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Culturally responsive but how?

A few weeks ago I binged watched 13 Reasons Why. I remember when it was one of the recommended books on the Florida Teen Reads in 2010 waaaaaayyyyy before all the hype and controversy it- or rather the miniseries- is getting. But I digress because this post really is not about the book/series but a moment I had while watching.
In the first episode, there were multiple scenes showing how the school and its students were mourning the death of Hannah. Students were grieving and even put up a memorial. It struck me how they were reacting and how solemn the tone was in comparisons to when a tragedy strikes my school and its students. And unfortunately, tragedy is quite common for us.
Around the same time that I watched Asher’s adaptation, a student was shot seven times.  As well as one of my 8th graders lost his father to gun violence. But you wouldn't have known it. It only became a topic of conversation when I noticed that he was absent for a few days and I asked for him. The students didn't act any differently from their normal boisterous selves and no one would have thought that their worlds collided with grief and violence.
Luckily for the student who was shot, he was able to survive. And of course, he is a legend for surviving. It is a double edged sword because it continues the false idea in my boys’ heads that they are invincible. I spent days upon days having conversations with them while they explain why they feel that a gunshot won’t kill them and how many other people they knew that have been shot as well. Another painful reminder of why tragedy may not seem to bother them. It is their normal.
That took a moment to sink in for me. It bothered me so much that I finally discussed it with my husband and he made me realize reality: they are used to death and bad things happening. Normalizing is how they cope. Making RIP t-shirts with their loved one’s face is how they cope. It may not be how we might but we must seek to be culturally responsive by understanding the road they walk. There's a reality we need to face and work with when dealing with students from the inner city.  
First reality check for me was realizing that my seventh graders are 1-2 years older than the national average due to failing one or two previous grades. So themes/designs that would work with other middle schoolers would not necessarily work with mine because some of them should really be in high school. It took me a moment and some laughs from my students to have figured that out.  It just reminds me to be mindful of the items I put in front of them so they do not appear babyish especially when most times we are working on remedial skills and that’s already a tough pill for them to swallow and I do not want to add insult to injury.
Second reality check is that many already know they are struggling in school. Why remind them? Because they are acting out and are appearing disinterested? As educators we have to understand where their mindset is coming from. If every year of your schooling you struggle and believe me, the students can and will tell you about who is who in the classroom and how long they have been like that and what other teachers have done. What they need is to find success. What they need is for someone to not give up on them even when they try to make you. Think of how often they get disappointed at home or elsewhere. What worked for me this year was funny enough: brag tags! I made brag tags for most usage on their computer software or most books read. Also during testing we came up with names to describe each student during testing in order to help reduce the anxiety. We had students awarded “The most nails bitten during testing” and “Won’t take eyes of the screen.” Also my students work hard. They work hard because I give them work, bell to bell.  I refuse to underestimate them or think that they can’t. Using the Gradual Release of Responsibility Model that my school district is big on, I help to ensure that they are capable. If the only time they are challenged or have to show up and work is assessment day, then I have failed them. They know my motto is: Lebron still shows up for practice. These students should never be short- changed. Educators need to change their mindset and know that there are possibilities in the impossible.

Third reality is that for many of our kids WE ARE IT! We are their champions, we are their disciplinarians, we are their source for books and school supplies, we are the only ones who takes the time to listen, and much more. They depend on the security and routine we provide for them in an unsecure world where some come from. Teaching is very demanding when working in communities when you are it for a student; be it migrant worker children, transient, single parent, no parent, foster home, etc. Taking time to build a community and trust is a must to get anywhere with them. Being culturally responsive is also understanding that many of these students come from cultures built around conversation and allowing meaningful time built in to talk about what they are involved in and what they care about will go a long way with them. My boys play football and my community breeds star athletes. Knowing that, I take time to ask about games and practice and who plays for what team. I take their competitive nature and use it in my classroom.

Last reality is that there is so much we can learn from them so to be receptive. There is more to their communities than hip hop, slang, and sports. There is history and truths and mindsets that revolve around family, religion, and tradition. Allowing them to own and know their truths and use their voices will be one of the best lessons we can provide for them.

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