In part 4 of this 5-part interview series on the professional development blog PLTogether education expert, Nina Gilbert discusses the importance of culturally responsive teaching in her interview with Edthena founder Adam Geller.

Here is the transcript of that interview:

– Welcome to #PLtogether Lounge Talks, I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena. Today we’re talking with Nina Gilbert. She’s taught every grade level from kindergarten through college, and now she’s the director of the Center for Excellence and Education at Morehouse College. Nina, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me, Adam.

– So we’ve talked so far about school design and supporting teachers and supporting students, now let’s think about classrooms and maybe of course classrooms might look different right now but the idea of the space, physical or digital that a teacher creates to hopefully kind of create opportunities for learning to occur. I’m curious about how culture plays into that classroom environment. I know that’s something that you’ve been thinking a lot about, so, you know, first take us at, you know, why does culture matter? Why do we need to care? I mean, you know, culture, it’s one of the soft, squishy things. Why do we need to care about this soft squishy thing called culture?

– Yeah so when I think of culture I think of a shared set of beliefs, right? And values and if we’re talking about the physical brick and mortar space, culture is important because the climate of that space is going to be determined by how closely everyone in that building aligns themselves with the core values of the school, right? Or of a classroom. Now that everyone has like a different I guess experience with the classroom or school setting, classes for some may be a brick and mortar space where everyone is socially distant from each other and folks are masked or they have face shields or your classroom space may be little squares on your device. Wherever it is, it has to be an emotionally safe space. What I found, even in higher ed, that there’re teachers, professors who have not created the type of culture that is welcoming or safe for learners and some people are really struggling with this digital environment. Some students really thrive in an environment where they can be more social, sometimes they’re too social, but now that folks are having to connect digitally even though our students are digital natives, this is different for them. And so when a teacher says, hey these are our expectations for this course and these are the standard operating procedures for you know, how we engage with one another, if there’s no way to build community in that space I think it makes it harder for students to engage and feel comfortable in that space.

– And, of course, I mean, you just kind of told that from the perspective of the higher ed teacher who’s working with higher ed learners, but I mean that’s the setting those protocol and expectations is the same thing that I mean, I’m hoping it’s not true for them but I know it probably is, the kindergarten teacher who’s managing students via video, what a challenge? But certainly early elementary where that’s happening for sure. And there’s this great graphic I’ve been seeing on social media where it’s like the difference between the early grades on video and the, you know higher grades. On the early grades the kids are just feeling like bouncing all around all quarters, no expectations going crazy, in the higher grades they just have all their cameras off and really what it is, is a reflection of needing to establish those rules and norms. So, you know, maybe take us a little bit more into the tactical and practical then, you know, advise us as someone who is leading learning right now, how do we, or maybe what should we be thinking about for setting those norms and kind of creating the culture so we can get to the shared values of our learning spaces when they’re not physical?

– Yeah so I think it’s important that we identify some best practices, like curate some of the content that, this is at least what I would do at my center, curate great content that can be shared, codify best practices, share those but be really clear about what works and I think, you know, trying testing different strategies and approaches that’s important and to know that we’re, I think COVID is giving us a reason to have some excuses, right? And do some excuse making like, hey we’re gonna try this, it may not work, if it does not work, we’re gonna try something else. And so some of the things I’ve seen teachers at higher ed level and K-12 levels try that I think are more effective is not feeling like you have to spend all 60 minutes of a class talking into a camera, right? If it did not work face-to-face, if lecturing in front of the class did not work when we were all together, it is definitely not going to work now that we’re remote. So having breakout sessions, right? Going into rooms, pairing, still doing things, share pair or think-pair-share in the zoom breakouts saying, hey, we’re going to spend the first 15 or 20 minutes of this lesson with me explaining, you know, this new concept and then we’re going to give you some time back. She’ll go work on that with the expectation that when we gather again, these will be your deliverables. Giving students the opportunity to engage in more hands-on learning experiences and helping teachers understand the difference between online learning and distance learning. Online is what you and I are doing right now, right? But you can still give an assignment, a project and activity while we are distant from one another with the expectation that you complete this assignment and this project, and you come back ready to present your project to the class. So I’ve seen that students have been more engaged when teachers have used that type of approach versus everyone especially in the K-12 sector, everyone, you know, shiny faces, fully dressed in front of the camera at eight o’clock and you’re zooming all day, it’s not as effective. And I don’t care if you are a student at our traditional middle or high school, or if you are like some of the students I work with on film sets, where you are an actress, you happen to be also a fifth grader but you are an actress on a very popular series and your teacher still expects you to complete your work and so I’ve seen, you know, students who filmed a scene and spend the next hour listening to a lecture that is really about the same thing they filmed, it’s a historical piece. For instance, if a student is in a film about the civil war and her fifth grade teacher is covering the civil war, there’s a way for that student to take her real lived experience and apply that to whatever assignment her teacher is giving her and make that more engaging. So I do think COVID-19, this pandemic, the shift to that remote learning has given teachers and schools an opportunity to kind of rethink how we engage students and give them exciting engaging activities and assignments.

– It was a good reminder that you gave us there of the difference between online teaching and distanced teaching and I’ll add distance learning, okay? You know, the online is not a requirement for the distance part and kind of freeing people up to be independent learners more. Let’s take not the same thing, you know, I want to make sure I’m not saying it as if I’m able to conflate it, but when I hear culture I think there’s another topic, you know we should be talking about. You know, culture is something you can create but there’s also another thing that you can do as a teacher and a leader which is think about how to practice should I say culturally responsive teaching. And so, you know, that feels important right now because there’s a lot going on in students’ lives and in their communities that may be different than it was a year before. So how should we be thinking about the kind of mindsets of being aware of culturally responsive teaching and kind of implementing some of those things, taking them from a theoretical or PowerPoint style way of talking about it into the like doing of it for right now?

– I think it’s tough and it’s tough regardless of your own ethnic or racial background or cultural background, it’s still tough because we are, you know, not monolithic people, none of us are. And so I, as a teacher or educator of color, I could think that I’m being culturally responsive or responsible as I engage with my students but I still may not share the same lived experiences as the students that I’m teaching, right? And so I always say, start with empathy, right? And be sure to listen and listen to understand and build community, meaning build a safe place for students to share their concerns, share their experiences, but with some clear guidelines and parameters. So this is not the time where during our community building session, during a class that you share things that may not be for the good of the group, but the teacher has to be clear about how to guide a conversation. If the conversation is around the current political climate, making sure that students, regardless of their views or the views of their family or their community, that they feel respected, that they feel heard but if you have a culture already that’s a little willy-nilly and you’ve not set clear rules and guidelines, it might not be a good idea to open up a conversation that could be volatile if you don’t have a safe and respectful community already established with your your class or within your school. But I do think it’s important to check in with students around their social and emotional health and wellness. We have students who are experiencing loss, they’ve lost on the one end of the spectrum, they’ve just lost connection with their peers, with their teachers, custodians, right? With the people, the lunch lady, right? So that’s a real loss especially in communities where loss is very common. And then you have students who are experiencing real loss like they live in a multi-generational families and homes and so they have either grandparents or other family members who are ill or those that they can’t see because, you know, they need to social distance, so they’ve lost that as well. And then we, you know, unfortunately have, I know several families who actually lost family members to COVID. And so to understand that students are going through that, not to mention those whose family members have lost employment, right? And so what was very normal and common to just have, you know, three meals a day, you’re not getting one of those meals because you don’t get to eat at school, you’re not getting another meal because you’re a family member may be or your parent may be unemployed or underemployed and you can’t even go out to get food because the neighborhood stores are either understocked or closed. To have the teacher say, everyone turn on your computer and let’s go over, you know, today’s assignment, right? Knowing that the student has to unpack all of that, right? And be prepared and present. So just making sure that if a student doesn’t have his or her camera on, it’s okay, you don’t know what’s behind that, you know if they don’t have a green screen and a virtual background, you know, they may not want to turn their camera on but sometimes turning that camera on will allow a teacher to see inside of a student’s life in a way they’ve not been able to see before. And even that could be troubling for some of our students who feel like they don’t want people to see inside of their home. Yeah, so there’s just so much to think about and so when we think about culture and we think about being culturally responsive and I think it does require training because every situation is going to be completely different.

– You know, I’m thinking about how, if culture is classroom culture is who we as a community of learners want to be, that then the kind of idea of the cultural responsive part of it from the educators perspective is really trying to answer who are we and knowing who we each individual learner is, so that then it can inform who they will be together in that kind of classroom culture. I liked the kind of interplay between the two of them that you were setting up there that neither of them is in isolation.

– That’s right, empathy is so important though. If we can lead and teach with empathy that will allow us to connect with our students regardless of their background or regardless of our background and also hopefully model that for the students who rely on us to set the tone.

– Well Nina, we need to take a break but we’ll be back to continue this conversation. If you are just joining us and wondering what we’ve already talked about or what we’re going to talk about next, head over to PLtogether.org for the rest of this conversation, as well as others. Nina, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you.

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