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Rethinking What it Means to Be Culturally Relevant in Schools

By Mohammad Yousef

My wife and I are both in graduate school for education. Incidentally, we are both covering the same content, cultural relevance. My wife, Marie, was having difficulty explaining an assignment to me, and after some back and forth it became apparent to me what the problem really was. Her school was butchering the concept of cultural relevance with some inane, self-serving project aimed at either quelling one’s white guilt and exonerating one from any accusations of racial incompetence. The assignment called for her to inject an element of her student body’s culture into a lesson. The beginning of the discussion went something like this:

Marie: “Well I want to do food. Like, the kids can bring recipes from home and we can do proportions.”

Me: “That sounds good.”

Marie: “But it’s not good enough.”

Me: “Pardon?”

Marie: “It’s shallow”

Me: “What do you mean? Shallow?”

Marie: “They have a chart that says what qualifies as shallow, intermediate, or deep cultural relevance”

Me: “Well that’s stupid. What about politics like, what political groups their families affiliate with?”

Marie: “Proportions won’t work for that. Proportions are about taking one ratio and either shrinking or expanding it to meet a specific need. Political affiliations are better for statistics. Not to mention, naming political affiliations in school can get messy.”

Me: “Yea that could be tricky.”

It was at that point that I asked to see the chart. The chart that proclaimed what was culturally relevant and what apparently was not. Upon review of such an abominable document, I was enraged. How can someone, notably a white liberal educator, tell people of color what was culturally relevant? The only choices available in their list of suggestions were: Black male incarceration statistics, the statistics of Black deaths by violence, and the statistics of poverty in the communities of people of color. How can this white professor, of all people, tell anyone what it is to be a person of color, especially students?

Now don't get me wrong, this isn't because she's white that I'm mad, rather I'd be mad if anyone created this assignment. But it is especially troubling that a liberal white teacher is essentially deciding what it is to be black. Here I argue one of the greatest problems facing us as an institution of education is teaching cultural relevance. If done correctly, cultural relevance will empower students by representing their identities and learning styles into the education process. Done incorrectly, it will only serve to quell one's guilt of their privilege. At its worst it may cast students of color as the statistics they often put in front of them. This subject is very near and dear to my heart. Primarily because it shapes minds. Cultural competency is an exercise in emotional competence and identity discovery. As teachers, we are not the ones to define our student’s identities, rather we are the facilitators of such journeys.

Cultural competency is an exercise in emotional competence and identity discovery. As teachers, we are not the ones to define our student’s identities, rather we are the facilitators of such journeys.

Let's take, for example, the assignment at hand. For these children, 6th graders in particular, food is extremely culturally relevant. The foods that children eat, whether they be Black and American-born or immigrants of color, are connected to often emotional occasions. Chances are, if you're in the US, you might often partake in fast food, especially if you're a kid. For me, being the son of Haitian immigrants, culturally specific food was reserved for special occasions, like mom having a day off, holidays, or religious ceremonies such as Easter. However, the chart in question stated that the inclusion of culturally specific food is shallow because you don't learn anything from food; it does not spur controversy, or conversation. Why must everything about people of color, especially Black people, be controversial? I argue for the opposite. As a Black man living in America, I want primarily to be seen as uncontroversial, as human. Though my culture puts its own unique spin on the everyday mundane tasks that we all go through, I want it to be said that we all go through them. As people of color, we are more than just jail statistics, victims of the school to jail pipeline, especially articulate, and gifted athletes. We are human beings, and the children in my wife's class are just that, children.

When I was teaching 6th grade, I asked one of my students if he wanted to participate in a survey. Quick disclaimer, if I were to do this exercise again, I would have used a pie chart instead of a list, but here it goes. The exercise, which I learned in a professional development meeting, asked for students to list our identity markers from the ones they most closely associated with, being at the top, to the ones they most least associated with. I rolled out the survey as shown in my professional development meeting having suggested categories such as gender, culture, race, religion, ethnicity, age, class, etc. One of my students, precocious as he is, wrote “gamer” at the very top. I love this. Yes, he is black, actually biracial black and Italian, yes, he's a child, yes, he does come from a lower economic status. But the thing he most closely associated with was being a gamer, and while some may find that cute, it is important to recognize the validity of such a remark. He was dead serious. He went as far as to state that he would rather be called a “Gamer American” than anything else, and who are we to say he should not?

Cultural relevance means asking the individuals we work with, these children, who they believe they are, who they perceive themselves to be, and inviting them to include that narrative in our shared learning process, and in return sharing who we are and how our perceptions have been shaped. The reason why I said I'd use a pie chart if I were to do this exercise again is because I do not think you can always be one thing more than the other, not in the way that a list may illustrate. A pie-chart is a more apt illustration of one's identity, or rather, identities. For example, I am a Black American, and because of systemic racism mostly, I am conscious of this constantly. As I am reading, most of what I read is filtered through the lens of being Black, and as I am on my way to work, I'm ever vigilant of the police presence that may end my life. However, I am also Muslim, an active Muslim at that. I pray several times a day, five on a good day. So, I'm also simultaneously thinking of my religion. On a pie-chart, these identity markers take up the same amount of space. I really can't find a time when I'm not thinking about being Muslim while knowing I am Black, they happen simultaneously. My day revolves around meeting and talking to my wife. So, my identity as a husband takes up about as much time as being black and being Muslim. When I am praying, I'm often next to my wife and I am still black. I really can't separate any of these categories for my identity at any given time.

Our children deserve the best from us. That means treating them as human beings with a wide array of identities. Do we need to discuss systemic racism? Yes. But school for students of color, does not have to be all gloom and doom. Cultural relevance should be a celebration of identities and a journey towards self-discovery that involves both joy and pain. In order to do this, you need to know who your scholars are, and how they see themselves. For example, In ELA, it would be great exercise to have students write adaptations of text in such a way that is culturally relevant to them. A writing exercise such as an adaptation gives the power of identity exploration, back to the students, and firmly plants the teacher in the position of learner.

Cultural relevance must go beyond representation. One assignment I designed acknowledged students' youth culture by having them use Google Slides to create mock Facebook profiles for characters we were reading about. Such a project not only acknowledges their identities as youth but also teaches them how to manipulate the technology they will use as they get older. In the case for math, I urge teachers to move past mere representation via culturally relevant topics, and think critically about what math topics are important to the families we serve. Parents and students alike have decried the emphasis of topics like trigonometry, while ignoring practical math skills like economics and tax filing. For many families, this is a form of cultural insensitivity. They connect with the skills their children will actually use, and while I would not propose abolishing trigonometry altogether, I think it is worthwhile to explore ways of incorporating math that students and families find important to use, especially those students will definitely use in their adulthood.

And that is my finally call to action. When thinking of cultural relevance, think of ways that give the podium of the teacher to the students and allow yourself to be the one learning. Move beyond representation and ask students and families, what is important to them. Do not devalue the insistence of certain topics families bring up, simply because they conflict with your ideals on what topics are relevant or rigorous. Be patient with this process; it is a mindset, not an activity, not a single lesson, but a new way of looking at the world that includes many perspectives outside of your own. Please do not make the same mistake as many television programs have, of typecasting of students of color.

My name is Mohammad Yousef, but most people just call me Yousef. I was born in Manhattan NY, but grew up on Long Island. I attended Stony Brook University for my undergrad degree. I have a background in theatre and enjoy screenwriting in my leisure. I have been teaching English language arts for 5 years and absolutely love it! I believe teaching is the most important job in any given society, especially since the solutions to all of our modern-day problems can find their genesis in a robust, individualized education system.