We all have ways we like to celebrate culture in our classrooms. But the fact of the matter is that some of these ways are wrong, incomplete, or insensitive. Our jobs as mindful pedagogues are to constantly be thinking about ways to improve–to continuously engage in a reflective process that helps us shine light onto our own blindspots.

Culture is More Than Countries

Perhaps it’s our whiteness, or perhaps its an American culture founded upon white supremacy: for whatever reason, when we hear the word culture, we often jump right to countries and ancestry. I know I used to do this. We put up a map on our walls, put the kids’ faces on the map, and have a discussion where all of our families came from. It’s almost like we’re trying to prove where we’ve come from and why we deserve to be here. Sound familiar at all?

It’s clear, then, that these types of activities can be problematic. Some kids don’t know their ancestries. Some families don’t know their exact ancestries. Some kids are adopted, and some kids are family histories are unable to be traced due traumatic intergenerational experiences. Does that mean we don’t invite conversations into our classrooms about race and ethnicity? No. Talking about these sorts of things is important. But it can’t be something that we pop up on a map in the corner of the room–and then just call it a day.

We must be more thorough. We must be more intentional. We must turn it into a learning experience. And most of all, we must remember that culture is so much more than the countries our ancestors (or we) come from.

Complementing Culture with Identity

It necessitates a reframe. That’s all. By only discussing culture, we run the risk of being monolithic and narrow-minded. It is the reductive view of culture as countries, holidays, and foods that has the potential to reinforce stereotypes and develop a fixed mindset around culture and identity. Again, it doesn’t mean we can’t talk about countries, holidays, and foods; it simply means we must make a more concerted effort to embed cultural responsiveness and identity work into the entirety of our curricula. It also means we must broaden our definition of culture to also include family culture, community culture, school culture, and any other group that has a shared set of beliefs and values through which they interpret the world.

The truth is, culture and identity should be pouring out of every corner of the classroom. Better yet, culture and identity should be in the center of the classroom, molding and powering every learning experience we design. When writing stories in writing workshop, we should be offering opportunities for students to share experiences unique to their intersectional identities; in reading workshop, we should be showcasing stories and topics that brings all students outside of their comfort zones, building a rich schema that is abundantly colorful; in math workshop, we should be discussing our identities as mathematicians, and how we can make it possible for all individuals to engage and be successful in mathematical culture.

I could go on, but I think you get the point. Cultural responsiveness must be embedded into each of the content areas because our identities impact how we interact with each of these content areas. It matters that Girls of Color don’t see themselves enough in STEM; it matters that such a large amount of children’s literature is biased towards white male supremacy; it matters that the gender binary makes it harder for gender non-conforming students to find safety and comfort in our classrooms. And our pedagogy must reflect this–every second of every day.

A Work in Progress

We can’t be perfect. I’ve made many of the mistakes I am advocating against in this blog post. And as I continue to teach, I’m sure I’ll find even more blindspots. I don’t want to make it sound like I’m above this in any way. Because I’m not.

As a white educator, it is my responsibility to always be questioning, to always be listening, and to always be reflecting. My good intentions won’t be enough, especially if my well-intentioned mistakes are met with no reflection or change.

It’s easy to write our mistakes off. It’s easy to call ourselves “works in progress” and move on. But we have to remember that in order to be deserving of the title “work in progress,” we have to earn it through our actions. We have to remind ourselves that good intentions aren’t enough. We have to challenge ourselves to continuously expand the boundaries of cultural competence–to be more inclusive of an ever-diversifying student population.

I’ll close with this.

I didn’t write this for teachers of color. Teachers of color know this already and don’t need white folx telling them about this. I wrote this for white teachers because this is about whiteness. Whiteness has ingrained unproductive habits within all white people. But there is a way to break these habits–to move culture and identity from the corner to the center of your classroom. I come back to these three words a lot when reflecting.

  1. Listen.
  2. Amplify.
  3. Advocate.

The framework is simple. The work is not. It requires listening more than speaking. It requires putting your message on the backburner to give someone else some air time. And it requires calling out a lot of culturally insensitive or misguided practices we tend to see online–especially on TeacherGram.


Comments? Questions? Disagreements? Additions?

Please comment below. I’d love to hear from you.

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