Bridging the Culture Gap

Teacher training programs strive to bridge culture, racial gaps in the classroom

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Vanderbilt University professor Donna Ford lectured incoming Teach for America recruits in Nashville about how to address race and culture in their classrooms.

A week after nine black people were shot and killed during a Bible study inside their church in Charleston, S.C., Donna Ford stood in front of a packed lecture hall at Lipscomb University, talking to Teach for America’s Nashville corps members about how to address race in their classrooms.

“Let’s go to Charleston,” she said of the June 15 attack, in which a 21-year-old white man has been charged with the killings. “The world seems shocked that the families (of the victims) are forgiving so quickly.”

Ford, who is black, attributed part of the families’ spirit of forgiveness to a virtue that she considers a cornerstone of African-American culture: a strong sense of spirituality.

“So how is this going to play out in your classroom?” she asked her students.

Ford is a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, where she specializes in cultural competency: the ability to collaborate with people across cultures. She also instructs incoming Teach for America of Greater Nashville recruits on the topic twice a week during their summer teacher training.

Teacher preparatory programs such as Teach for America, which places college graduates in some of the nation’s most troubled schools, are focusing on cultural competency more than ever.

Last school year, for the first time, most U.S. public school students were non-white. That’s been true for much longer in districts such as Memphis-based Shelby County Schools, which is 80 percent non-white, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which is 55 percent non-white. Research shows that, even 50 years after de jure school desegregation, low expectations from teachers contribute to the racial achievement gap by hindering achievement for non-white students, especially black students.

Vanderbilt’s Peabody College addresses classroom diversity in several programs, and almost all of its graduate students study the topic in at least one class.

Teacher training schools don’t have a choice but to address racial and cultural differences if they want to be successful, according to Ford.

“If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you,” she said.

Recruiting more teachers of color is important, she says, but it’s not enough. Teachers and students of all races and cultures must be equipped to have productive relationships. Ford talks with her students about the importance of being sensitive to differences in language, nationality and sexuality, but she especially highlights the treatment of black students.

“People are just so unaccustomed to talking about African-Americans and African-American culture,” she said.

During a recent TFA training in Nashville, Ford walked through some behaviors that teachers might misinterpret from black students. Black students, for example, might be more likely to talk when the teacher is talking, mimicking call-and-response, a common practice in traditionally African-American churches in which the congregation punctuates a minister’s remarks with verbal exclamations. However, some teachers would perceive such behavior as simply talking out of turn.

One white Teach for America recruit told Ford he was wary of stereotyping his students when he starts teaching on his own in the fall. Ford responded that being conscious of cultural differences doesn’t interfere with teaching students as individuals first. Everyone is different, she said. However, being educated about culture might help explain some student behaviors.

Elizabeth Self, a doctoral student studying cultural competency at Vanderbilt, says that even the most well-intentioned teachers can fall prey to unconscious biases. The key to thwarting them is looking introspectively before a teacher ever steps in the classroom, she said.

“There are certain things that are not totally going to click until you get out into the classroom,” she said. “But we need to move the bar in how far we get teachers, at least in their thinking, before they ever get there.”

Self, who is white, knows from experience. She went from teaching at a predominantly white school to a predominantly Hispanic and African-American school in Chicago. Now, she’s researching ways to prepare teachers for the realities of U.S. schools. Teachers-to-be improvise conversations with actors based on real-life classroom experiences, such as situations where a student might feel singled out because of race, or a conference with an immigrant parent.

“I know the damage that I did as someone who was unprepared on these issues, and so part of what I want to do is make sure that the teachers that I train go into the classroom better prepared to respond to these things than I was,” Self said.

"If you don’t manage diversity, diversity will manage you."Donna Ford, Vanderbilt Peabody College of Education

Teachers and students often are reluctant to talk about race, or even angry about it, according to Ford.

“Many people believe they’re bias-free, or they can’t possibly be racist or classist or sexist,” Ford said. “To help teachers acknowledge that they have biases is the first step to letting them have some sense of relief.”

Ford also conducts professional development through school districts across the country. She would like to do more such trainings in Tennessee school districts — not after racial tension flares, but before it happens.

“We need to stop being reactive, but being proactive,” she said. “Diversity is here to stay. It is inevitable. We have to keep the conversation going.”

defensor escolar

Memphis parent advocacy group trains first Spanish-speaking cohort

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Manuela Martinez (center left) and Lidia Sauceda (center right) are among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship.

Manuela Martinez doesn’t want Spanish-speaking families to get lost in the fast-changing education landscape in Memphis as the city’s Hispanic population continues to grow.

The mother of two students is among 19 parents in the first Spanish-speaking class of Memphis Lift’s Public Advocate Fellowship, a program that trains parents on local education issues.

“We want to be more informed,” said Martinez, whose children attend Shelby County Schools. “I didn’t know I had much of voice or could change things at my child’s school. But I’m learning a lot about schools in Memphis, and how I can be a bigger part.”

More than 200 Memphians have gone through the 10-week fellowship program since the parent advocacy group launched two years ago. The vast majority have been African-Americans.

The first Spanish-speaking cohort is completing a five-week program this month and marks a concerted effort to bridge racial barriers, said Sarah Carpenter, the organization’s executive director.

“Our mission is to make the powerless parent powerful …,” she said.

The city’s mostly black public schools have experienced a steady growth in Hispanic students since 1992 when only 286 attended the former Memphis City Schools. In 2015, the consolidated Shelby County Schools had 13,816 Hispanic children and teens, or 12.3 percent of the student population.

Lidia Sauceda came to Memphis from Mexico as a child; now she has two children who attend Shelby County Schools. Through Memphis Lift, she is learning about how to navigate Tennessee’s largest district in behalf of her family.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Hispanic parents attend a training with the Memphis Lift fellowship program.

“Latinos are afraid of talking, of standing up,” Sauceda said. “They’re so afraid they’re not going to be heard because of their legal status. But I will recommend this (fellowship) to parents. How do we want our kids to have a better education if we can’t dedicate time?”

The training includes lessons on local school options, how to speak publicly at a school board meeting, and how to advocate for your children if you believe they are being treated unfairly.

The first fellowship was led by Ian Buchanan, former director of community partnership for the state-run Achievement School District. Now the program is taught in-house, and the Spanish-speaking class is being led this month by Carmelita Hernandez, an alumna.

“No matter what language we speak, we want a high-quality education for our kids just like any other parent,” Hernandez said. “A good education leads to better opportunities.”

Stopping summer slide

On National Summer Learning Day, Memphis takes stock of programs for kids

PHOTO: Helen Carefoot
Torrence Echols, a rising first-grader in Memphis, builds a tower with giant legos at the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on National Summer Learning Day.

When it comes to summer learning, it’s been a better year for Memphis, where a range of new programs have helped to stem learning loss that hits hard in communities with a high number of low-income students.

On Thursday, Mayor Jim Strickland celebrated that work in conjunction with National Summer Learning Day and against the backdrop of the children’s reading room of the city’s main library.

He estimated that 10,000 children and teens are being reached this summer through learning programs spearheaded through Shelby County Schools, Literacy Mid-South, Memphis Public Libraries, churches and nonprofit organizations across the community.

That’s a record-breaking number, Strickland says, in a city with a lot of students struggling to meet state and local reading targets.

Summer learning loss, also known as summer slide, is the tendency for students to lose some of the knowledge and skills they gained during the school year. It’s a large contributor to the achievement gap, since children from low-income families usually don’t get the same summer enrichment opportunities as their more affluent peers. Compounded year after year, the gap widens to the point that, by fifth grade, many students can be up to three years behind in math and reading.

But this summer for the first time, Shelby County Schools offered summer learning academies across the city for students most in need of intervention. And Memphis also received a slice of an $8.5 million state grant to provide summer literacy camps at nine Memphis schools through Tennessee’s Read to be Ready initiative.

Literacy Mid-South used Thursday’s event to encourage Memphians to “drop everything and read!”

The nonprofit, which is providing resources this summer through about 15 organizations in Greater Memphis, is challenging students to log 1,400 minutes of summertime reading, an amount that research shows can mitigate learning loss and even increase test scores.

Reading is a problem for many students in Memphis and across Tennessee. Less than a third of third-graders in Shelby County Schools read on grade level, and the district is working to boost that rate to 90 percent by 2025 under its Destination 2025 plan.

The city of Memphis, which does not fund local schools, has made Memphis Public Libraries the focal point of its education work. This summer, the library is offering programs on everything from STEM and robotics to art and test prep.

Parents are a critical component, helping their kids to take advantage of books, programs and services that counter the doldrums of summer learning.

Soon after the mayor left the Benjamin L. Hooks Library on Thursday, Tammy Echols arrived with her son, Torrence, a rising first-grader at Levi Elementary School. Echols said they visit regularly to read books and do computer and math games.

“We always do a lot of reading and we’re working on learning sight words,” Echols said as she watched her son build a tower out of giant Lego blocks. “Torrence is a learning child and it’s easy to forget what you just learned if you’re not constantly reinforcing.”

You can find summer learning resources for families from the National Summer Learning Association.