Saturday, 23 May 2015

Mind the Gap I - Cultural Competency in the Classroom

Kimberly Tanner's first workshop for the Mind the Gap series used a mobile construction exercise. It produced an interesting dynamic in the workshop because different teams had different resources. It was weird because both my partner and I were simply in our own bubble trying to construct something worthy from the scraps of paper, string, and hangers that we had with us. When I noticed that some groups had other resources (scissors! tape!) I realized what was trying to be simulated and then simply focused on trying to produce the best bad mobile we could produce. It was a game! One that was stacked against me and as a result I had checked out of taking it seriously. The other interesting thing that I noticed afterwards was that so many other teams had used interesting themes for their mobiles: education, science, organisms (we were mostly biologists/scientists attending) that I had never considered. What my team did was to produce a mobile consisting of different geometric shapes (triangle, square). Why? The only other time I had ever constructed a mobile was in grade 7 when our class created mobiles of different shapes for our geometry section of math. That was my only experience making mobiles and so that is what I used to model our approach to the workshop.

So a couple of interesting things here. One is how I checked out of the assignment once I realized that that the playing field was not fair. The other thing that is interesting is that I locked myself into approaching the assignment based on my limited prior experience. While unpacking the exercise with Dr Tanner during the workshop I began to wonder how many of our students have similar responses to poorly structured assignments? Poorly structured in the sense that the rules and expectations are not clearly explained with unstated possilibities left assumed. It was interesting that I did not consider asking for extra resources to complete our "high resource" bag (we had glitter glue in our bag). Especially since Kimberly had laid out the extra resources on a desk in front of us. She had not pointed them out or suggested we could ask to use them. But no one (no one!) in the lecture theatre even considered asking if they were available to be borrowed. Why did I not consider asking for assistance from other teams? Was that permitted? Why didn't I ask? Why did I not look around for what other resources might be available? Why did I limit myself to what was present in our bag and to our limited experience? How many of my students have similar responses when I assign a term paper, learning dossier or e-portfolio? How can I make my own assignments more clear and transparent?

These were the questions going through my mind. What Kimberly was trying to emphasize is that our resource bags were representative of what baggage our students bring to our classrooms and are as varied as what she gave to us. Students come to us with different family cultures, educational backgrounds, different experiences and prejudices both projected and experienced. As educators, it is our responsibility to consider the cultural variety in our classroom and try to respond to the different needs of our students. Not try to make students the same, but try to tailor the educational environment we construct for our students such that all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured in our classrooms. One way of doing that is being explicit in our expectations such that students know what questions to ask to clarify what they themselves need in order to achieve excellence given their own background.

No easy task. No way of using a cookie cutter approach to all students. When I design the learning environment I need to try to respond to each student's individual needs as they become apparent. One thing I learned is that making the course/assignment structure clear, that better levels the playing field and creates the conditions in which all students feel welcomed, supported and nurtured.