however, in the schools that we can't get all of our parents. Well, the truth is nobody gets all of their parents. But you get a core of parents. You get parents that are visible, available, that are interested, and what happens is other parents who may not ever show up to the school building know that I can call Mrs. Smith or Mr. Jones to ask them, because they are well informed, and I trust their judgment, that they play, they play a pivotal role in the community. I think we've often taken this all or nothing approach in education, and sometimes we just need a good, stable core. That may even be true of the teachers. When you look in urban schools for example, you know that there's high turnover. So the idea that you help do school reform with every single teacher is probably not feasible, because every year you have a new group of teachers who may come in. But if you can get a stable core, if you can get a third of a, a teaching staff that buys into new ideas and new ways of doing things, their expertise spreads, it gets shared. They are seen as knowledgeable, and they're seen as people who can actually help other people. Ideally what you have in a school is a learning community. So you don't just have, kids learning, but you have everybody who participates in that community learning. Perhaps really what you have is a teaching-learning community, in which every person who participates is teaching, and every person that participates is learning.

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Often I give talks about culturally relevant teaching and during the question and answer segment, there's a question I almost always get. And I get it so often that sometimes I write it down and show the audience that I knew this question was going to come up. And I've even written an article entitled, "But That's Just Good Teaching." In fact, that's what people will say, "Well, what you've described to us is just good teaching."  And I respond, "Yes, you're right, it is good teaching. But my question is, why is it that so little of it is going on in classrooms where children are of different races and ethnicities and language groups?"  I would argue that many, many kids do have access to what might be termed culturally relevant teaching, and they tend to be in districts serving very high achievers, where there are higher income communities, where the parents themselves demand that the teachers work at very, very levels with their kids' academic achievement. But they validate and affirm kids' own cultural backgrounds, and that they raise hard questions with them. That typically doesn't happen in classrooms serving poor, urban children or poor, rural children because there is this sense that, for whatever reason, that these children can't. And you can fill in the blank after "they can't ___."  What I would argue is that if we begin to teach all students to the highest possible levels, if the expectation for kids to learn to be able to pull on their cultural context, their background, their community, their own individual, experiences, and if we have kids raise hard questions about the nature of our society and their place in the world, then we indeed will begin to see this. But this is hard work. It's not easy. There's no recipe for it. There's no handy-dandy five-step guide to it. It is a process of becoming a professional, of asking important questions about the nature of teaching and learning, of being willing to change – of always asking oneself, "How could I do a better job?"

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Every teacher I've encountered has wanted to be a successful teacher. I just cannot believe that people get up in the morning and say, "I wanna be unsuccessful."  But what does success mean?  How do they define that?  And a big part of culturally relevant teaching is about having this vision of success that is an inclusion vision. It's saying all of the kids, no matter where they're from, no matter what their circumstances are, have the potential to be successful in this classroom. And it's really my job to help them attain that success. Many of us, I think, have grown accustomed to some degree of failure. It's sort of endemic in our society that there's the best and there's the rest. And so culturally relevant teaching is really asking you to have a totally different orientation towards teaching and learning. It's asking you to think about, "What would it take for this classroom to represent the best?  What kind of work do I have to do?  How do I get the best out of every youngster who is here?"  It's a very, very different orientation, I think, to teaching and learning. Much of our teaching has been predicated, as I said, on psychology and sociology – which are very useful disciplines. But there's something about anthropology and its focus on culture that makes us think a little more broadly about what resources we could tap to help people be successful in the classroom, be really active engaged, involved learners. There's something about one's own background that provides a wonderful stepping stone to bigger and better things. If you take, for example, those youngsters who come to us having mastered a language other than English, we shouldn't think about that as a deficit. We need to think about that as a resource because they're going to use that language to, acquire new languages, to acquire English and other languages. I try to remind people that we dream in our native languages, you know, and what you dream really holds potential for what you can become. So we really need teachers to really take the opportunity to sort of stretch themselves intellectually, to care about their own intellectual lives and what they're learning, and how they're learning as they wait to have them think more deeply about kids' learning.

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I think of the things that I really want people not to take away from a notion of culturally relevant teaching is an idea of somehow I'm teaching "the other."  And I sort of have "the other" in quotes – that strange, exotic, different person. If you ask someone what America is, it is about this incredible amalgamation of peoples and ideas. For example, to think of American Indian students as "the other," well that would be sort of bizarre given that they're documented as the first people to be here. To think of African-American students as "the other," when most African-Americans basically trace their heritage back to a time that precedes most of the major European immigration. To think of Latino students as "the other," when particularly Mexican-Americans or Puerto Ricans students have been in the continent on this place that has shifted, and changed, and the boundaries have moved, and gone back and forth – they've been here a very, very long time. So I think it's important for us to make a distinction between, what might be thought of as founding groups of America, if you will, and this wonderful, new immigration where people are becoming Americans. In fact, we're all becoming Americans.

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