By Dr. Angello Villarreal
According to US News and World Report, in 2020 and 2021, the state of New Jersey ranked number one in the public education system. But how can we support our students even more as our state becomes increasingly racially, ethnically and culturally diverse? How can New Jersey become a model for other states in its approaches to diversity and social justice?
As our classrooms become more diverse, we need to recognize and embrace the rich cultural backgrounds of our students. Culturally responsive teaching encourages teachers to celebrate students’ cultural and linguistic diversity (Barret-Zahn, 2021) and can be applied across all school disciplines (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995).
So how can you use a culturally appropriate approach in your school?
As an educator, knowing the cultural practices of your students is crucial to better understand how a student may behave in the classroom. Problems can range from students not looking someone in the eye out of respect to recognizing that some students may have multiple generations of family members living with them at home, making it more difficult to complete homework.
Parents in different countries may view education differently than American teachers generally expect. As Diane Staehr Fenner writes in Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators under the title Education vs. Education:
“For some Latin American families, in particular, the idea of educaciόn focuses more on the personal and moral development of the child than on academics. These parents can see the direct impact of education on the child’s academic development. They may believe that raising their children with good manners and providing them with solid guidance results in good behaviors in the classroom, leading to better academic success. However, some American teachers might perceive Latino parents’ emphasis on morality as a lack of interest in their children’s academic development. (Fenner, DS, 2014.)
Recognizing that some parents from different backgrounds may view education differently is essential. Working with parents and their communities creates a better environment where students learn, thrive and feel safe.
A safe environment should be a top priority for any educator or leader who works with children. But physical safety should not be the only aspect by which a child feels safe at school, because their mental health is also essential. Every student should feel safe in our schools, regardless of gender, religion, skin color or language spoken at home.
Just as we educators are not all the same, neither are all children. It should also be understood that there are differences between students whose first language is not English. Looking only at Hispanic/Latin cultures, you will find that students from South America, Hispanic Caribbean, and Central America are all different from each other, have different backgrounds, and may not even speak not Spanish. The same goes for all students from different parts of the world: Asia, Africa and Europe.
As an early career educator, you may be thinking how difficult it can be to find out more about each of your students’ backgrounds while trying to deliver lessons, assess progress, keep students engaged and more. Just like working with any other student, it takes time and willpower to reach your students. Spending time in the classroom to learn more about their abilities, strengths, and interests creates a connection with students. Learning what they are passionate about can help create new content where students can make more connections and better understand the material.
Be there for them, advocate for your students, and above all, never measure their “intelligence” by lack of English proficiency. Recognize their bilingualism, or in many cases multilingualism, as an asset, not a liability.
Dr Angello Villarreal is a teacher at Freehold Township High School and an adjunct professor at Monmouth University. Born and raised in Peru, Villarreal focuses his research and teaching on culturally appropriate practices, culturalization, language acquisition, and providing more equitable opportunities for all students. Villarreal is co-advisor to the Spanish Club and implements the ‘Hidden Treasures’ project under a mini-grant from Monmouth University’s Social Justice Academy. Villarreal received his BA in Spanish from Montclair State University and graduated from Monmouth University with a MAT in Spanish, ESL, Bilingual/Bicultural Education and an Ed.D. in instructional leadership. He can be found on Twitter using @AngelloVillarre.
More to learn
In preparing this article, I made reference to these resources. I encourage you to read their work directly.
“Culturally appropriate teachingby Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn. Science and children, March/April 2021.
Advocacy for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, by Diane Staehr Fenner. Corvin (2014).
Raymond J. Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg, “A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching”, ASCD (1995).