Over the course of the semester, I have given a lot of thought to the concept of working across barriers within a classroom. In my Issue Analysis, I wrote about white teachers in urban schools, and the problems that engender and are engendered by the racial imbalance in the teaching profession. The topic has been one that I’ve kept in mind through the semester, especially within my field placement, where a young, white, female teacher leads a classroom of students of color. As another young, white female, I enter this classroom with the same barrier separating me and the students, although I also realize that race is not the only factor that can serve to separate in a classroom. Barriers may be erected by differences in socioeconomic status, language, community backgrounds, gender, religion, political leanings, age, even personality. The very position of the teacher as an authority can be a barrier; one that must actively and constantly pushed against.
In this paper, I’d like to return to the topic of my Issue Analysis, but extend my exploration beyond race, setting out a strategy for myself as a future teacher to work across barriers within the classroom. In my future classroom, I will seek to tackle barriers by fostering agency, engaging families and communities, encouraging social critique, and showing solidarity. I’d like to mention that these strategies could be utilized in any classroom, although I believe they are of particular importance in urban classrooms, where children of racial minorities and lower SES have historically had barriers built around them, reinforced, and used against them.
As a teacher, I will first seek to foster student agency. I believe this is a crucial step in breaking down barriers, as a sense of agency is needed in order for students to feel like they are being valued as active and capable contributors to their own learning, the learning of their peers, and the learning of their teachers. Agency may be fostered through choice in activities that allow students to take control over their learning. In my final week at my field placement, I witnessed a large-scale example of student choice: the entire week was devoted to “electives,” where students were given a list of approximately 20 activities ranging from slam poetry, to playing soccer, to learning how to make an iMovie, and they created their own schedule for the week based on their interests. Within daily curriculum structure, choice may be given by providing an open prompt for an assignment, by allowing for creative mediums of presentation, or by encouraging self-evaluation and reflection. Providing choice in curriculum not only allows students to follow and feed their own interests, but it also demonstrates that the teacher has a degree of trust in and respect for her students.
Another way of fostering agency, especially in urban schools, is encouraging language diversity in the classroom. While language can often be considered a barrier both between individuals (in our case, between a teacher and student) and as a barrier to learning, it also presents a unique and potent opportunity for teachers to position themselves as learners, and literally honor student voice. Nieto sets forth a framework of additive bilingualism, which “supports the notion that two is better than one, that English plus other languages can make us stronger individually and as a society” (2000, p. 197). While teachers need not be fluent in the languages of their students, they can “make a commitment to learn at least one of the languages of their students,” (p. 198), taught in part by the students, effectively making themselves foreign language learners, and actively deconstructing the English/non-English and teacher/student barriers.
Valuing language gives way to a third, crucial component of fostering agency: honoring the home culture of students. The home culture of students is an essential part of their educational experience, as it will inform their ideas upon entering the classroom, and will provide context and purpose for knowledge created in the classroom. In addition, honoring home culture works against what Valenzuela describes as “subtractive schooling,” which perpetuates “disaffirmation of the self and the family’s social identity” (in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 179). Home culture can be honored in a multitude of ways. For example, Strolin-Smith discusses her experience of learning and creating a book about a student named Tekwan, saying, “By incorporating Tekwan’s funds of knowledge into our time together, we learned together. [...] I believe that asserting the value of Tekwan’s personal and cultural experience in the context of literacy builds a foundation for the development of critical literacy. It establishes his authority in literate interactions, positioning him as a knower with authority in our relationship” (in Dozier, Johnston, & Rogers, 2006, pgs. 76, 77). By honoring home culture, teachers can work across racial, neighborhood, and SES barriers that may separate them from their students.
A second aspect of working across barriers is engaging students’ families and communities. This strategy is essentially an extension of honoring home culture, but moves outside of the classroom walls, recognizing that home culture cannot truly be honored if families’ voices are seen as in conflict with teachers’, leading them to become marginalized or silenced. As a future teacher, I will seek to work in concert with parents “in ways that recognize and respect their experiences and wisdom, and that draw on their intellectual, artistic, moral, and critical insights in order to broaden and enrich the education of urban youth” (Hurtig in Ayers, et al., 2008, p. 211). While part of this process will involve engaging parents in dialogues, inviting them into the classrooms, and possibly conducting home visits to establish deeper relationships, it will also require respect for families who cannot take on such a visible role due to demanding jobs or other challenges. By recognizing that teachers and families both seek the same goals for their children, classrooms can expand their communities beyond school walls and continue to break the barriers that frame teachers as the “other” in students’ lives.
A third strategy for working across barriers involves social critique. Ladson-Billings’ framework for culturally-relevant pedagogy encourages teachers to “prepar[e] students to combat inequality by being highly competent and critically conscious” (in Ayers, et al., 2008, p. 164), thus actively working against historical systems that oppress students of certain identities. It is the responsibility of teachers to make their students aware of these systems and give them tools and support to begin changing those systems, both by “helping students to recognize and honor their own cultural beliefs and practices while acquiring access to the wider culture” (in Ayers, et al., 2008, p. 170). Teachers who encourage their students to work for social change teach “because they believe their students, specifically the low-income children of color, are the group most likely to change the world” (Duncan-Andrade in Teel & Obidah, 2008, p. 116).
Building students’ capacity to affect social change, however, must come with a teacher’s true commitment to the same. Hogan talks about her role as a teacher activist, as well as the complications that arise with it, and encourages teachers to recognize that if they want their students to become critically conscious citizens, they must first work against “becoming complicitious in maintaining the systems of power that keep students from achieving their dreams” (in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 99). Michie comments on the complexity of this goal, saying we must “function within - and even challenge - a system that in many ways works to undercut and even thwart your best efforts” (in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 57). Ultimately, however, teachers’ commitments to social change are essential in showing solidarity with their students. It is only then that students can feel that their teachers are not “other” than them, separated by insurmountable barriers, but rather, working with them, filled with hope towards a shared vision for the future.
It is important to note that the broader context within which these strategies for working across barriers can be implemented will affect the means teachers must use to implement them, and the degree to which they may be successful in the short-term. For example, in a school or district with a heavy focus on standardized testing that provides a scripted curriculum, teachers must be especially creative and persistent in the ways that they incorporate agency and social critique into their daily lessons. Some schools or districts may even reprimand teachers who assume a culturally relevant pedagogy, or encourage use of a language other than English in the classroom. Teachers’ abilities are enhanced greatly with support from their peers and their authorities. That said, this semester has made me hopeful that when teachers are engaged and acting in solidarity with the community of their students, they may be able to use the classroom as a “movement-building space” (Anyon, in Ayers et al., 2008, p. 313).
Breaking down the barriers posed by identity differences and systematic oppression that exist between students and teachers can serve to enhance the daily classroom interactions, build students’ feelings of efficacy, and ultimately, bring about larger-scale change. While classroom interactions are always contextualized within greater school, district, political, economic, and social structures, transformation of those structures cannot occur until students and teacher collaborate for a better tomorrow, acknowledging, working across, and eventually deconstructing the barriers that separate them.
Ayers, W., Ladson-Billings, G., Michie, G., & Noguera, P. (Ed.). (2008). City kids, city schools: More reports from the front row. New York: The New Press.
Dozier, C., Johnston, P. H., & Rogers, R. (2006). Critical literacy/critical teaching: Tools for preparing responsive teachers. New York: Teachers College Press.
Nieto, S. (1992). Affirming diversity. Longman Inc.
Teel, K. M., & Obidah, J. E. (2008). Building racial and cultural competence in the classroom. New York, New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.