Culturally responsive curriculum will help suburban teachers

I come from an all-white family, attended nearly all-white schools, live in a nearly all-white community and work with a nearly all-white staff. And yet I teach a student body that is getting more diverse every year. How can I understand life from their perspective? What can I do to make their academic experience relevant to them and their experiences?

I had a frank conversation with my principal who encouraged me to look into culturally responsive teaching, honing my craft to understand and celebrate the cultures in and outside my classroom. After weeks of looking, I found little that I could apply to my craft. As with so many other fellow educators, I needed help.

Illinois' new Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards offer this help in a meaningful way. Whereas I came to the classroom 13 years ago with blinders on, comfortably claiming to "treat everyone the same," new teachers in our state will have the tools and techniques to help them affirm their students' identities through engaging in dialogue, enhancing the curriculum and nurturing students as they seek to understand their own identities.

Importantly, the standards will help educators develop the practice of self-reflection, such as I did when I recently looked into the history of all the towns where I've lived and learned that the all-white schools and communities I've come from weren't like that by accident. Many were sundown towns or communities with racist covenants that purposely worked to restrict people of color. Because of this newfound knowledge, I understand why many of my students don't feel welcome in my community.

In my classroom, I am working to create a community of how things could be.

I recently taught the book The Kite Runner to a class of struggling readers. The book was excellent for several reasons, including the opportunity to analyze our own culture by comparing and contrasting it to Afghani culture. But what stood out was Mahmoud, a struggling student of Middle Eastern descent who, for the first time, saw his culture represented in the curriculum. For once, he didn't see himself as an outsider in a white world; he saw himself as an American with a global perspective.

He went from a shy student to a kid beaming with pride as he could translate an Arabic word here and there or give insight as to the meaning of a Muslim practice. Because of that book, Mahmoud's entire demeanor changed and his social and academic skills improved drastically.

Our students are resilient enough to talk about race. They crave this dialogue. By refusing to talk about race, we've made it a taboo subject and we're teaching them that being non-white is something to be ashamed of.

It isn't impolite to talk about race. Frankly, it's condescending not to. We can't just hope the next generation will somehow figure it out as we've hoped for the past generations. This strategy has never worked and it never will. We need to actively promote culturally responsive teaching practices that make school a welcoming place for all, and it starts with teaching the teachers.

The standards will not solve all of our problems but they are a step in the right direction. Teaching candidates will immediately be able to better see how to make the classroom affirming to students of color, students with disabilities and students who identify as LGBTQ+.

This month, our legislators in Springfield will decide whether or not to approve the Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards. Join me in contacting your state legislators to say yes to adopting the standards and put Illinois on the path to affirming and celebrating all of our students.

• Bob Chikos teaches special education reading, math and technology classes at Crystal Lake Central High School in Crystal Lake. He is a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alum.

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