I’m in something of a strange position. In January I leave my classroom for another country, but it’s December and I’m locked in the mad rush towards Winter Break and final exams. I exist in two worlds – one as a high school teacher, another as a person preparing for a fellowship – but lately my prep and pedagogy have focused on the same thing: respect for culture and community.

Let’s start with my project. While in New Zealand, I hope to observe culturally-relevant and –sustaining teaching practices at a variety of schools. These are academic buzz words, but each serves as a useful shorthand for what Gloria Ladson-Billings terms “just good teaching!” According to Ladson-Billings, a culturally-relevant pedagogy is one that “empowers students to maintain cultural integrity, while succeeding academically.” Lessons aligned with this theory become more meaningful because they relate to and are informed by what students experience outside of school.

Culturally-sustaining practices take this idea further. A culturally-sustaining pedagogy not only works to make learning relevant to a student’s culture, but, in the words of Django Paris, intentionally “seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.” It is not enough that good teaching responds to a student’s culture – it must also help maintain that same culture.

Key to each theory is the idea that the teacher is an active observer long before they enter the classroom. If I am to ensure my lessons connect to and support culture, I must learn as much as possible about each student and their community. Though this is already a core part of my teaching practice, preparing for my Fulbright project Fulbright has renewed my focus on proactive and ethical community engagement.

In her essential Decolonizing Methodologies, Linda Tuhiwai Smith discusses a set of responsibilities which researchers in New Zealand have to the Māori people. Smith filters these responsibilities through Kaupapa Māori, a philosophy which establishes Maori practices as the norm, and describes them in cultural terms:

  1. Aroha kit e tangata (a respect for the people).
  2. Kanohi kitea (the seen face, that is: present yourself to people face to face).
  3. Titiro, whakarongo… korero (look, listen, speak).
  4. Manaaki ki te tangata (share and host people, be generous).
  5. Kia tupato (be cautious)
  6. Kaua e takahia te mana o te tangata (do not trample over the mana of people).
  7. Kia mahaki (don’t flaunt your knowledge).

At their core, these responsibilities remind observers that they are not present to profit from an experience, but rather to look, listen, learn, and record with the utmost care and respect for their hosts.

These same responsibilities apply to teachers. No matter how long we work at a school, many of us are visitors to the community. This problem seems likely to get worse, as municipalities move to close neighborhood schools and build magnets and other alternatives far from the places students and teachers live. In such a climate, it is essential for teachers to treat the communities we enter with the utmost respect. We must not be transients on our way up the administrative ladder, but rather dedicated partners who learn the community’s needs and leverage our expertise to serve them.

A Prologue

Seven months ago…

…I collapse into my desk chair after 6th period U.S. History. It’s a good class, but exhausting. Thirty energetic sophomores always already eager to learn, full of questions, seeking answers. I’ve taught them for two years – a rarity, and a luxury. I know where they left off as freshmen, know what drives them, know what gets them to show up at school at 8:30 a.m. each day. Most days – sometimes they’re tardy. Sometimes things come up. Chicago is a great city. Chicago is a tough city.

7th period is my prep, and I’ve got grading to do. But there’s the Gmail icon waiting to be clicked, and who can resist that? And there it is, beneath a blue United States Department of State letterhead (eagle and all):

On behalf of the U.S. Department of State, I would like to congratulate you on being selected for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program.

My Fulbright acceptance letter. The letter I’ve been waiting six months to see. The letter I’d never expected to see. Holy… wait – can I swear on a Fulbright blog?

But let’s get down to it. Nine years I’ve taught on Chicago’s west side. I’ve worked and learned alongside some of the best people you could ever meet – persistent scholars with golden funny bones; patient elders well worth hearing; counselors whose couches welcomed teachers just as readily as students. I’ve also seen what inequitable funding, political malpractice, and systemic racism can do to a school community. This is my teaching context – the west side, Chicago’s beating heart.

But mine is not the only context in which learning occurs. I applied to the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching program to broaden my perspective, to see alternative pedagogical approaches and bring them home to better serve my school community. Specifically, I hope to observe the ways in which teachers in New Zealand ensure that their social studies curriculum is relevant to each student’s culture.

I will use this blog to share what I learn while away on my fellowship. I will also write about things relevant to my school community, as well as education issues in general. The title comes from Chapter 2 of Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient, continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

This is the philosophy I bring into the classroom every day: the idea that learning is fundamental to humanity, and that learning is most successful when done in connection with community. When it comes down to it, this is what the Fulbright program is all about – connecting teachers and students who might not otherwise meet, and empowering them to learn from one another.

I leave in January. This should be fun.