This report is written primarily for teachers and teacher educators who, in their teaching, curricula, and relationships with students, are struggling with fundamental cultural questions: Who are my students? What kinds of cultural influences shape their lives? How do they — and I, as their teacher — shape and construct this culture on an ongoing basis? What are my own cultural assumptions and how do they influence my teaching?
Much has been written about how schools should respond to the needs of diverse learners and how teachers should alter curricula and teaching practices to accommodate them. We do not intend to reiterate what has already been accomplished in this area. Rather, this report covers ground that we think has been less well covered — namely, the personalization of culture and how it can enhance teaching and learning. These pages represent a distillation of ideas and strategies shared in 1996 at a two-day institute for teachers and anthropologists.1
Many teachers realize that a key to creating a successful learning environment for all students is to tap into the prior knowledge and skills that students bring to school and to make connections between their prior knowledge and new knowledge. Norma González (1996) confirmed this:
"Our experience indicates that when the children's background is recognized and incorporated into the classroom, children's motivation and engagement in the learning process increases dramatically. This is a necessary condition for improving students' achievement across all areas of the curriculum, including language arts, critical thinking skills, mathematics, and scientific inquiry."
When teachers and students share similar cultural and linguistic backgrounds, making these connections is easier, because teachers already have some fairly well-grounded information about the child's culture. For example, they might already know what kinds of activities families participate in on weekends, what kinds of work parents do, and how discipline tends to be handled in the home. Gaps in the teacher's knowledge can readily be filled in by asking parents, who speak the same language as the teacher. On, the other hand, when teachers do not have a background similar to their students', they may lack cultural information that is relevant to teaching these children. Worse yet, they may rely on stereotypes and generalizations to inform curricular and pedagogical decisions. Information and strategies for acquiring accurate information may not be readily apparent, and "even if it were possible for teachers to learn enough about the cultural background of each student, this can lead to the trap of essentialism" (Spindler, 1996), in which we expect all children of a particular cultural background to act in a certain way. Many teachers wonder where they can turn for strategies and ideas that make meaningful use of culture in the classroom.
The purpose of this report is to provide suggestions that will assist teachers in personalizing culture – that is, in moving away from broad generalizations about cultures toward specific knowledge about individual students and families, and toward awareness of the teacher's own culture. Through this personalization of culture, students' prior knowledge and skills can become a rich resource for teaching and learning. We view this as part of the larger effort to create culturally responsive schools. In the following paragraphs, we foreshadow five themes and related assumptions that frame our suggestions for personalizing culture.