It has been a school year for the history books. As schools around the world wrestled with how to teach in remote and hybrid environments, teachers saw first-hand just how different every student's learning environment was. They saw a broad range of their students' cultures: how they interact with family, what their personal space looked like (if they had any), and how they acted and sounded outside of school.
I sat down virtually with Dr. Sharroky Hollie and asked him about how that shifted our views on resilience, and what it means to truly teach in response to a student's language and culture.
Richard Blankman: Your particular brand puts language as equally important as culture. Is cultural responsiveness possible without linguistic responsiveness?
Dr. Sharroky Hollie: My history in this work began through the window of language, with a focus on students who come to school with what would be considered “non-standard” English: Black English, Chicano English, and so forth. Then the phonics controversy hit, and people wanted to know how they could be more linguistically sensitive around home languages that were not accepted by the institution.
I've always been a big language proponent. My background is in language. What happened is that behavior became such an issue, particularly around Obama’s Race to the Top. All of a sudden, we had everyone focusing on behavior. The need changed from language to culture, and helping people understand that some of these behaviors that we're looking at, they're cultural. They're not bad, they're not wrong.
It's always been culture and language for me, but it's just what's been hot or most necessary. I don't think you can talk about culture without language.
I think that it's also how we've branded culturally responsive teaching in the broad sense. It's looked at superficially. It's kind of become a buzzword. Over a 30-year period, it's lost its meaning where you could think of it as inclusive of language. But if you go back, most of the research would say culture and language.
RB: Would you be willing to share an example of you interpreting behavior through your own cultural lens that turned out to be inaccurate once you accounted for another person's perspective?
SH: Oh yeah. I have so many examples of that. I can share one in the context of me working with indigenous teachers and students in New Mexico and not really understanding the power of resilience. I was working in particular with Navajo educators. We throw around that term resilience all the time, and I'm thinking of it in terms of circumstances. Then I had an educator, her name is Dr. Belinda Begay, say, this is who we are. This is not about our circumstances.
When she said that, it totally flipped my mindset. It's not a cause and effect for us culturally. It's not because we’re dealing with high levels of poverty that we become resilient. We are resilient. Even in relation to my own culture, within Black culture, there is a sense of resiliency in the same way that she was talking about it, but I never related it to indigenous cultures.
When you see someone's home life on a screen, you realize this is a testament of resilience that this child is here, that the child is able to make it through.
RB: Do you feel like that sort of attitude towards resilience has changed in this past year, as we're all trying to teach and learn in the middle of a pandemic?
SH: Yeah, I do. A lot of educators that I've been working with became more aware of what some students have been experiencing in their personal lives and realize truly how resilient some of these students have been, where I don't think that acknowledgment was at the same level pre-pandemic.
When you see someone's home life on a screen, you realize this is a testament of resilience that this child is here, that the child is able to make it through. I've heard more of that type of looking at it from an asset perspective rather than a liability perspective.
RB: if a school or district is trying to decide how to make its learning more culturally responsive, what should they look for in a curriculum?
SH: The way I divide that question is in two ways.
It's mindset, right? No matter what we're doing, we have to have a mindset that is built around validation and affirmation. Where are our biases? Where are we bringing in a deficit mentality?
The second part is the skillset, which gets at the pedagogical standpoint. Not just in terms of culturally responsive pedagogy, but pedagogy, period.
When looking at content, I use what I call a cultural authenticity framework and try to get people to see that some things can be culturally neutral, with no intent on trying to be responsive. And that that can be okay as long as we're not thinking it's cultural. I want people to know what's culturally neutral, what's culturally generic, and then what's culturally authentic.
RB: What advice would you offer to an ed leader who's looking to do something right now that will make their teachers or their teaching more culturally or linguistically responsive?
SH: I'm really big on people knowing where they are in relation to the work. For an ed leader, it would be to find out, where are your people in relation to being authentically culturally responsive? Dealing with issues of racial and social justice has to be a part of it.
I always encourage leaders: do something small. Do something that's like an appetizer if you will, and then have people talk about where they are in relation to this work. That'll let the leader know better how to go forward with that work: how fast, how slow, how big, how small.
I think that sometimes we just kind of come in and say, okay, big districtwide presentation on cultural responsiveness, go for it. And you know, that doesn't work for everybody.
RB: What more generally? What do you value as an important part of being a good leader?
SH: The ability to delegate and understand what you, the leader, can or cannot do. The big thing that I see is leaders who don't know how to delegate.
You have some leaders who are great with the operational stuff, the budgeting stuff, the infrastructure stuff, but not the equity work. When I come in, I’m saying, can you delegate the equity work to someone? Because I don't want it to hinge on that leader.
RB: What are you reading right now?
SH: What am I reading? Oh gosh. We're doing some virtual book studies coming up. So right now I'm reading two books in prep because I'm facilitating. I'm reading Me and White Supremacy [by Layla Saad], and I'm rereading Between the World and Me by [Ta-Nehisi] Coates.
RB: And are they physical books?
SH: I haven't gotten into the Kindle. I've tried. I was on my Kindle more when I was in the airplane, but I haven't flown in 11 months. So I've gone back to just reading the books themselves.
RB: Dr. Hollie, I can't thank you enough for being generous with your time and sharing your work and your ideas. How can someone find you if they want to learn more or reach out to you?
RB: Thank you again! It's been a pleasure talking with you. Please be well.
SH: No problem. Take care.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.
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