By Michael Piccirillo, Ed.D, CASDA Executive Director
As we head into March, many school districts will be holding trainings for their administrators, teachers and support staff. I am hopeful that many of these training sessions will be on culturally responsive pedagogy, equity, social justice or diversity. Upon reflection after my years of experience working in school systems, it is clear that there is a cultural gap that existed when I was in school and that continues to exist today.
I have referenced my childhood in this column on several occasions, describing the impact of being economically disadvantaged from a personal perspective, and I think it’s fitting to bring up again. Living in the boroughs of New York City most of their lives, my parents relied on mass transportation and never owned a car. In 1972, we moved to Lake George and no longer had access to reliable mass transit. Consequently, my mother learned how to drive, but was not comfortable teaching me. My father, a functional illiterate, never learned to drive. So, when I was 16, I took a Driver Education Class in school.
My first adventure behind the wheel of the student driver vehicle was along Route 9N from Lake George to Bolton Landing. As I drove along Lakeshore Drive, the instructor, our health teacher, directed me to make a left hand turn into a cutoff road. I performed all the preparatory functions correctly and made the turn, however, I swung the car a bit wide and unbeknownst to me was heading for trouble. The instructor loudly and in a somewhat panicked voice cautioned, “Watch out for the culvert!”
Not knowing what a culvert was, I kept veering in the direction of danger. The instructor hit his special set of brakes, stopping the car abruptly. Looking at me with an expression of exasperation, he emphatically stated, “I told you to watch out for the culvert.” Embarrassed, I said nothing, got out of the car and sheepishly went to take my place in the back seat next to my giggling classmates. Why was I so embarrassed?
Having never heard the word before, I didn’t know what a culvert was. If the instructor had cautioned me to “watch out for the ditch,” I would have immediately veered away from the danger. There is no doubt my vocabulary lagged my peers, especially the economically advantaged. This was an artifact of a childhood that lacked exposure to reading and writing outside of school. My teacher assumed that his choice of language clearly communicated his instructions. He never considered that his meaning could be lost in translation with students from decidedly different backgrounds, cultures and socio-economic realities. This remains a fundamental challenge for educators in increasingly diverse classrooms.
Educators need to value and embrace students diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds as a cornerstone of effective instruction. This requires self-examination of our own beliefs and training to develop curriculum that meets the needs of all students. CASDA’s February newsletter presents tools like Hanover Research’s Equity Audit, an interview about diversity training with Kathleen McLean, President and CEO of CASDA’s newest corporate partner The McLean Group, and a podcast with Dr. Kristen Wilcox, Professor at the UAlbany School of Education and lead researcher for NYKids, exploring culturally responsive practices in odds-beating schools.
As always, CASDA is ready, able and dedicated to supporting your work to ensure all of your students experience culturally responsive curriculum and instruction as we prepare them for their futures.