Harvard Educational Review
  1. Classroom Cultures

    Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth

    Michelle G. Knight-Manuel and Joanne E. Marciano

    New York: Teachers College Press, 2019. 160 pp. $34.95 (paper).

    Almost a quarter of a century has passed since Gloria Ladson-Billings’s (1995) celebrated call for educators to turn away from deficit-based understandings of students of color and toward a pedagogy that centers high academic expectations, cultural relevance, and sociopolitical consciousness and the critical understanding of the social, political, and cultural institutions that shape our and our students’ lives. It has also been a decade since Eve Tuck’s 2009 Harvard Educational Review (HER) letter asked education researchers to question damage-centered narratives that negate “complex personhood” (p. 420) inclusive of indigenous, urban, and/or minoritized youth. Ladson-Billings’s and Tuck’s alternatives are thoughtful and complex, but in the broader education landscape, simpler answers sometimes dominate, with color-blind love and caring often deceptively positioned at the opposite pole of damage-centered perspectives of overt racism, misogyny, and/or homophobia. However, it is important to remember that antipodes connect in a straight line, and a loving, color-blind stance can be damaging, particularly when this stance is used to buttress “educators’ refusal to teach, discuss, or even mention the topic of race in their courses” (Grinage, 2019, p. 237).

    That the HER Summer 2019 issue simultaneously showcases a teacher’s literary narrative of this very refusal to acknowledge race (Wamsted, 2019), playing on the affective power of what critical whiteness scholars (e.g., Behm Cross, Tosmur-Bayazit, & Dunn, 2018) name as white fragility and emotionality, is but one manifestation of the wider absence of a norm in the field of education for interrogating racial narratives. Gay (2018) calls this absence “professional volunteerism” around diversity, the idea that unlike knowledge about reading, math, or child development, understanding how race and culture impact children’s learning and lives is merely optional for teachers and teacher educators. Similarly, administrators, policy makers, education researchers, journal editors, and graduate students are free to opt in, or not, to interrogating racial identities, stereotypes, and institutional structures. While methodological expertise (e.g., of statistics or ethnography) and content knowledge (e.g., of developmental frameworks or educational case law) are routine and required components of most higher education programs, demonstrating antiracist and culturally sustaining knowledge and expertise are not.

    On this twenty-fifth anniversary of Ladson-Billings’s original call, Michelle Knight-Manuel and Joanne Marciano have created a powerful and accessible tool for catalyzing change and addressing this damaging problem of professional volunteerism. Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth exemplifies Ladson-Billings’s and Tuck’s move away from deficit-based narratives and toward a comprehensive, antiracist voice in education. It is a timely and pragmatic resource that uses a strengths-based analysis to guide educators to develop sociopolitical consciousness as well as to learn the central and most impactful practices of culturally relevant education (CRE). The book emerged from a research report on a series of professional development workshops in 2013–2015 around college access for minority urban youth in New York City high schools and is in part a study about the ways in which educators understand the notion of culture. The true impact of the book, however, lies in the way it provides a model for individual and group inquiry into CRE and can be used as the foundation for a course, a sequence of professional development study sessions, or even individual reflection by anyone who wishes to question their own biases and develop knowledge about culturally relevant practice in education.

    Consistent with its aim to support professional inquiry, the book is organized in a sequence of five short, topical chapters, each of which presents an essential component of learning and action. These core chapters focus on understanding one’s own racial and cultural identity; moving from deficit-based to strengths-based perspectives of racially diverse youth; building culturally sensitive teacher-student relationships; facilitating positive and culturally relevant youth peer relationships; and supporting youth futures in higher education. Each chapter is structured by a focal inquiry question and goal, which educators are asked to reflect on and connect with personal experience.

    To aid the reader, Knight-Manuel and Marciano provide examples of educator reflections that both support and challenge the intended conclusions of this inquiry process. For example, in the chapter on developing an understanding of racial stereotypes and strengths-based perspectives of racially diverse youth, one workshop participant, a white educator, shares that she supports students by telling them that she “does not see Color” and “they were all human beings” (p. 47), refusing to engage in student inquiries about racial stereotypes that surround them. The authors acknowledge the tensions inherent in this color-blind perspective and suggest ways this educator might (and did) reflect on her viewpoint by exploring the lived experiences of students of color.

    Importantly, the authors gently draw on the caring and dedication possessed by those teachers who dispute the importance of CRE to encourage them to reflect on diverse voices, make authentic connections to their own experiences of difference or stereotyping, and walk a few paces in the footsteps of their students of color. These reflective examples are then followed by descriptive sections connecting the inquiry reflections to research findings, to the authors’ own experiences as teachers and teacher educators, and to strategies for practice in the areas of curriculum, school culture, and college access. Of particular value to both those reading for individual professional learning and group facilitators designing professional development sessions, Knight-Manuel and Marciano conclude each chapter with specific, concrete questions and actions to support the inquiry goal.

    It is no accident that, following the introduction, chapter 2 is a call for teachers to understand their own identities as inherently bound with race and to reflect on their experiences with race and culture. Here Knight-Manuel and Marciano build on Paolo Freire’s understanding that developing a sociopolitical consciousness is foundational to any critical pedagogy and is not limited to teachers of any particular color. While the topic of this chapter may appear superficially unrelated to classroom instruction, it is in some ways the most crucial component of any CRE professional development, as it represents the core of teachers’ personal commitment to an engagement with diversity. Reflecting the intentional strengths-based depiction of educators throughout the book, the authors illustrate this chapter with reflections from both white teachers and teachers of color, calling attention to their “aha” moments (p. 22) and personal growth while at the same time insisting on educators’ identification of the ways in which they participate in white and class-based privilege and the ways in which this privilege impacts their students’ lives. In negotiating this balance between honoring the humanity and goodness of educators and also demanding that they be accountable for perceptions and practices that perpetuate racism and inequality, Classroom Cultures shines.

    It is expected and important that CRE professional development deals with racial stereotypes, positive teacher-student relationships, and college access for students of color, the topics of chapters 3, 4, and 6, respectively. However, an additional and outstanding contribution of the book lies in its uncommon focus on the responsibility of educators to interrogate our stereotypes around peer groups of youth of color and to support social learning. In chapter 5, the authors build off prior research by Marciano (2017) exploring ways in which being connected to peer groups in their communities helps students negotiate often challenging school environments. They draw attention to the disconnect between the generally accepted belief in education that best instructional practice, at least for white middle-class youth, involves peer learning, exploration, and discussion. However, this best practice is frequently disrupted for youth of color, in part due to a common stereotype that the peer groups of urban youth of color are detrimental to their academic aspirations—at worst antisocial gang members and dropouts and at best distractions from the academic work at hand. In this chapter, Knight-Manuel and Marciano challenge educators to learn from youths’ own strength-based understandings of the supports that their peers at school and in the community provide. For example, a youth who has dropped out of school says, “You can use me as an example of why you should go to school, because I may...have a nice car, but I’m breaking my back to do it...Wouldn’t you rather make the same money...using your mind instead of your muscles and breaking your back all day long?” (p. 74). While educators often take a negative view of youth of color who do not follow traditional paths to success, this chapter illustrates the ways in which such a peer can be a wise mentor with a mature understanding of mistakes made and ways that challenges can be overcome.

    Each chapter is useful and builds logically on the previous one, and the brevity of the volume overall and selectivity of component chapters are also strengths. Readers would, nevertheless, benefit from understanding the rationale behind the omission of topics like language, socioemotional learning, and gender. For example, issues of gender stereotypes and heteronormativity are largely absent from this volume even as they are tightly interwoven with class, culture, and race in urban high schools. Additionally, since the book adopts Ladson-Billings’s (1995) terminology of culturally relevant education, further explanation would be helpful around how the authors incorporate Paris’s (2012) and Paris and Alim’s (2014) “loving” critiques, which argue that merely recognizing relevance is inadequate. In their introduction to the book, Knight-Manuel and Marciano acknowledge their debt to Paris and Alim’s (2014) proposal of culturally sustaining pedagogy as a perspective that highlights the fluid and dynamic nature of culture, that challenges white middle-class norms as the reference category by which students of color are mea- sured, and that engages with problematic aspects of youth culture. However, differences between CRE as envisioned in this volume and culturally sustaining pedagogy as envisioned by Paris and Alim could have been articulated and justified in greater detail to better understand how the practices described in the book are situated in the landscape of academic discourse around CRE.

    Classroom Cultures is an important and useful volume not only for classroom practitioners and school administrators but for all individuals and organizations looking to improve their understanding of CRE and combat the notion of professional volunteerism in the field of education. Foreword writer H. Richard Milner IV tasks those of us who work in education with “identifying and naming their privileges and the ways in which injustice and inequity work to maintain the status quo for White students and educators” (p. x). This book provides an important support for doing this by providing a pathway for education professionals to develop a critical, sociopolitical consciousness and pedagogical orientations that honor racially and culturally diverse youth and by replacing deficit-based narratives not with color-blind love but with the under- standing of students as complex persons embedded in rich cultural and community contexts.

    Sibylla Leon Guerrero

    Behm Cross, S., Tosmur-Bayazit, N., & Dunn, A. H. (2018). Whiteness as a dissonant state: Exploring one white male student teacher’s experiences in urban contexts. Journal of Teacher Education, OnlineFirst. doi:10.1177/0022487118774038

    Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). New York: Teachers College Press.

    Grinage, J. (2019) Endless mourning: Racial melancholia, black grief, and the transfor- mative possibilities for racial justice in education. Harvard Educational Review, 89(2), 227–250.

    Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Edu- cational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

    Marciano, J. E. (2017). “We’re friends, we have to be in this together”: Examining the role of culturally relevant peer interactions in urban youth’s college readiness and access. Urban Review, 49(1), 169–187. doi:10.1007/s11256-016-0387-4

    Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97.

    Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 85–100.

    Tuck, E. (2009). Suspending damage: A letter to communities. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 409–428.
    Wamsted, J. (2019). Dangerous moments. Harvard Educational Review, 89(2), 277–288.
  2. Share


    “Los Músicos”
    Mexican Corridos, the Aural Border, and the Evocative Musical Renderings of Transnational Youth

    Book Notes

    Land-Grant Universities for the Future
    Stephen M. Gavazzi and E. Gordon Gee

    Classroom Cultures
    Michelle G. Knight-Manuel and Joanne E. Marciano

    Ghosts in the Schoolyard
    Eve L. Ewing

    Data and Teaching
    Joseph P. McDonald, Nora M. Isacoff, and Dana Karin