When Martin Luther King, Jr. responded to the clergymen in Birmingham who thought he was an outside agitator, his goal was to convince the clergy that his fight was just, but he didn’t make that argument using the same rhetoric and themes as his other work. He didn’t preach as if he were at church. He didn’t stir up the masses. He didn’t rail at his audience with righteous indignation, although he had every right and reason to do so, because that would have failed to convince his audience. First, he had to meet them where they were. He made biblical, historical, and philosophical allusions, because those would have resonated with his audience. By connecting his cause to their cultural touchstones, he was able to make a compelling argument that they could not ignore. He led them to a deeper understanding by bridging their former knowledge to his cause.
My community college experience means that I have taught and mentored students that range from traditional students, former military members, diverse students from lower socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds, and a wide range of “otherness.” The same is often true in the MFA program as students whose viewpoints were excluded in decades past are now exploring creative writing in ways that are authentic to their life and cultural experience. It is my job to connect them to the course material and to accept and foster their differences.
In the course of my education, I’ve taken professional development courses such as Cultural Excellence in Course Design, Diversity through Student Collaborative Projects; and Cultural Excellence in Course Design / Intersectionality to improve my awareness of and ability to design or redesign my courses to meet the needs of a diverse student population. The most recent experience was at The Teaching Professor Conference in 2021 where I attended a half-day seminar on Culturally Responsive Teaching (Certification).
I continue to learn on this topic and stay abreast of the most recent information on how to build an inclusive classroom because it matters to the marginalized voices in the room. I want my students to know that I see them where they are, I respect them where they are, and I want to provide them with the same opportunities I was given as a first-generation student.
As a faculty member, it is my job to build bridges to students with diverse backgrounds and to connect new ideas and messages to the students’ prior knowledge. This kind of cultural responsible teaching meets students where they are, and students are valued for their prior knowledge rather than told that their prior knowledge is inadequate. In this way, students are encouraged rather than discouraged or enraged.
Inclusive teaching gives students a chance to share from their lived experiences while also providing diverse, challenging, and culturally responsive readings, discussions, and assignments. Tying previous knowledge to new knowledge aids in retention, but also encourages student to explore new ideas and concepts.
Experience working in a diverse environment and/or utilizing a variety of teaching methods designed for
broad student success.
At the start of each semester, I have students share three photos. One for each of these questions: Who am I? Where do I come from? Where am I going? This helps the students to understand where each of them comes from, but it also gives me a glimpse into their culture so my examples can relate to their existing experience. When we explore challenging topics that will grow a student’s worldview, the shared and inclusive environment makes it possible for the student to grow without fear that what we’re really asking of them is to change.
Does education change students? I hope so, because knowledge can and should transform, but the path to change is through diverse readings, assignments, and discussions while respecting the culture of those in the room. Not by telling them everything about their culture is wrong and must be left behind.