Cultural Construction Zones

By Allen, JoBeth; Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill | Journal of Teacher Education, May-June 2004 | Go to article overview

Cultural Construction Zones


Allen, JoBeth, Hermann-Wilmarth, Jill, Journal of Teacher Education


Excellent teachers whose students are failing do not blame the students; rather, they ask themselves, "What am I doing that contributes to this failure?" (Ladson-Billings, 2000). It stands to reason then that as teacher educators striving to be excellent, when we see our graduates struggle in culturally, linguistically, and economically diverse classrooms, we must ask ourselves, "What am I doing that contributes to this failure?" More often we blame our students, especially our undergraduates. We blame what we often generalize as their race and class privilege, socially conservative or outright bigoted family values. We question their naivete born, we assume, of sheltered inexperience. We bemoan their unexamined Whiteness; their proud monolingualism; their sorority priorities; their "love of little children" that seems to apply mostly to clean, White, well-dressed children and only in the most patronizing way to "those poor little Black/Mexican/trailer-park kids." Most of all we rail against their resistance to multicultural teacher education. If we hear that "shoving it down our throats" line one more time, we might just do it.

However we keep trying. We try to "place diversity front and center" (Nieto, 2000, p. 180), to help students "see culture," their own as well as their students', as a prerequisite for culturally responsive teaching (Ladson-Billings, 1994a). We try because we are writing our own teaching narratives (Clandinin, 1995), and we are the only ones who can change the setting, experiences, and actions that might influence the character development--our own, that of our students, and that of their students. Britzman (2000) noted,

   To implicate oneself in one's own narratives of
   learning and teaching means turning habituated
   knowledge back on itself, and examining its most
   unflattering--for many, its most devastating--features.
   It also means exploring how even this most unflat
   unflattering moment may offer insight into making significance.
   (p. 204)

Most of our undergraduate students are, like ourselves, limited to English proficiency (LTEP) White women from middle- or upper-income families. Only occasionally do we have undergraduate students of color, and we had none in the classes we report on here. Students enter our language arts methods courses with images of teaching in schools similar to the ones they attended (Nieto, 2000); we must prepare them for schools that are quite different from their suburban or small town experiences. We want them to develop multicultural competence and commitment. We do not want them to hold what Moll (2000) called normative notions of culture that are inaccurate and deterministic; rather we try to provide experiences that broaden their understanding of "how people live culturally" (p. 256). This cultural life "consists of multiple voices, of unity as well as discord" (p. 257). Although we espoused this nonstereotyped thinking for our students in relation to the students they teach, we were just as guilty of essentializing our young, White, female students rather than learning how each "lived culturally," of hearing their multiple voices, of embracing discord as well as fostering the unity we call "building community." It is our tendency as teacher educators to seek, some might even say coerce, unity over discord. Yet it may be that it is from the discord we learn the most.

In this article, we explore the discord, the multiple voices of our students as they engaged in, resisted, and responded to our efforts to create cultural construction zones. We also ask ourselves the questions we've pushed the students to consider: What are we learning about our students as cultural beings that is helping us prepare them more effectively to be culturally responsive teachers? How are we reshaping our curriculum, changing relationships, and adjusting our instructional strategies based on the unique cultures our students share with us? …

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