What’s Relevant to Your Students?

Teachers teach a variety of students who bring an enormous range of diversity into the learning environment. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to the work of teaching.

Teachers must be mindful of whom they are teaching and the range of needs that students will bring into the classroom. Moreover, the social context that shapes students’ experiences is vast, complex and integral to what decisions are made and why (H. R. Milner, 2011). As a reading teacher, I often find myself assigning reading books that children aren’t interested in, but rather what interests me.

My challenge as an educator was my preoccupation with what I wanted them to read. I didn’t take their interests into account. It wasn’t until the conversation in a small group one day turned to the girls I was working with talking about a singer they heard on social media that I realized I needed to listen more and talk less. I had no idea who this singer was. The girls went on to tell me about how the singer’s hair was just like one of the girls in our small group, which opened a discussion of their hair versus mine. This conversation then turned into a search for books about black girls’ hair. I had never seen this much excitement from these girls. That day I realized they should be allowed to relate more personally to what they are learning. I challenged myself with the question, “How would learning be more successful and meaningful to children if what they were reading was relevant to them?”

The children I worked with at an afterschool program were African American and living in minoritized communities. Sociologist Louis Wirth (1945) defined a minority group as “any group of people who, because of their physical or cultural characteristics, are singled out from the others in the society in which they live for differential and unequal treatment, and who therefore regard themselves as objects of collective discrimination” (Wirth, 1945). African Americans and Hispanics are often incorrectly considered minority groups. However, they are actually minoritized. Acknowledging this difference keeps the focus on the situation out of their control rather than focus on being subordinate to another group (G. R. Howard, 2007).

Early on in this project, I learned that when children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when they see distorted images, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how devalued they are in the society they are a part of (C.M. Tschida et al., 2014).

Inventive Strategies

To explore strategies that foster children’s voices, I designed a project/experiment to examine merging and creating culturally relevant strategies for employing the framework in the school setting. I wanted the children to draw on the sources they learned at the after-school program and use them to be successful in their classrooms at school and to make sense of the world. It is important for children to feel relevant and comfortable in any setting.

Completing this project at the after-school program allowed affordances that are not possible in a classroom setting. The majority of children in the after-school program were African American. They arrive there after a long day of school in an environment that is very different from a structured classroom setting. I am used to teaching in a classroom that is structured, quiet, and students that mostly wanted to learn what you were teaching them. I kept reminding myself that this was not my classroom, and these children were not my students in the school sense. The children’s attitudes were relaxed in a way that I had to be inventive with my strategies.

The first step was the process of gaining their trust and took a lot less time and effort because I had been at this community center for over a year. I wasn’t a new person that they had to get to know. They were already as familiar with me as I was with them. We began every session with a snack and a review of their day. The review could be school-related or something that happened before school. If the conversation seemed to be going flat due to a slow day at school, or at home, we would talk about their favorites. Their favorite YouTube channel, their favorite food, their favorite music and what they did for fun were discussed, along with various other topics. We did this routine until it was time to move on to something different. The children were losing interest in our conversations. I decided we needed to move on to reading books together. Reading books together was another way I was getting to know them. I had read books in the past with various kids at this after-school program so I knew I could keep their attention.

A Sense of Belonging

According to A.M. Gallagher, in schools, high-interest reading is being squeezed out in favor of more test preparation practice. Sustained silent reading time is being abandoned because it is often seen as “soft” or “nonacademic” (2009). Since this iteration took place at an after-school center, high-interest books were essential. I continued reading to them at the beginning of each session but began integrating books that were purposefully written about times in our history that shined a light on AfricanAmericans.

By pure coincidence, I began reading a book called, Stella By Starlight by Sharon Draper. This book addresses life in the segregated South in 1932, as seen by a young 11-year-old growing up African American in Bumblebee, North Carolina. The plot includes the Ku Klux Klan and segregated schools. When I began reading this book, I noticed the girls’ attention seemed to perk up. This book began a conversation about segregation that allowed the girls to begin researching other books about this subject. There were Google searches that led to reading about brave girls like Ruby Bridges and females working for NASA.  

The girls decided to create projects about what they researched. We worked on these projects along with reading Stella by Starlight. As the semester went on, I began to see how much the girls grew over this time together. Our shared time before reading went from a struggle to find something good to share their day, to having to set a timer so that they would get some reading time in and not just talk about their day. Academically, they shared more stories from what happened at school. Their reading levels all improved. The girls would volunteer to read in front of the class at school whereas before they would not. They would talk about their reading in class as a positive, not negative experience. Their behavior in school, as well as at the center, began to change positively.

They seemed to have a better sense of belonging. They listened more and complimented each other in their work. They didn’t say derogatory comments about themselves or the center as often as they used to. The girls’ attitudes started to change as well. They went from girls who didn’t want to read and did not do very well at school, to girls who liked to share stories of their school day.

Although the girls gained self-confidence and began to believe in themselves, I was the one who benefited most from this experience. I learned how to address and then shatter the stereotypes associated with our own identities. I feel like I was able to create a safe, empathetic space for the girls to make mistakes, learn from each other’s differences, and embrace their vulnerabilities in ways that made them more confident, mature, and strong. These girls taught me how to give them the benefit of the doubt, showed me that they deserved respect, and trained me on how to support them unconditionally.

Everything I learned from them I brought into my classroom this year. Without the experiences of the after-school program, I fear I would still be trying to control my students and teach them the way I think they should be taught. I now have a clearer picture of the importance of guiding instead of controlling their learning. Take the time to allow your students to share their voices and find out what is relevant to them. This extra, important step will pay off in the gains of your student.

Tuttle is a Scottsbluff native and a graduate of Nebraska Wesleyan University with a master’s degree in historical studies and an EdD in teaching, curriculum and instruction with a focus on reading and technology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She taught at Park and Culler middle schools in Lincoln for 15 years and now teaches reading at Mickle Middle School in Lincoln.