Cultural sensitivity Teachers learn lessons in diversity

August 29, 2018

GREENWICH — Over the course of three hour-and-a-half long sessions Tuesday, more than 100 Greenwich teachers learned how to make their teaching sensitive to the diverse cultures represented in their classrooms.

Visiting speaker Mervin Jenkins, assistant director of the eastern division of AVID (Advancement Via Individual Determination), a program that gives at-risk students extra resources for success, told his audience that students learn best when teachers form personal connections with them.

“Capture the hearts of kids and their minds will follow,” he said.

The session was part of Greenwich Public School’s full-day conference on personalized professional learning. Hundreds of teachers attended the gathering, the only of its kind in the state and a method the district uses to keep teachers coming back to Greenwich, according to school officials.

The lecture, which administrators call “culturally relevant training,” is one way the district is working to overcome implicit bias. The education instructs teachers in being sensitive to how children and families of racial and ethnic minorities interact with each other and how they view teachers.

“We have a huge achievement gap here in Greenwich, and finding ways to empower teachers to close it is important,” said Jen Bresler, an academic coach for the town’s secondary schools.

The culturally competent teaching workshop came highly recommended after last year’s conference, Bresler said.

Chief Academic Officer Irene Parisi, who organized the daylong conference with her academic staff, also emphasized Greenwich’s diversity during her presentations on making learning personal.

“Greenwich is misunderstood,” Parisi said. “I try to change the perception of Greenwich.”

In Greenwich, 19 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, but in some districts, that number is between 50 percent and 70 percent, she said.

She also told teachers Hamilton Avenue and New Lebanon schools have been racially imbalanced for years, which is illegal.

“We have to fix that,” Parisi said.

Upstairs, in the media center, Jenkins shared activities he has used to get to know his students and their cultural context, from the causes that motivate them to their heritage and family life.

“Everybody says they care,” Jenkins said. “When students feel like you care, they will run for you like you won’t believe.”

Culturally relevant teaching is not a new phenomenon, but it is now on the forefront of educators’ minds because of the current climate in the country, he said.

During one exercise, Jenkins assigned each table of teachers a subgroup: “Latino,” “black,” “LGBT,” “disability” and “Caucasian.” He asked everyone to write one positive and one negative stereotype they have heard people use in association with these groups.

Educators explained to their peers the stereotypes they chose, then made two lists — one of the negative associations, titled “Our hate will consume us,” and one of the positive associations, titled “Better together.”

Under the first category, teachers had listed “low-income,” “ignorant” and “burden.” Under the second, participants listed “trend-setters,” “culture based on family, food and faith” and “able to overcome obstacles.”

“We could probably guess what subgroups these words are connected to and why,” Jenkins said. “Imagine students coming to class pulling this baggage.”

He reminded teachers they have the resources and guidance that students may not have to help carry the weight of negative stereotypes.

After his presentation, a group of music teachers congregated around Jenkins and discussed how they go about being culturally sensitive in their classes.

“Greenwich is pretty diverse,” said Tony Marrone, a district band instructor. “I’ve taught on the east side and the west side, and the difference is night and day with respect to the student body.”

Marrone makes his classes culturally relevant through the styles of music he chooses to teach.

Amali Premawardhana, an elementary school orchestra teacher, said she spent time finding out where kids in her school come from, what supports they will need and what handicaps they might have before she greets them this week.

Bresler, the academic coach, appreciated Jenkins’ encouragements to form connections with students, which coincided with theme of Monday’s convocation speeches.

“One of our three tenants of personalized learning is being partners in learning,” she said. “It is all about the connection.”


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