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Centering Students to Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom

By Brandi Bellacicco

In light of the racial and social unrest in the last year, many educators are seeking better ways to serve all students. As I grow my own practice, I spend a lot of time reflecting on exactly how I serve my students. Being a culturally responsive educator is not easy, but it is essential. It takes time to unpack personal biases and challenge the norm. For white educators in particular, it may even feel like an abstract task - how exactly do we dismantle and challenge unconscious biases in ourselves and our schools? What is appropriate in the early childhood classroom? How can I address such big topics, with such little humans?

Start with Who I Am

I start with my own identity. My identity and experiences shape my worldview, and I must acknowledge how that shapes my practice. I ask myself, “How am I the same as my students, and how am I different?” Students do better when their teacher looks like them because teachers serve as a role model (Broisand, 2017). While I cannot look like every student, when I understand my students’ identities as well as my own, I incorporate role models into my classroom for all students. Culturally responsive teachers impact change by centering their students. I choose literature that centers my students. This means my read aloud stories have characters just as diverse as my classroom. I am not afraid to substitute a book from the curriculum with a book that serves my students. While I acknowledge doing so may be not simple for all teachers in all schools, we must be our students’ advocates, and that includes advocating to reshape curriculum to represent students’ backgrounds (The Education Alliance, Brown University, n.d.)


Helping Students See Themselves and Others in the Curriculum

One trap I fell into my first year teaching was reading a lot of stories about change makers of color, but missed other storybooks with diverse characters. We read a lot about adversity and overcoming it. However, it is equally important for me to choose a storybook with a character who happens to be a person of color. Not a story about their race, but a story about anything relatable to my students. After careful consideration of texts that center around characters and people like my students, I then examine who in the world is missing from our lessons. I build in opportunities for students to see and celebrate themselves, and see and celebrate diversity.

An example of such deliberate planning is a beginning of the year name activity I do with my kindergarteners. In a classroom full of mostly Puerto Rican students, I hold a mirror to them when we read Alma and How She Got Her Name by Juana Martinez-Neal. Students explore the origins of the main character’s name, Alma. Next, we have a window through the book The Name Jar by Yangsook Choi. In a class with no Asian Americans, students now see a representation of a character different than them, and yet, a character with whom they share commonalities, as all my young students explore the origins of their name, and how to read and write it.


Using Deliberate Language

I am deliberate with my language, and I am not afraid of my language. When Kamala Harris became vice president, I was not afraid to say to my kindergarteners, “every vice president we have had before her was a white man. We have never had a woman VP, we have never had a VP of color. Kamala Harris is the first brown woman to be our VP.” For many educators, especially white educators, it can feel uncomfortable to name race. Especially in the early childhood classroom, I sometimes hear, “They are too young, they can’t do it.” However, I hold high expectations for my students. My students can talk about race in a meaningful, and non-scary way, when they are provided the opportunity. When teachers center students, we bring student experience into our classroom. To ignore students’ race or the experience that comes with that is to ignore our students. When we celebrated Kamala Harris and Amanda Gorman on inauguration day, all of the girls in my class were celebrated. They saw themselves reflected in those leaders. Naming and celebrating all their identities is crucial to creating a culturally responsive environment where students are safe to learn and thrive.


Change Starts with You

A culturally responsive classroom centers students. When we center our students’ identities and interests, they are more successful. Culturally responsive classrooms bring change to and through our students. I am not, and cannot, change the entire system on my own, but I am always learning how to improve for my own classroom, and I aim to inspire and aid others in making change as well.


Brandi Bellacicco is a soon to be Masters’ graduate from Johns Hopkins University School of Education. She is currently working as an early childhood educator in Western Massachusetts. Brandi has also taught in Fort Sill, Oklahoma and in Richmond, Virginia. Brandi is committed to creating a culturally responsive learning environment, where students are safe to step into their own power.






References

Broisrond, C. (2017, September 29). If your teacher looks like you, you may do better in

school. NPR.


https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2017/09/29/552929074/if-your-teacher-looks-likes-you-

you-may-do-better-in-school


Tales from the Classroom. (n.d.).


The Education Alliance, Brown University. (n.d.). Culturally responsive teaching.

http://www.brown.edu/academics/education-alliance/teaching-diverse-learners/

strategies-0/culturally-responsive-teaching-0