Teacher Innovation #10: “Innovation as Self: A Teacher Reflects on Innovation as a Pedagogical Philosophy Shift”

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Post #10 is from Dr. Kim Foster, a practicing ELA teacher with nearly a decade of classroom experience. I met Dr. Foster when we both started our doctoral studies in 2013 and from day one, she was both a good friend and someone who challenged my own intellectual aptitude as a graduate student. (I grew to be a better doc student because of her; although, she is too humble to agree to that.) Dr. Foster has my utmost respect and is the embodiment of what it means to foster (no pun intended) caring relationships in the classroom and to have a growth mindset. Her post reflects on her evolution in pedagogical philosophy and pedagogy in the classroom over the course of her career and particularly the last four years of research. Much like myself, Dr. Foster experienced a seismic shift in her pedagogical approach. If you want delve into culturally relevant pedagogy and a critical approach to teaching in the classroom, you do not want to miss reading this post. Even if you’re not a teacher, this post highlights how our best teachers grow and change student lives.

Previous Entries in the Series: Post #1 // Post #2 // Post #3 // Post #4 // Post #5 // Post #6 // Post #7 // Post #8 // Post #9

By Dr. Kim Foster

When Kyle asked me to participate in this “innovation” series, I immediately said yes because Kyle is awesome, and I love to write about my classroom. However, the more I pondered on my teaching, the more I concluded, “What I do in the classroom is really not that super innovative…what does it mean to be innovative?” Well, I googled it because that is how we find quick answers these days. Google claims that innovating is “to make changes in something established, especially by introducing new methods, ideas, or products.” As I mulled over my thoughts, what I determined is that my mindset as a teacher has been in a process of innovation for the past four years. In this post, I will share about an unanticipated shift in my pedagogical approach that came about when I started a doctoral program (how I met Kyle) to learn more about how to teach more effectively, and what I gained can not be quantified by insignificant numbers or qualified by mere words. I am the result of innovation, and I hope that all teachers can find encouragement in allowing yourself to be refined, revived, and renewed in ways that you may never know that you need. I start with a reminiscent scene from ten years ago during my student teaching; I then share a brief description of the knowledge that sparked my journey. I move to a reflection from my dissertation research; and I end with a reflection as I move into my tenth year of teaching.

“I comment, ‘That’s really awesome! You have never seemed interested in reading anything in class. What about this books sparks interest for you?’ He responded, ‘This book is about my people.’”

Fall 2007- Student Teaching

It is the fall of 2007, and I am a student teacher at Robert E. Lee High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. The halls are dirty, filthy even. The heating and cooling in the building have not worked properly in years, my cooperating teacher laments to me. The desks are a pitiful excuse in which students must reside. The ceiling tiles are disgusting; in fact, some tiles are missing, and there are boards of some sort to replace the tiles. When the 6:55 bell rings, a barrage of diverse faces file into the twelfth grade English classroom. Because Lee High School is the “ESOL school” for East Baton Rouge Parish, the school population is largely made up of minority students.

“Get out your textbooks, and turn to Hamlet, Act Three,” I say to the students. I receive mixed feedback, but nonetheless, the students are compliant in opening their textbooks. As I walk around to ensure their compliance, I gaze upon a student who is secretly reading the novel, The Kite Runner, under his desk. I was in absolute astonishment. “This particular Middle-Eastern student never reads anything in this classroom,” I think to myself. He puts it away, and we go on with the reading of Hamlet.

After class, I pull him aside and ask him, “What are you reading?” He shows me the book but does not respond orally. I comment, “That’s really awesome! You have never seemed interested in reading anything in class. What about this books sparks interest for you?” He responded, “This book is about my people.” His response immediately changed my perspective of what teaching English to students of all populations should look like in the American classroom. If this student, who claimed “not to be a reader,” was reading a 200+ page book, then I needed to ascertain how to incorporate more reading as such, so that my students would be as invested as he was in that moment of reading.

Not until five years into my teaching career, did I really understand what this student desired from me as his teacher. He was longing to see himself, his perspectives, and his people in the classroom. This small, seemingly insignificant encounter which lasted less than three minutes has shaped the trajectory of my teaching career forever. This young man desired a teaching pedagogy that he nor I could articulate at that time- culturally relevant pedagogy.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

My parents took my siblings and me to London in 1998, and since that trip, I have always longed to travel. I am someone who loves to travel not just to “see the sights”, but to experience peoples’ cultures. I thoroughly enjoy knowing people, where they come from, and how and why they operate as they do. So when I first learned about culturally relevant pedagogy, my heart and my mind immediately clung to this framework. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2009) describes culturally relevant pedagogy as a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) rests on three criteria:

(a) Students must experience academic success; (b) Students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence; and (c) Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of social order. (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 160).

As I learned and researched CRP, I knew immediately that this approach was what my classroom desperately needed, what I desperately needed. But, how? How do I implement such a loaded approach? After much literary and academic research and time, I took to my classroom in action research. I started with a pilot study in 2013, which transformed into my dissertation study in the spring of 2016, which transformed me.

Summer 2016- Reflections on Dissertation Study

Defining what a culturally relevant teacher is and does can be challenging; however, when I analyzed my specific motives, ideas, and intentions, it became clear to me that I was purposefully creating an environment where culturally relevant teaching and learning could take place. Academic success is a construct that can be defined differently in any given subject, circumstance, and space. For my students, academic success is defined as growth in confidence and assurance as a critical reader, writer, and communicator. At this point in the year, which was March through May, I have established relationships with students, and they hopefully felt comfortable and confident in my classroom. Because of this positive rapport, students tended to work more authentically than at the beginning of the year. The students, as all student do, assessed what level and type of relationship I would establish with them from day one of this course. I have diligently and intentionally given warm, critical feedback on all types of assignments at this point in the year. Students are clear on what to expect from me and what I expect of them. Because of this, I believe that my students have experienced academic success in a variety of ways- through written and oral assignments. They have developed a sense of empowerment in themselves as I attempt to show later in the chapter.

Ladson-Billings (1995) states that culturally relevant teachers use culture as a vehicle for learning; she argues that cultural competence is utilizing cultural knowledge in the classroom as a starting point. In my English classroom, I agree with Ladson-Billings and further build on her definition of cultural competence, which means that students are aware of their own cultures and how their cultures inform their thinking and learning. This criterion of culturally relevant pedagogy required me to have some type of base knowledge and understanding of my students in order to create spaces for them to develop and/or exercise cultural competence. This was the most difficult aspect of implementing culturally relevant pedagogy. It was not until just a few years ago, when I began to look closely at CRP, that cultural competence became something that I even really understood and considered as important in my classroom. As an adult, I believe that I am still learning how what it means and looks like to be culturally competent in different areas of my life. In thinking about how I could intentionally facilitate learning opportunities for students to develop cultural competence, I wanted them to initially see a need for cultural competence in the classroom; I have attempted to do this throughout all units, however, in this particular unit, I began with a reading and analysis of two articles. One article was a difficult textbook chapter on cultures, subcultures, contact zones, etc. (Jandt, 2004); and the second article was from National Geographic which focused on the changing faces of America. The students were to complete “Think Pieces” as they read. These articles and think pieces created an opportunity for students to grapple with their own concepts of cultures, what their cultures are, and where these ideas come from. I purposefully created this as the first activity of the unit because I wanted students to view themselves and their classmates as cultural beings.

In continuing to work toward cultural competence the first composition that students wrote was an exploration of their cultural identities. The writing was based on specific pieces from the initial readings; students explored their rituals, cultural events, values, etc. This type of writing, looking deeply at oneself, positioned the students to see and to view themselves as cultural beings. Matthew commented in his follow-up interview after the writing and sharing of this composition, “I think it was easy like talking about how you are, and it was hard to see why you are like that.” In addition to writing these compositions, the students also created a visual representation of their cultural identities. Upon completion of both the writing and visual piece, the class spent an entire class period in the media center sharing their cultural identities. Students were required to view at least seven of their classmates and to give warm feedback to each. This day was powerful; this type of sharing allowed the students to see into windows of one anothers’ lives that quite possibly they had not before. My goal for beginning the unit with a focus on culture and cultural identities was to purposefully create a sense of awareness of the role of culture in the classroom in order to build cultural competence in the students.

As for the third criterion of culturally relevant pedagogy, challenging the social structures, my entire curriculum is infused with this notion. From day one of my classroom, I am challenging the students to broaden their perspectives. I believe that when students are able to see situations and circumstances from varying viewpoints, they can begin to challenge the status quo. Brookfield (2012) states that asking students to challenge their assumptions can be “an unsettling, even rebellious act. It disturbs both those being asked (particularly if they’re comfortable with the way things are) and those in power (who would rather people did not ask such questions)” (p. 196). As seniors in high school, some of my students have been exposed to very few viewpoints other than their own. I do not necessarily deem this as a positive or a negative. In order for the varying perspectives of my students to be shared and developed, I use a critical discussion protocol develop by Brookfield (2012); he cautions that discussion must not become centers of personal response where participants passively accept anything as true.

Discussions must become safe spaces where participants:

  •       identify their own and their peers’ assumptions
  •       check the validity of assumptions; attempt to identify contexts in which the assumptions are valid
  •       seek evidence to confirm or disprove generalizations
  •       generate as many perspectives as possible
  •    remain suspicious of early consensus

The purpose of these discussions is to generate as many viewpoints as possible as well as to identify and challenge assumptions. Students were in a place in which they knew that I expected them to grapple with comfortable and uncomfortable notions about culture, cultural identities, and the like. I challenged their assumptions as well as they challenged one another very appropriately. I have found that building my classroom around these types of discussions has led to some very powerful and real explorations of difficult topics.

Because of this research, I have grown personally and professionally. Personally, I am more aware of the need to create a community in which all students are heard and valued. I knew community was important in the classroom, but I saw through the data analysis process how much the students really appreciated the opportunity to express themselves. Students commented frequently on the authenticity that was present among their classmates; I was not expecting this. Additionally, because I persistently challenged students to look deeper within their own biases, I had to do the same in order to listen and to model listening for my students. My professional growth steamed from the personal growth; I will now teach with a mindset of getting students to recognize and to challenge inequalities, to always question, to think deeper, and to ask why of themselves and their classmates. Culturally relevant pedagogy does not just exist in one unit; CRP exists every day in every lesson. Culturally relevant teaching is a mindset that teachers possess (Milner, 2011). I realized the power of having students share everything that they think and create; the sharing opens up conversations that may or may not surface. In future years, I will introduce this unit at the beginning of the year. I want more time and space to create an environment which allows for the recognizing and challenging of social structure throughout the rest of the year. Additionally, I will utilize more critical discussions because I believe this is where students were really able to grapple and to see one another grapple with social inequalities (Brookfield, 2009).

Final Thoughts- Moving into Year Ten

Innovating in my classroom has not been a new piece of technology, a new way to differentiate, or an awesome way to quickly create lesson plans. For me, innovation has been that of the heart and of the mind, which has significantly impacted my pedagogical mindset. In a commencement speech at Stanford University in 2006, Steve Jobs stated, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” This quote hangs on my classroom wall. I consider myself incredibly fortunate to love what I do; I really do. There are too many people in this world who do not love what they spend most of their time doing.

In my short nine years of teaching, I have been asked to “innovate” in many, many ways-some practical, and some very whimsical. I am sure all educators have experienced that professional learning where a “new” something is supposed to radically change how you teach all students. (Yeah right.) Please don’t misunderstand; I do think professional learning is essential. But take heart and be encouraged that maybe, like me, you are the one who needs to be innovated. Embrace and welcome it.

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3 thoughts on “Teacher Innovation #10: “Innovation as Self: A Teacher Reflects on Innovation as a Pedagogical Philosophy Shift”

  1. Dr. Foster, the passion you write here of capturing students using literature that matters to them where the student identifies with the character and feels his culture is validated is the objective of my multicultural literature class. I had the fortune this year to pilot this course and the privilege to have some of my school’s finest pupils. They ended the year with comments that stroked my ego including this was by far the highlight of my high school experience and this class helped me to appreciate other cultures and challenged my prejudices and stereotypes of others. In addition to celebrating cultural diversity, the students had an opportunity to see that what makes them unique is also what makes them similar. Thank you for the reflection.

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