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Matters of the Heart
Understanding Racial Interpretations & Cultural Perceptions in the Classroom for African American Students
By Monica L. Marks
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2015 Monica L. Marks Ph.D.
All rights reserved.
The minority population in suburban school districts went from 19% in 1990 to 27% in 2000, and as high as 43% in suburban areas in large cities such as Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, and New York (Frey, 2001). The rapid growth in numbers may have made it increasingly difficult for suburban districts to be ready to meet the academic and social engagement of minorities (Evans, 2007). African American students in suburban school districts face academic and social challenges different from their European American peers. Suburban schools that primarily educate European American students fail to address the academic and social needs of African American students because of racial interpretations as well as cultural perceptions (Evans, 2007). An additional cause is the lack of staff preparation in dealing with students of color cultural backgrounds. Understanding racial identity as well as the role of culture in the classroom setting can help educators of African American students better address academic performance. This can ultimately lead to closing the achievement gap in student learning for people of color.
Cultural perceptions of African American students tend to be negative because of the resistance to knowledge and lack of experiences of staff within a suburban setting regarding African American culture. The absences of culturally responsive staff members affect the decisions and actions taken by educators in the school environment, which impacts the academic success of African American students (Evans, 2007). This lack of a culturally responsive staff is often a result of negative racial interpretations reinforcing biases about African American student behaviors. As the researcher, I believe educators of all students have a responsibility to practice culturally responsive pedagogical practices that embrace, educate, and promote differences among and between students.
Description of Research Topic
African Americans have historically been subjected to European American ideology that argued African Americans were genetically inferior causing the perceived learning ability and expectations of African American students to be low (Smedley, 2007). Separate and unequal educational practices have also had a negative impact on the education of African Americans in the United States. African American students and European American students (who typically populate suburban school districts) have very different cultural backgrounds and applying the same pedagogical methods will only continue to increase the educational disparities (Ladson-Billings, 2000).
The more we learn about African American students and how to increase their learning, the better we will be able to address their needs through curricular and pedagogical practices (Ladson-Billings, 2000). Evans (2007) conducted research about a suburban school's response to the changing demographics. The outcome of the study emphasized the impact of the overall belief system of the school and how its racial biases directly impacted how the staff responded to meeting the academic and social needs of its African American students. What the staff and school believed about their African American students was highly based on limited cultural experience with African American students and a resistance to be open to understanding information communicated by these students. The student achievement gap is not decreasing as rapidly between European American students and African American students because of the failure to consider racial interpretations and cultural perceptions in suburban schools. The racial interpretations represent the belief system about African Americans and the cultural perceptions represent how these racial interpretations/beliefs are applied to observations made of the African American student behaviors.
Racial interpretations and cultural perceptions are important concepts to understand for this study and are views to consider when designing instruction that engages all student learners. Racial interpretations are assumptions or ideas based upon prior knowledge of our experiences with a racial group. These assumptions may be formed from actual encounters or from media interpretations and may be used by educators when making instructional decisions. When planning instruction in the classroom, racial interpretations and cultural perceptions must be recognized as an essential factor of culturally responsive teaching.
Racial interpretations are essentially the belief system teachers form about a student based on their knowledge about a student's racial background. For example, if a teacher has a classroom with primary aged-African American students, she may choose a picture book to read that is about African American children around the age of her students, doing an activity that the teacher knows the students can relate to because of their racial identity. So the teacher considers the age and racial knowledge of her students when making an instructional decision. The key is that these racial interpretations are based on accurate knowledge and not biases or assumptions about the racial identity of students.
Cultural perceptions are applying the racial interpretations to the style, language, behaviors, or actions of a group of people. These meanings - cultural perceptions - are shaped based on an individual's exposure to and understanding of a racial group - racial interpretations. For example, a teacher may have a classroom primarily of African American teenage students from an urban setting who display an urban style to their language and actions, so when teaching a math lesson he may choose to use examples referencing items or locations from an urban setting to which African American students can connect. So the teacher considers both the age, cultural, and racial experiences of his students when teaching.
The relationship between racial interpretations and cultural perceptions is as important as academics to consider when making instructional decisions to impact all students.
This study involved looking at how teachers consider the race and cultural background of their students when they are teaching. Teachers often look at gender, interests, and personal experiences of their students when planning for instruction. Why not consider the lens of race and culture? The role of race and culture is often overlooked and not talked about but the gap in learning clearly shows us there is a difference. This study demonstrates why having culturally responsive pedagogical practices among teachers in a suburban school district working to achieve academic success and curricular engagement of African American students is important. Culturally responsive teaching embraces a way of thinking and being that enables educators to plan for and respond positively to individuals and situations that arise in an environment of diverse learners (Lindsey, Robins, & Terrell, 2003). Culturally responsive teaching is also the ability to find commonalities with diverse groups of people as well as mediate and resolve conflict between individuals while maintaining the integrity of the differences within and between the group members. The research question for this study was: "How do suburban schools' teachers take into consideration African American students' race and cultural background when they teach?"
Importance of the Research
I've come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It's my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child's life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or de-humanized. (Ginott, 2009, p. 86)
As I reflect upon the profession I have chosen – to educate children – this quote reminds me of the criticality of that role and its impact upon our children. Educators play a very decisive role in how knowledge is crafted and disseminated through our educational system. The power to decide whose knowledge to include or exclude is often in the hands of teacher. Teachers must become better social agents for change or else we will keep reproducing the status quo and not become a society that advocates for the extinction of social injustices. Our children need to learn to challenge the current social structures in order to eliminate the marginalization of racial minority groups.
As an African American parent of children who attended a predominantly European American suburban school district, I think about the magnitude of trust I placed on teachers to shape the minds of my children, despite the fact that they had a limited understanding of who my children really were. I witnessed great instructional practices from experienced teachers with a strong knowledge base for curriculum methods and content. It was only when my daughter reached her senior year and we were planning her graduation party that I realized somehow I had allowed the system to fail my child. I asked her if there were any teachers she would like to invite to the party that had had an impact on her education and she had none. This made me pause and reflect on the experiences of my daughter throughout her schooling as a minority in a suburban school district and I recalled the struggles and the failures but I examined them through a much different lens this time. Because my son on the other hand had a long list of successes despite his days of struggles and disappointments, I began to explore reasons why this was. I eventually realized that my son had acculturated – he was able to embrace suburban school culture much more successfully than my daughter. My daughter struggled to assimilate into suburban school culture and found it difficult socially and academically.
This caused me to pause and ask the question of the role of race and culture in the classroom. I became consumed with wanting to understand it in terms of a student's ability to fit in - as my son did - or from a teacher's perspective - the ability to connect with children on a deeper level based on who they are culturally. I really felt this was an important factor that could be contributing to the growing gap in education academically for African American students. My personal experience with my own children is what has prompted me to start the journey of exploring race and culture in the classroom for African American students. This is why this research topic is urgent and a matter of the heart for me – it impacts me professionally and personally.
Amy S. Wells and Robert L. Crane (1997) conducted research on African American families moving from urban school districts to suburban school districts. The study took place in a mid-west state and followed several families who transferred their children from an urban school to a suburban school as a part of a special transfer program. The study looked at reasons why and the impact of the decisions and choices the families made in the education of their children. Many of the African American families chose to transfer their children to a suburban school, which was comprised of predominantly European American students, did so because: they wanted to escape the negative reputation of the urban school setting; they felt suburban schools would help their children attain their educational goals; and they felt their child would learn more and have better resources.
The study classified parents into two categories as either assimilationists or visionaries. Assimilationists were parents who blamed the issues of urban schools on African Americans and they saw the suburban schools as superior. As assimilationists, their expectations were for their children to learn to fit into the suburban school setting by adapting to the behaviors and norms of the European American students. Visionary parents resisted the "White is right" attitude and instead held a deeper sense of pride in maintaining their child's cultural heritage. The visionary parents understood the complicated and critical view of the historical implications and disparities that precipitated the inequitable resources for their children.
The study found that many of the students returned to the urban school after experiencing issues with disciplinary actions and academic challenges in the suburban school setting. Some of the families expressed racial uneasiness with interactions between administrators, teachers and students. The study concluded that the suburban schools that developed initiatives to foster sensitivity to racial issues and poverty were more successful at maintaining students in the transfer program because these schools recognized and acted on the need to provide supports for these transfer families. This study is a clear example that race and culture have a role in the classroom setting.
The first thing noticed when meeting someone is the race of the individual, which is used to provide clues and insight into an individual's character and behavior (Omi & Winant, 1994). These clues come from the knowledge and experiences one has with a particular racial group. When an individual of one racial group enters a place or institution designated for another racial group, beliefs, and assumptions are tested (Evans, 2007). These beliefs are racial interpretations that are from an individual's experiences. When African American students enter suburban schools consisting primarily of European American students, beliefs and assumptions are made – racial interpretations. Race is a social construct that represents conflict and individual interests in society based upon one's identity and historical beliefs and actions (Omi & Winant, 1994). Critical race theory identifies race as a normal part of American society that must be addressed (Omi & Winant, 1994). How one allows their beliefs or racial interpretations to impact how they view behaviors leads to cultural perceptions. The deeper challenge this theory offers is to identify parts of society, such as educational institutions, that assume the role of the dominant European American culture as the norm within its structure and ignore other groups (Ladson-Billings & Tate, 1995; Parker, 1998). Suburban school districts can no longer ignore cultural groups and focus on the majority culture. State test mandates require teachers to now focus on subgroups of minorities for academic achievement in order to address the increasing achievement gap with minorities.
Schools are the place where students define themselves (Romo, 1997). Educating factual information about cultural groups and engaging in positive dialogue improves intergroup relations that impact students' willingness to learn and promote academic achievement (Romo, 1997). Public schools are organized in a manner in which race and power are realized contextually. Assimilation occurs when individuals are forced to give up their cultural differences in response to the role and influence of the dominant culture (Tatum, 1987). The dominance of European American culture in a suburban setting signifies the expectation for African American students to assimilate into the dominant European American culture. The culture of suburban schools is to exercise power over African American students with the expectations for them to assimilate into the dominant culture and when they fail to do so, the African American students are rejected socially and labeled inferior academically.
In another study of three suburban high schools with changing demographics, the issues of the challenges with race were explored (Evans, 2007). The numbers of African American students were rapidly increasing in this district and faculty efficacy and agency, school identity, and power and politics were being tested (Evans, 2007). The issues of racial interpretations and cultural perceptions by the staff and administration tied directly to the decisions and actions taken with regard to African American student concerns (Evans, 2007). Educators made professional decisions based upon personal judgments of African American student behaviors and actions. The suburban school teachers had difficulty understanding the behaviors of African American students which resulted in negative perceptions regarding the academic performance of students (Evans, 2007). For example, European American teachers described African American students as being loud, not motivated or prepared for high school, and as being more confrontational than European American students. The African American students who did not assimilate into the dominant school culture were racially interpreted as having a subordinate culture. Teachers alleged African American students were ill prepared for the level of work required and not capable of meeting academic expectations. The staff's racial interpretation of African American students was that the presence of these African American students created disorder and limited progress academically. Therefore the staff culturally perceived the African American students could not learn. Additionally, the African American students failed to "be whitened" – a term meaning individuals of color failed to be perceived as exceptional, articulate and clean through assimilation (Collins, 2009).
Excerpted from Matters of the Heart by Monica L. Marks. Copyright © 2015 Monica L. Marks Ph.D.. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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Table of Contents
ContentsChapter 1: Introduction, 1,
Chapter 2: Literature Review, 13,
Chapter 3: Research Design & Methodology, 34,
Chapter 4: Research Findings, 47,
Chapter 5: Discussion, 185,