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UDL Engagement: Honoring Cultural Identity

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
July 20, 2016

“The future’s so bright I’ve gotta wear shades…” Oh, Timbuk3, how right you were. Today, Dr. Liz Berquist asked us to don sunglasses as a metaphorical lens to see where our learners are coming from, understand them and the culture that defines them, and value who they are as people. After hearing her message, I am confident that if all educators could see their students through the cultural lens that Liz defined, the future would be much brighter.

The essential question that guided this work, “How does your cultural identify connect to how you connect to your students?” The answer may be uncomfortable, but it’s a conversation we have to have with ourselves.

Your students can be your teachers – they can teach you about their worlds and their cultures, but to do that, you have to be willing to have meaningful conversations with them. Liz shared an example of the schema that some of us bring to the classroom. For example, many of us, as teachers, come from a world where “you turn it in on time, or it’s a 0” because in our culture, we value responsibility, deadlines, and structure. Does that ring a bell with you? Now, for a second, consider that those expectations may pose a significant barrier for students who have different cultural background.

Imagine a high school student who has to work to contribute to family finances, babysit siblings, and care for aging grandparents. This student may not meet a deadline for a homework project, but by giving that student a 0, we are pushing our cultural expectations on him without trying to understand his world. You may read this, and you may feel uncomfortable, or frustrated, or annoyed because maybe the idea of structure is so ingrained, that it’s difficult to consider another perspective. If you’re feeling discomfort, that’s a good thing. That’s an opportunity for growth (see reflection on Jon Mundorf’s keynote on how to be more knowledgeable and grow as a learner).

A culturally responsive education is one where teachers know who they are, and ask their students who they are. A culturally responsive education is one where teachers are reflective thinkers, make an effort to develop authentic relationships with kids, are effective communicators, make explicit connections to the curriculum based on what they learn about students, and are always sensitive to students’ cultural messages. Students may all look the same, and it may not look like there’s that much diversity, but as Liz said, there is more diversity than we could ever know. We must value students’ needs and be flexible so all our students can be successful. To do this, we have to put on our sunglasses and see the world from their perspective, as our world is not theirs.

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