Why Culture Counts: Teaching Children in Poverty

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Learn a four-step research-based program for differentiating instruction based on the cultural needs, beliefs, and values of diverse learners. The authors show you how to build teacher background knowledge; plan for differentiation; and differentiate context, content, process, product, and assessment. This book provides an opportunity for the education community to engage students at risk whom our schools have often failed.

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Chapter One: Culture and Poverty

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We define culture as the systems of values, beliefs, and ways of knowing that guide communities of people in their daily lives.

—Elise Trumbull

As educators join forces with sociologists, behaviorists, and researchers, the question has become, “Is it culture or poverty that creates the discrepancies in achievement among groups that we find in the classroom today?” Studies indicate that it is not culture or poverty, but culture and poverty. A preponderance of evidence from these studies indicates that we need to look at culture first and then at the circumstances of children living in poverty. Why culture first? If we truly want to raise the learning levels of our students, we must first know the culture from which they come. We must know how that culture learns, the value it places on education, and how, within that culture, motivation is triggered. This does not mean teachers have to study every culture in North America; it means that as teachers we have to know the culture of the students in our schools and of the neighborhoods that surround them. We also need to stop focusing on the deficits and look at the gifts—the life experiences—that our students bring with them. When we know this, we can make more informed decisions about how to teach them.

 

Chapter Two: Differentiating for Economically and Culturally Diverse Learners

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Teachers not armed with effective instruction cost students 20 percent per year in achievement.

—David Berliner

Differentiated instruction means instruction that has been modified to address the needs of the diverse learners in the classroom. If you had Googled differentiated instruction early in 2008, you would have gotten 397,000 results! Identifying the unique needs of children and adjusting the learning environment so that they can all achieve at high levels is a tremendous challenge for teachers. We cannot build resilience for children of poverty without addressing the impact of their culture on achievement. When teachers try to differentiate instruction for children of poverty, they cannot ignore their diverse cultures, ethnicity, and race—the sources from which students draw their background knowledge and experience.

As administrators and teachers, we used to say, “If you rank the schools in our district based on the socioeconomic status of the parents, you’ll have the rank for student achievement as well.” Like many, we used to believe that we could not do anything about the achievement of children of poverty, because we couldn’t “fix” the poverty and therefore couldn’t “fix” the children. This reflects an old paradigm of looking at certain children as “problems”—as having deficits they need to overcome in order to succeed. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 

Chapter Three: Building Teacher Background Knowledge

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Being student-centered also means connecting learning to students’ lives, using the student’s own culture, strengths (intelligences), interests, goals, and dreams as the beginning point for learning.

—Bonnie Benard

To begin the shift in beliefs and instructional practices necessary to differentiate instruction, we need to examine our own background knowledge and experience. This is especially true for the majority of us who are part of the dominant culture. The first step in our model is to build teachers’ background knowledge in order to expand the perspective provided by that culture. This is critical if we are to understand the needs of students from poverty and diverse cultures. As a way of examining our background knowledge as teachers, let’s look first at two competing value systems.

Well-documented studies have verified that two ways of thinking, or value systems—individualist and collectivist—have an impact on what teachers reward and punish in schools (Williams, 2003; Greenfield, 1994; Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Our value system—collectivist or individualist—is grounded in our culture and determines how we view achievement and value social knowledge. These factors affect our relationships with parents and the community, our approach to classroom management and organization, and our approach to curriculum, instruction, and assessment—the key processes in education that define our work.

 

Chapter Four: Planning to Differentiate

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True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it understands that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

—Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You are now ready to plan to differentiate a lesson for your students. Our purpose here is not to describe how to plan a lesson for instruction, but on how to modify (or differentiate) a lesson plan to meet the needs of students from poverty and students of color. There are many ways in which teachers plan to differentiate for all students. What we want to focus on here are those specific planning considerations that are critical for students living in poverty and students of color. These are some of the considerations when planning to differentiate for diverse learners:

• Preteaching essential vocabulary

• Contextualizing the content and classroom for culture

• Modifying instructional strategies

• Determining grouping strategies

Let’s look at these planning tools in the context of a hypothetical classroom.

 

Chapter Five: Differentiating Context

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We are beginning to realize that a lot of these things which are supposed to be universal are actually culturally specific and without pathological consequences if they deviate from contemporary American norms.

—Robert A. LeVine

In this chapter, we explore strategies for creating culturally responsive classrooms for students of color and students living in poverty. Culturally responsive classrooms have two critical attributes: 1) the inclusion of students’ languages, cultures, and daily experiences into the academic and social context of school; and 2) explicit teaching of the dominant culture’s expectations, so that all children can fully participate (Zeichner, 2003). In some urban schools, alternative certification is being offered to permit community members to become teachers. To be culturally responsive, we have to build bridges between the culture of the school and the cultures of the home and community.

We also explore the characteristics of effective teachers in multicultural classrooms and look at research-based instructional strategies they can use that have a powerful impact on diverse learners. In addition, we provide examples for African American and Hispanic students, the two major minority groups in the United States.

 

Chapter Six: Differentiating Content and Product

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Eighty percent of students who are recommended for special education placement are below grade level in reading.

Sixty-three percent of African American fourth grade students are below grade level in reading.

Seventy-four million Americans read below the eighth grade level.

Eighty-five percent of juveniles coming before the courts are functionally illiterate.

Seventy percent of prison inmates are illiterate.

—Jawanza Kunjufu

In this chapter we will discuss the differentiation of content and product—two major pieces of the teaching and learning process. Our emphasis here is on content, because without quality and meaningful content, product does not matter. Content should lead to innovative and quality products that reflect understanding of the subject matter.

You may not think that you have much say about the content you teach in your classroom. After all, we live in an age of scrutiny in which we must teach to standards and prove that they have been taught. In this chapter, we will examine several ways that you can differentiate content to meet the unique needs of your students, yet still meet the expectations of standards. We will view content differentiation by looking at three key aspects of content in the classroom: relevance, rigor, and relationships, with our primary focus on relevance.

 

Chapter Seven: Differentiating Process

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Brain research confirms what experienced teachers have always known:

No two children are alike.

No two children learn in the identical way.

An enriched environment for one student is not necessarily enriched for another.

In the classroom we should teach children to think for themselves.

—Marian Diamond

Poverty has been studied and analyzed for years. The results are in: poverty changes brains.

—Eric Jensen

One of the most significant ways in which teachers can differentiate instruction for children of poverty is by modifying the processes of learning—the ways they provide students with experiences and opportunities for processing information so that they can make their own meaning out of the content. By differentiating process, we can integrate what we know about the needs of these students.

To better understand how to differentiate process, we find it helpful to understand how the brain processes the learning tasks that we, as teachers, put before our students. There are many models of how the brain takes in, stores, and retrieves information. However, the one we find the most useful is Marzano’s Systems of Thinking (1998). Its purpose is to find “categories specific and functional enough to provide guidance for classroom instruction” (p. 10). As shown in Figure 7-1, the systems of thinking consist of three categories, which are engaged in a specific order by the brain: the self system, the metacognitive system, and the cognitive system.

 

Chapter Eight: Differentiating Assessment

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Classroom assessment can fundamentally transform the way a teacher teaches.

—W. James Popham

Participating in assessments is a part of every student’s educational experience—and it is usually a very solitary one. Whether it’s a spelling test or quick pop quiz, a teacher-made or textbook-prepared unit test, an essay assignment or formal presentation, an end-of-course district benchmark or a state-mandated assessment required for graduation, the traditional expectation is that students will show what they’ve learned independently, working alone. This expectation fits very well with the individualistic value system that dominates schools in North America. However, it poses significant problems for children from collectivist or collaborative value systems, who prefer working together. What can teachers do to help all students do a better job of showing what they know and are capable of doing to meet the learning expectations?

Table 8-1 provides the background we need to answer this question. It shows the types of assessments students typically encounter and how they are used.

 

Chapter Nine: Bringing It Together to Build Resilience in Diverse Students

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A common finding in resilience research is the power of a teacher—often without realizing it—to tip the scale from risk to resilience. . . . The bottom line and starting point for creating turnaround classrooms and schools that provide caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation is the deep belief on the part of teachers and school staff that every child and youth has innate resilience, the capacity for healthy development and successful learning.

—Bonnie Benard

In previous chapters, we have examined the relationship of culture and poverty to the learning needs of children and youth. The needs of children of extreme poverty resonate personally with both of us. Why did we overcome the obstacles inherent in poverty? Both of us had teachers who believed in us (and some teachers who didn’t!). But because of the ones who did, and the resilience we developed in their classrooms, we hoped and believed that we could do whatever was put before us. We believe that you can choose to be one of those turnaround teachers for the children of poverty and from diverse cultures in your classroom.

 

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