I’ll admit to mild bafflement at some of the outrage over Principal Scott Masini’s widely publicized decision to stop celebrating Valentine’s Day at Bruce Vento elementary school. Perhaps I’m the only adult who ever experienced awkwardness in middle school over giving or receiving proclamations of love (or not) from my peers. There was no love lost for Cupid in our household, where my two young boys never successfully signed all 60 cards for their combined classmates.
My personal adolescent trauma aside, the impassioned defenses for “dominant” holiday traditions and vitriolic attacks against St. Paul’s Bruce Vento’s decision have made me wonder if the real issue has been lost in the fray.
Are we or aren’t we willing to have an honest conversation about how some of our “dominant” classroom practices might actually shut down learning opportunities for some students?
In Bruce Vento’s St. Paul school district, where my kids also attend school, just over 77 percent of district’s students are youth of color. Approximately 34 percent are English language learners and 72 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Additionally, Minnesota public schools are home to some of the nation’s largest educational achievement gaps between white students and students of color.
To say that we urgently need to consider the impact our teaching strategies might have on youth of color seems a bit of an understatement.
Zaretta Hammond, author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” connects some recent brain science on how kids learn to strategies for meaningfully engaging diverse students—strategies our state could certainly use more of.
And here’s one of Hammond’s key messages: The “hardware” (the brain) for learning is similar for all students. It’s the “software,” the diverse cultural values and learning processes, that differ. And that’s key because it’s the software that “guide[s] how the brain wires itself to process information and handle relationships. Neural pathways are over-developed around one's cultural ways of learning.” Students learn best when these pathways are reflected in classroom teaching.
Somewhat surprisingly, the process is not all about presenting multicultural “diverse content.” Sure, diversifying is an important component by adding relevancy to the material—kids need to see their own traditions and history reflected in the priorities of classroom curriculum.
But the idea of multicultural content has been around for a while, and Hammond offers an explanation for why we have yet to see the improvements we’d hope: It’s not enough to simply teach new content. You also have to teach it differently.
Hammond emphasizes the importance of trust and the relationships between students and teachers, reminding us that the brain is a social organ. She offers many ideas for more socially based teaching practices that involve gaming, storytelling and collaboration, as ways to tap into the cultural learning tools that kids bring to the classroom.
I worry that a recent Star Tribune editorial, which called for more “inclusivity” and “addition, not subtraction,” entirely misses the point. Schools can’t just add and remove some practices. They also have to employ different teaching strategies. If improving outcomes for culturally and linguistically diverse students were as simple as just adding more celebrations, I’m fairly certain we’d see a very busy holiday calendar and wouldn’t be facing the achievement gap.
I worry, too, about the uproar around Bruce Vento. If we’re so resistant to even questioning the impact of holidays in schools, will we ever be ready to change our content and delivery in the way our students surely need?
As neither an educator nor a neuroscientist, I realize that educational equity is a complex issue with a long history of challenges and no single solution. But as a parent, it seems clear to me that providing all students with the opportunity to succeed requires, minimally, a willingness to examine the impact of unquestioned practices and sometimes cherished traditions, and to include students and parents in the conversation.
In the meantime, pass the box of chocolates while I celebrate a break from this school holiday.
Laura Jones is the mother of two students in a St. Paul public school, and has been a writer and communicator for 15 years. Laura’s professional background in policy and advocacy reform work around justice-involved youth and adults informs her interest in education issues. Through writing and involvement in her kids’ school, Ms. Jones in interested in promoting racial equity in education through classroom practices that help all kids succeed. Laura is passionate about supporting discipline policies and reforms that keep schools safe and kids in the classroom where they can learn. She is interested in learning and writing more about school discipline solutions, such as restorative practices, that reduce the use of punitive practices that disproportionately impact youth of color. When she’s not writing, Laura can be found frequenting her local library and independent bookstores, chasing her two active boys and desperately trying to learn snowsports as an adult transplant to Minnesota.
The MinnCAN blog allows Minnesota students, teachers, administrators, parents and advocates to share their thoughts on key education issues. Blogging fellows' and guest bloggers' views and opinions are solely their own.