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Giving Up Me to Learn with You: The Need for Cultural Gifts in the Classroom

January 21, 2016

Over time the s.t.a.r.t. network has become a group of students (and young adults) from middle school through graduate school who advise Project s.t.a.r.t. Leadership with community education and consulting around equity and inclusion literacy.  This year, I worked with youth from the Kitty Anderson Youth Science Center and South High for our workshop entitled “Giving Up Me to Learn with You: The Need for Cultural Gifts in the Classroom.”   Youth facilitators successfully delivered the workshop at three conferences:  the 4th Annual Twin Cities Social Justice Fair on October 16, 2015; the MN NAME (National Association of Multicultural Education Conference) on October 24, 2015; and the annual Overcoming Racism Conference on November 14th.

Cleveland Miller, Soline Van De Moortele, Saffiyah Alaziz and Keleenah Yang began their workshops by having each participant draw a symbol of their identity on a blank puzzle piece.   As workshop participants shared symbols, of trees, hearts and marriage equality to describe their personal experiences, they were reminded that each of us holds a “piece to the puzzle” that is the classroom community.  When someone’s identity is missing from the puzzle, it’s not complete.  The students explained that when books or school curricula group cultures together and neglect to include contributions from the cultures of students in the classroom, the students internalize that their history is not important. The presenters spoke to how cultural studies should be included in classrooms to teach students that they don’t have to give themselves up to learn in an integrated setting.  Students are often taught assimilation, or to lose their identity in the classroom, rather than authentic integration, where they are honored for the cultural assets they contribute to the collective.  They also expressed concern that standardized tests don’t reflect a student’s true knowledge, but risk teaching memorization more than critical thinking.

Saffiyah introduced the video “What I Wasn’t Taught in School,” in which young spoken word artist Samuel King from London wows his classroom peers by rattling off the names of Black British leaders students don’t learn about, even during Black history month, including British Afro-Caribbean journalist Sir Trevor McDonald or Mary Prince who published the first narrative of an enslaved Black woman living in London.  As he takes over the role of educator, he rebukes his instructor for neglecting to educate him and his peers about Black leaders and for failing to excite them about learning. “There’s a lot you haven’t told us,” he argues, “and you shut down and hold back on the bold ones who stand against the way you’re trying to mould us.”  (To watch the video, visit:

Soline explained how even as Black history is poorly represented in most classrooms, so is the truth about the presence of “Whiteness in the Classroom.”  She described how our racial identity impacts every aspect of our lives, whether we come from a place of privilege or oppression; and that we need to differentiate experiences by each individual’s lens and lived experienced, rather than through generalizations.  Soline pointed out how the lack of access to dialogue or literacy about our cultural identities diminishes the experiences of white students in the classroom, who internalize their privilege rather than a sense of shared humanity.

Keleenah Yang, of Hmong descent, spoke to how she has never had the opportunity to engage in a dialogue about her own culture in the classroom. She read a passage from the book “The Late Homecomer” by Kao Kalia Yang.  Keleenah read aloud from the book about the historical trama that led the author’s family to become Hmong American: “We could not remain just Hmong any longer. For our children, we could not fail. We had to try, no matter what. Even if it meant moving. Thousands of Hmong families moved from the farming lands of California to the job possibilities in Minnesota companies and factories. Aunt and Uncle Chue, despite their lack of English, studied for the citizenship exam, took it, failed, despaired, studied some more, and tried again. Eventually they succeeded, and they inspired my parents to try for citizenship, too. We had no more lands to return to.”

Cleveland spoke briefly to movements, including Opt Out, that not only advocate for more culturally-competent curriculum, but also for more competent assessments that can take into account “dialectically-diverse” language skills (including code-switching, or choosing language appropriate to cultural context) that students bring to the classroom from the urban core. He spoke to the need for assessments to help a student maximize their life skills (like creativity, curiosity and resilience), not just to reliably mirror their family income.  The students together encouraged workshop participants to value curriculum that honors students’ cultural identities and creates a classroom culture of inclusion.

At the end of the workshops, the presenters encouraged the educators to work in small groups to discuss ways that they might use spoken word, writing, drawing or narratives to “create their own curriculum” that can better honor the cultural assets of students.  Many of the educators thought that the workshop was an important reminder for teachers to actively learn from their students as educators in their own right—and to practice reciprocal learning in the classroom. They also really liked the puzzle activity and brainstormed ways, using painting and drawing, to form larger “identity puzzles” that might include stories and spoken word.   The youth received high marks on their evaluations for getting teachers and community members to engage youth as co-educators in the process of creating more culturally-relevant learning environments at school and beyond.

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