By Sabrina Bartels
During one of my PBIS meetings, I was able to get a little insight into culturally responsive practices. These practices ask educators to examine their own culture and how it shapes their thoughts, feelings, and experiences. While this topic in general fascinates me, I was really intrigued by one of the activities that we did.
The facilitator of this discussion asked all of us to write down – in one minute – what our culture was. As everyone put pen to paper, I remember staring at the blank sheet in front of me. My culture? There were so many things that fit my culture. What exactly did he want? My nationality? The culture I most identify with?
For me, going through culturally responsive practices training is a little awkward. Part of it is because I am one of the few minorities on staff; part of it is because I view culturally responsive practices in a slightly different light. For me, my culture is a glaring obvious part of my life, and yet, it is also a huge question.
I was raised “American.” Or, to be really specific, I was raised to be a true Wisconsin girl. I say “bubbler” and think cheese curds should be a major food group. Every Sunday, it’s hot ham and rolls while watching the Packers take on their latest opponent. I know how to tailgate with the best of them, and I know that really good tailgates usually involve beer-boiled brats (and of course, it’s Miller beer that we use) cooked on a charcoal grill. It’s “soda,” not “pop.” I can say Milwaukee, Oconomowoc, and Ashwaubenon with minimal difficulty (and yes, I could spell all of those without looking them up.) I can whip up a brandy old-fashioned if anyone asks, I eat custard and cream puffs, and I’ve seen a cow in real life. Most importantly, I know how to polka and, in fact, requested that one be played at my wedding.
However, you could argue that I do not look like a Wisconsin girl. I am 100% Korean, and was adopted when I was a baby. I do not look like my German/Polish/French/Welsh parents, a fact that used to lead to a lot of embarrassing interactions between my friends and parents.
Friend: Who are those people?
Me: Um, those are my parents …
Friend: But you don’t look alike!
Me: Well …
My parents have always encouraged me to explore my Korean side, and in some ways, I have. I participated in both traditional Korean dance and Korean drumming from the time I was seven until I was well into high school. We would drive up to Minnesota in the summer for a Korean Culture Camp, which exposed me to the language and history of Korea, as well as take classes on self-esteem for Korean-American adoptees. My family has constantly worked to integrate my Korean side into my life: my mom has learned how to make traditional Korean food, my dad is a chopsticks champion, and both did their best to get me involved with learning the Korean language. While I embrace being Korean, I can honestly say it doesn’t guide my life the way my “Wisconsin” culture has.
So which culture should I identify with? Is it wrong of me to identify with just one? Both? None at all?
And I think about how it must be for our students. If I, as a 28-year-old adult, struggle to define what my culture is, I can’t even imagine how hard this must be for our 12, 13, 14-year-old students.
Let me give you an example. I have a student who does not believe that education is necessary. According to her, mom only finished high school, and dad never passed middle school. Both parents have jobs and can provide for my student. In their household, swearing is a part of normal conversation.
For my student, who has grown up believing that education is not as crucial, it is a struggle when she comes to school. She often sleeps through class and refuses to do her homework. Swear words have a habit of sneaking into her daily vocabulary, which irritates a few of her fellow students. When I talk to her about her attitude or behavior, she is confused as to why she is in trouble. She explained that mom and dad never went to college and are doing fine; she says that mom and dad swear often in the household, and that she, as a result, does too. And then I talk to her about why we are making her do her homework and stay awake in class. We talk about how some sort of higher education is important, maybe more important than it was back when her parents were in school. We talk about how swearing is not appropriate in school, whether it is casual or whether it’s provoked. And we find out how our cultures differ in this regard, because while she listens and asks questions, I can’t guarantee that she’s going to change. And, to be honest, she may not want to … and there isn’t anything wrong with it.
But here is this student who, every day, is forced to wrestle with the culture that she has grown up in versus the culture of the school she attends. They are drastically different. Which is right? Is one right? Is one wrong? And which one wins in the end?
I remember the movie “Freedom Writers,” where some of the students told their teacher that their goals for their future were drastically different than the ones she had. She imagined them graduating from high school, from higher education, of them doing something with their lives. For her students, their idea of “graduating” was living through each day, as they encountered gang-riddled neighborhoods and violence every day of their lives. That lesson wasn’t lost on me. For some of my students, getting an education is the ultimate goal. For some students, the ultimate goal is just surviving each day.
And this is why culturally responsive practices are so critical for everyone to engage in. Our culture makes us who we are. I may identify with two cultures, but both have influenced me to become the woman I am today. The same can be said for our students. How they view the world, how they view education, and how they view their futures may be different than what we imagine. But by engaging in culturally responsive practices, we are opening our eyes to the cultural conflict our students may be experiencing, and learning how we can engage our students with open minds … and open hearts.