It always surprises me how much stake we all put into resolving eternal questions like, “Is it a water fountain or a bubbler?”, or more controversially, “Is it soda or pop?” When I first joined Teach For America and met my fellow corps members from around the country, we quickly picked up on one another’s regional preferences: for example, folks from the East Coast argued that you can only call it soda; other Southerners prefer to call it “Coke” and then specify whether they wanted a Sprite or an Orange Crush. Finally, there are the diehards from parts of the Midwest, such as myself, who swear by pop. By debating this deceptively simple beverage question, we maintained our loyalties to our home regions and also began to draw conclusions about each other. For instance, we learned that the soda group wasn’t about to relent and call it “soda pop”; furthermore, the Coke crowd just refused to join either of the side of the soda versus pop debate. It’s already almost October of our second year teaching and, both nationally and locally, the debate shows no signs of stopping.
While the soda versus pop (versus Coke) question is a relatively inoffensive–and entertaining–debate to bring up in mixed company, it illustrates a greater point about education in the United States. Not surprisingly, just as different regions have different names for pop and soda, students in our public school system have different cultural backgrounds and experiences. For example, I grew up in a rural suburban district where we would regularly see tractors driving down the street on our way to school. While I did not grow up on a farm, I had had enough exposure to rural life that I knew what a combine was when I saw it. This upbringing defined the way I understood the world and gave me a reference point for later in life when, for instance, I would be asked to differentiate between soybeans and winter wheat in cornfields on I-70 in Illinois. In other words, by living in this particular context, I learned to think of the world in particular ways. Similarly, my students live in a context that affects the way they think about the world, which in turn, influences their learning.
Most of my seventh and eighth grade students have lived in the city for their entire lives; very few of them have even traveled outside of the city limits. My students understand how to navigate an urban bus system, even though they may not know what a John Deere tractor is. Their cultural background and experience of being African-American in an urban community, however, is not always reflected in the classroom. For example, in a story my eighth graders are reading this week in communication arts, they are learning about a young boy on a farm who befriends a snake. The young boy describes how he keeps his snake in the “corn crib” next to the “hay loft.” When the snake escapes and finds his way through the “feed box” and into the horse “stall.” Even though this story is written on a third grade level, many of my students struggle to comprehend what is happening in the story. It is hard for them to visualize the snake being put into a “corn crib” until they see the picture in the literature book and understand what a corn crib is used for. My students cannot fathom the size of a hay loft or the purpose of a horse stall, as their understanding of the world is based on a very different experience. As a teacher, it is one of my greatest challenges to make sure that my students are able to read and comprehend a story like this one that is full of unfamiliar cultural references and experiences.
This challenge of bridging cultural backgrounds begins with the literature and assessment items that I find in state curriculum and on standardized tests. While new literature textbooks are becoming increasingly more multicultural and inclusive, I believe there still is room to make these stories more accessible to our students. An accessible story means that my students will identify with the characters and situations in meaningful ways; by making these meaningful connections, my students will feel more compelled to read on a regular basis, thus building their comprehension and fluency. If my students get too bogged down with understanding what a “corn crib” or horse “stall” is, then there is a risk that they will lose out on an opportunity to improve their comprehension. Furthermore, given that the average grade level reading ability for the sixth grade class at my school is the fourth grade, it is critical that my students are reading regularly with texts that they can relate to. If a student finds a story that relates to their life, then we are helping to instill a love of reading that will help them reach success beyond the four walls of our classroom.
In addition to the cultural bias found in textbooks, I also find it challenging to prepare my students for standardized tests that similarly lack impartiality. The most poignant example that comes to mind was on a recent Missouri standardized test, in which an entire reading selection was based on a farm silo. For the middle school students who completed this section at my school, I am sure very few of them comprehended the meaning of “silo.” My students have had no reason to know what a silo is, yet this lack of knowledge puts them at a disadvantage of test day. It seems unfair to test a child’s ability to read and comprehend while using a story about a silo when that child has lived in a city his or her entire life. It is clear that students are being tested on more than just their knowledge of literary concepts; they must be familiar with dominant culture that extends far beyond their practical experience. A child may be an excellent student, but if the test relies on experiences from this dominant culture, then he or she is not being set up for success. Our students deserve to have their abilities assessed using reading passages that are accessible and related to their life experience; only then can we have an unbiased measure of their ability to learn and our ability, as teachers, to educate.
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