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Lindsay Kaye Ohlert

EdHD 5009 Dreammakers reflection


Spring 2010

In Gloria Ladson-Billings’ book The Dreamkeepers, she uses case studies to illustrate

how excellent teachers educate African-American and other minority students in ways that both

foster high academic achievement and develop healthy, confident children. In this reflection, I

will examine how I can use these teachers’ examples to improve my own pedagogy in order to

serve all my students. As I am a white woman who has been teaching for the last three years in a

predominantly African-American school, and who will be resuming work in urban education

after completing graduate school, this topic is of particular relevance for me.

Ladson-Billings’ profiles reveal that effective pedagogy grows out of teachers’

perception of themselves, their students, and the community. The absolutely crucial point is that

they see all students as capable of learning, and view it as their personal responsibility to make

sure that happens. That doesn’t mean that they treat all students the same, though – they realize

that in order for all kids to have equal opportunity for success, they will need to differentiate not

just based on the standard exceptionalities, but also based on the cultural and social needs of

their particular students. I feel that I am already entirely on board with the first part – I really do

believe that the buck stops with me as the teacher, and that there’s no such thing as a hopeless

individual, and certainly no such thing as a hopeless group – but the second is an ongoing

challenge. It is not enough to simply use teaching methods that are generically considered “best

practices” by education professors or administrators – I must tailor my methods and content to

suit my particular students. This necessitates familiarizing myself even further with both my

students individual backgrounds and personalities, and also with the ways of communicating and

accomplishing tasks that are common in their communities.

These excellent teachers do not share the common view that low academic performance

is due to deficiencies in students’ community or culture. Thus, rather than trying to modify the
Lindsay Kaye Ohlert
EdHD 5009 Dreammakers reflection
Spring 2010

students’ culture to accommodate the typical school culture, they modify their classrooms to fit

the students’ culture. Ladson-Billings uses the example of the Hawaiian teachers who, rather

than using typical call-and-response teacher-student communication in literacy instruction,

incorporated Hawaiian overlapping dialogue and storytelling, and as a result saw students

dramatically increase their reading proficiency. I must do the same for my students; students

should never feel that they must “act white” in order to succeed in class.

Based on these views, these teachers set up their classrooms in ways designed

specifically to serve their students’ specific educational and social needs. The teachers profiled

have a wide variety of management styles and material and methods preferences, but certain

commonalities emerge. One common theme across their classrooms was the notion of the class

as a “family,” who, rather than competing with one another, help one another succeed. They use

collaborative groups, and put students into pairs where one buddy cannot consider a task

successfully completed until the other buddy has also successfully completed it. Another factor

present in all the classrooms studies was the seamless incorporation of African and African-

American culture and history into the content areas, giving the students a chance to personally

connect with the material and providing a global perspective, which increases motivation and

self-esteem. Minority cultures aren’t represented only on particular holidays or with token

examples – their contributions and perspectives are the cornerstone of the curriculum. For me,

as an English Language Arts and Social Studies teacher, this would mean, for example, choosing

texts by and about people who resemble my students, and discussing historical events in terms of

their experiences and contributions. And for topics outside the students’ cultural sphere, I need

to relate it back to them – “How does the Confucian concept of filial piety compare to how

things work in your neighborhood?” Mainstream curricula and textbooks already do this with
Lindsay Kaye Ohlert
EdHD 5009 Dreammakers reflection
Spring 2010

the white male European perspective, so this is simply a matter of giving my own students that

same educational advantage.

Finally, these effective teachers of minority students view the concept of “knowledge”

similarly, and have similar ideas about what it means to be “knowledgeable.” They do not look

at their students as vessels waiting to be filled up with information, but rather as capable people

full of useful experiences, who, with assistance, can draw upon their existing skills and

awareness to achieve ever more ambitious tasks and build ever more complex and nuanced

schemas for the topics of study. They also view content and skills as something accessible for all

students, not something rarified, coming back to that notion that all students can learn – it’s just a

matter of finding an effective way for the students to access the topic of study. Finally, they

don’t view textbooks or “official sources” as authoritative – they encourage students to

challenge, fact-check and examine statements and assumptions critically. I feel that I am already

pretty solid on the last point – every single text we use, we discuss author perspective, purpose

and intent, and one of the social skills we develop from day one is “respectful disagreement” –

but I have a way to go to make my classroom truly student-centric. I should spend more time

considering what my students already know and can do, and how that can be utilized to facilitate

further learning.

Reading this book was extremely valuable for me. It helped me figure out what I am

already doing right as a teacher, and it also showed me what I can do differently (or do more of)

to make my classroom even more suitable for my students, so that every one of them can partake

in the world-class education they need and deserve. These teachers’ inspiring examples also

reinforced my optimism that truly equal and equitable education for all students is an achievable

goal.