By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director
On November 6, the Schenectady City School District and Capital Region BOCES hosted hundreds of educators from throughout the region at the 2nd annual Urban Schools Conference in the Empire State Plaza Convention Center. During his introduction of keynote speaker Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade, Schenectady Superintendent Larry Spring set the tone for the day by stating that “you don’t get to teach in an urban district without being an activist.” Throughout the day, presenters and participants reflected the truth of this claim, displaying a remarkable unity of purpose that affirms Schenectady’s commitment to “ensuring that race, economics and disability are never predictors of student achievement.”
The program was equal parts inspirational and practical, providing strategies to serve the whole child. Two workshops focusing on literacy were particularly interesting. While they approached the subject from different perspectives, each yielded insights that can help educators support the development of their students’ reading and expressive capacities.
Dr. Jamila Lyiscott’s presentation “Language, Race, and Power” proceeded from the idea that the concept of literacy is socially constructed and reflects power relations that privilege a dominant ideology. She stated that “standard English is the language of power.” To support this claim, she shared a personal story about her experience speaking on a panel while she was a college student. Following the panel, a white academic praised Dr. Lyiscott for her articulate, composed contributions to the discussion. This phenomenon, which she termed “being articulate while Black,” is no doubt familiar to people of color in academic and professional settings. She wondered if this professor would have regarded her in the same way if she had been speaking Creolized English such as Caribbean Vernacular English (CVE) or African American Vernacular English (AAVE).
Dr. Lyiscott illustrated the richness of these “dialects of the diaspora” by explaining “the art of the cipher.” A cipher, or rhythm circle, has deep roots in hip-hop culture and consists of a group of people improvising spoken word rhymes over a beat. Participants perform over a sixteen bar cycle before passing it off to the next member of the group. As an artistic expression, this practice bears close resemblance to the jazz practice of “trading fours” in which a soloist will alternate four bar improvisations with the drummer or another band member at the end of a tune. Composing coherent linguistic or musical statements in the moment certainly requires mastery of a great deal of “vocabulary” - it is an act that is impossible if one is “illiterate.”
Dr. Lyiscott emphasized the need for educators to expand their definition of literacy beyond the boundaries of standard academic English in order to embrace “the genius of diverse cultures” that may be expressed in dialects such as CVE or AAVE. She stated that “students’ identities are formed in languages outside the classroom” and highlighted the potential of engaging students who “successfully navigate multiple linguistic practices.” This would validate students’ cultural identities and help educators “reimagine what schools are as institutions and what values they validate.”
Schenectady K-12 English Language Arts and Library Coordinator Kerri Messler and K-12 Social Studies, World Language, and Family Consumer Science Coordinator Carmella Parente presented a workshop entitled “Building Background Knowledge and Developing Classroom Community Using Text Sets.” This session explored strategies to develop students’ background knowledge, an essential component of literacy instruction, while centering equity and cultural proficiency in the classroom. Drawing on the research of Lynn Gelzheiser and K.E. Stanovich, they proposed that a lack of background knowledge inhibits reading comprehension, discouraging students and making them less likely to read. This creates a further lack of background knowledge, setting in motion a cycle that causes students to lose interest in reading. Ms. Messler and Ms. Parente offered strategies that employ the use of scaffolded text sets to disrupt this pattern.
They use text sets consisting of a group of books that focus on a particular topic with the goal of helping students “engage in academically productive talk through immersion focused on inclusion.” To illustrate the process, the presenters curated two text sets that focused on Muslim religious and cultural practices. The first book, Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors, by Hena Khan, used basic language and vivid, compelling illustrations to expose the reader to the depth and beauty of Muslim culture. Subsequent texts dealt with Islam’s history and increasingly specific details of religious practices.
The text sets culminated in first person narratives - Moonwatchers: Shirin’s Ramadan Miracle by Reza Jalabi and One Green Apple by Eve Bunting. Moonwatchers supported inclusion and acceptance by framing specific cultural practices such as fasting during Ramadan within the relatable context of a relationship between a brother and sister. One Green Apple, on the other hand, told the story of a recent immigrant who finally found acceptance among her classmates on a field trip to an apple farm. Through careful scaffolding, the texts aim to build students’ background knowledge about Islamic culture. The process culminated by framing Muslim protagonists in a context of family and school dynamics that are likely to be familiar to students, helping them engage in productive dialog about cultures beyond their own. This carefully constructed, thorough approach can be applied to any topic and has vast potential to help teachers support the development of background knowledge while cultivating a learning environment that embraces diversity.
Taken together, these two workshops offer an interesting study of literacy in a multicultural society. Dr. Lyiscott’s compelling advocacy for the recognition of “multiple linguistic practices” prompted educators to reflect on their own conceptions of literacy and how that may have shaped their pedagogy. Kerri Messler and Carmella Parente showed how the careful selection and sequencing of texts can foster the kind of background knowledge that helps students engage in the process of reading while opening their eyes to the beauty of diverse cultures. Both presentations, however, sought to empower educators and students to utilize language as a means of working toward a more equitable, inclusive society.
For more information about the conference from the Schenectady City School District, click here.