Random thoughts on a Sunday morning (Culture and Personalization)

Yesterday, I was in a Voxer group, catching up on what felt like 50 million messages that I’d missed throughout the week. I listened at 4x speed, as I often do, so some of the gist may have been lost. Someone mentioned something about culture, and someone (else?) mentioned something about personalization.

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This got me to thinking about the interplay between culture and personalization. Personalization is a popular buzzword in education. I have taken a dislike to most buzzwords because too often, they lose their meaning and become corrupted and diluted. It’s like a game of edu-telephone. But sometimes if you go past all of those layers of muck, there’s still something valuable.

I do believe in personalization. Last week on a Google Innovator panel on advocacy, Jennie Magiera spoke of the difference between “every child” and “each child.” She preferred the latter, because it spoke to the uniqueness that each child brings, as opposed to the uniform connotation of every child. Each child has his/her own experiences, background, knowledge, culture, dreams, challenges, interests, and more. All of those intersect to make each person different.


Let’s take one piece of that…culture. What is your culture?

In a different Voxer group, a few weeks ago, a friend asked us to identify the five cultural traits that play the strongest role in our lives. I can’t remember exactly what I said, but it went something like:

  1. Black
  2. Woman
  3. Haitian
  4. Middle class
  5. Non-religious

Other friends chimed in, with many of them saying “educator,” “parent,” and other things I hadn’t even thought of putting on my list. But these are all true. We each belong to an infinite amount of cultures, and the combination of these cultures is the intersectionality that makes us unique.

For any of these five cultural traits I listed, I no doubt have common experiences with most other people sharing that trait. For example, at the top of my list is being Black. When I see another Black person (especially in America), chances are that we have some common experiences, at a bare minimum. These experiences may lead us to have shared perspectives, which influence other things that we may then also have in common. But might this look different if I’m interacting with a Black woman or Black man?

Absolutely.

Being a Black woman comes with its own unique set of experiences. If you can picture a Google search, our terms would be

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 10.14.49 AM

which would cut our number of hits roughly in half.

Now, if I expanded this search to

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 10.16.05 AM.png

this would also have some relevant hits, but if I wanted to find the “Culture of Sarah-Jane Thomas” page, I’d have to keep searching.

Black AND woman AND “Haitian-American” AND “Middle Class” -religious

Screen Shot 2017-04-02 at 10.16.58 AM.png

28,300 results…but, we would be getting somewhere at least.


The next question my friend on Voxer asked that night was something to the effect of, “What’s your in-group?”

In-group may not have been the exact phrase she used, but basically, if you walked into a room full of __________ people and would be most at ease, what would go in the blank?

Easy! “No.” (Introvert joke.)

All jokes aside, I thought long and hard about this one. I went down the list of my top five cultural traits, and found some combinations that would work, but she didn’t ask all that lol.

I could only think of two honest answers. The first is educators, but that is fairly recent. The second has been my in-group throughout my life. I feel most instantly at ease with…

…people who grew up in the US in an immigrant household.

This surprised even me. But when I think about it, it makes perfect sense. My parents came here in the late 60s, and had my brother and (much later) me. I grew up navigating two cultures, my Haitian family life at home and American culture in the outside world. Sometimes there was dissonance, and even as an adult, there still are those fun moments when people just don’t “get it.”  (Side note: particularly when dating…I’m amused/annoyed at the reaction I get from some guys about my cultural values.)  It is so refreshing when someone understands without me having to explain.

In our Voxer group that night, I went back and forth about this with another friend, who moved to the US when he was very young. We had a good laugh about how we weren’t allowed to go to sleepovers as kids, and I referenced a funny YouTube video that my mom had sent me about a Haitian father arguing with an American parent about them. We also bonded over our respective national foods.  This has often been the case when meeting other first- and second-generation people.

This is not to say that I don’t feel at ease with anyone who is not from an immigrant family, or that every single person who grew up bicultural is my automatic homie.  But even though our home cultures are different, I feel like this is the group of people who “get” me the most, as a group.


As always, this was all a great big tangent.  What does any of this have to do with education?

Let’s (quickly) examine two sides of the same coin.  We preach personalization in learning as a best practice.  Absolutely.  What role does culture play in this?

In my dissertation, Chapter Two is a review of literature that shapes my conceptual framework.  In it, I reference Gloria Ladson-Billings’s work regarding Culturally Relevant Pedagogy.  Sneak peek:

Ladson-Billings (1992) stated that the matching of school culture to student culture generally yields positive results. From this premise, she coined the term “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP),” which she described as “a pedagogy of opposition that recognizes and celebrates African and African-American culture,” with the primary goal being “to empower students and to examine critically social change” (p. 314). Here, she talked about the sharing of power in the classroom equally between teachers and students, since education is an “empowering force” (p. 318).

This method respects the background of learners such as Haitian students and helps to avert the phenomenon of not-learning, a term coined by Gao (2014) to describe a student’s conscious decision to assert his/her power to reject learning. Au (2008) mentioned consequences of classrooms where CRP is not practiced, describing possible student behaviors including, “ignoring the teacher, refusing to participate, turning in incomplete assignments, or acting out in class…student resistance can develop quickly if teachers signal their low regard for students’ culture” (p. 70). It is, therefore, important to include CRP practices so that students know that their culture is respected, which will positively impact their motivation for learning.

According to Gay (2000), CRP practices: acknowledge the legitimacy of cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, build meaningfulness between home and school experience, use a wide variety of instructional strategies, teach students to know and praise their own and each other’s cultural heritages, and incorporate multicultural information, resources, and materials in all the subjects and skills routinely taught in schools (p. 29). Gay discussed the need to respect the cultural and individual differences of students, and to embrace the skills that ELs bring with them, such as bilingualism. CRP acknowledges and embraces such differences, recognizing them as positive and encouraging students to share, adding to the richness of the classroom and learning experience.

Anyway, long story short (too late), I would argue that while personalization should take into consideration interests, proficiency levels, etc., Culturally Relevant Pedagogy also needs to be at the core.  I’ll even take it a step further, and say that we must also include Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy.

Paris (2012) introduced the idea of culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP), which “seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling” (p. 93)…Paris suggested teacher advocacy in support of students’ home languages and cultures, while simultaneously helping learners navigate the dominant culture. 

In conversations about personalization, I rarely hear any talk of including a learner’s home language or culture.  I would love to see some research or resources regarding this.  If you have any, please send them my way.  Furthermore, the bulk of discussion I hear tends to center at the whole group level, i.e. having books that reflect all types of characters, how to celebrate all cultures all year long, etc.  These discussions are absolutely necessary.  In addition, I would like to hear more regarding CRP/CSP in personalization.


Additionally, we have to be careful not to view culture from a monolithic standpoint.  Now, we finally get to the point of that big detour we took somewhere in the middle.  An individual’s “culture” is actually comprised of the combination of many different cultures.  No two people from a given culture (even with many of the same intersections) will turn out identically.

For example, think of siblings.  My brother and I were raised in the same household, by the same parents.  He is probably the one person who has the most in common with me, but we are not the same.  He is male, and I am female.  He was born in the 60s, and I was born in the 80s.  At the core, we have the same values, but we are still very different.

So are our learners.  Part of CRP/CSP includes embracing the differences that each child brings.  I feel like this piece is often lacking in conversations about how to support our students.  Far too often, I hear stuff like _______ (insert strategy here) works for (implicit: all) __________ (insert marginalized group here) students, and this is bullshit.  Quite honestly, if personalization is a “best practice,” shouldn’t that be the case for each student?  Why is it implied that some of our students should receive the luxury of personalized instruction, while others should get some cookie-cutter approach? (Edit: I started going in, dropping in extended references about Dangerous Minds, but that’s not my steelo.)  And usually the cookie-cutter approach goes viral…*facepalm*

You know what should go viral?  Getting to know your students.  Building relationships.  Embracing their cultures…all of them.  Not assuming that just because they are Black/brown/Christian/Muslim/etc. that they like _________________, or don’t like ______________, or listen to _____________, or speak _________________ at home, or their parents have ______________________.  That’s actually called stereotyping.  Instead of assuming, ask.

Please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.  I do think that students learn in different ways, and often culture does play a role.  As a matter of fact, the intersection of all of our cultures plays a HUGE role in our learning.  Respect and embrace that.  Each learner is different and brings with them a wealth of cultural capital.  Don’t be afraid to try new strategies with your students, but make sure you are also respecting them as individuals.

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