EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island: A Conversation with Karla Vigil
Q&A 22 January 2019
By Karla Vigil, EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island
Being a teacher of color working in a white-dominated school, my narrative is very similar to other teachers of color who simply find themselves getting pushed out.
Q: What led you to starting EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island?
A: I was a classroom teacher for two years where I focused on being responsive to my students and their needs through various strategies—more specifically, making sure I empowered their identities, which in turn increased their engagement and helped them build skills to think critically about their context.
Working in the classroom and being able to engage with my students in non-traditional ways with hands-on learning, project-based learning, blended learning, and other learning formats—before I ever knew what those labels meant—the students’ identities were at the center of it all.
This allowed me to better understand my own identity and the biases I brought into the classroom. This understanding allowed me to better reflect on the decisions I was making on a daily basis and as a teacher who is making thousands of split-second decisions a day, it was imperative for me to be conscious of my potential biases. This was at the foundation of my teaching success.
Being a teacher of color working in a white-dominated school, my narrative is very similar to other teachers of color who simply find themselves getting pushed out. I wanted to continue to teach, but I was not asked to come back. And, reflecting back on it, the environment wasn’t culturally responsive to who I was, so I ended up leaving and working as an education consultant.
In that work—I was specifically working with blended learning technology—I saw a missed opportunity to better support student voice and agency. We weren’t talking about issues of equity—if I’m using Google Classroom, is it really going to be effective if I’m not being culturally responsive as a teacher? Will my assessment strategy really be effective if I’m not empowering my students throughout the content before I assess them?
I saw this unmet need and decided to start EduLeaders of Color Rhode Island. I took a very grassroots approach. It simply started out as an idea to get leaders of color together to talk about issues of equity and explore what’s missing. And, talk about what we could do, so we could be a solutions-based organization.
We’re moving into our second year of funding, and our work is focused in part around culturally-responsive teaching, but also asking the question: How do we think about our students in a way that gives them opportunities to build skills in knowing who they are, taking ownership in their learning, having a voice in the content they’re receiving, and feeling like they are being represented in ways where they can feel confident about who they are as human beings?
Q: What makes today a special moment to pursue this work and give you the confidence in making a long-lasting impact?
A: Nothing that we’re promoting today is a new idea. There are leaders over the course of decades who have been speaking about these focal points, but they haven’t been able to get it to stick. What I think has happened recently that has pushed educators to say “we need to pay attention to this” is the climate of our country.
I think we’re in a special time in our history where we think we should be in a better place by now. But, the current events that have resurfaced the dangers of stereotyping, racism, and other issues, are making people grapple with and wonder “why is this still happening?” Our kids are our witnesses to this, so we have to ask ourselves, “What kind of people are we trying to help and shape for the world they will soon be shaping themselves?”
As EduLeaders of Color RI, we know we need to start redesigning our teacher prep programs. We get to ask, how are the teacher prep programs that exist now preparing future educators for the classroom? How are they being trained to have difficult conversations? How are they being trained to engage students in learning where they are thinking critically, rather than passively receiving information?
In Rhode Island, we have a large cohort of educators with 15+ years of experience. What did their teacher prep program look like 20 years ago? What do we do with that group? We need to help them make small, baby steps in changing their mindsets. We know it’s important to do this work because ultimately, a lot of the issues that we face today with individuals acting out in such hateful ways, it all goes back to education.
Truth be told, even if you are coming from a white suburban district, the world does not reflect that experience. If we’re saying we want to get kids ready for college and the world beyond, well, the world beyond is a very diverse place.
Whether it’s being educated at home or school, I believe we can help make that change in the classroom. We can help students think about different perspectives: How do we embrace someone who has a different opinion than mine? How do we embrace someone who talks or looks different than me?
These are some of the strategies that can immediately change how students relate to their learning and their community. Truth be told, even if you are coming from a white suburban district, the world does not reflect that experience. If we’re saying we want to get kids ready for college and the world beyond, well, the world beyond is a very diverse place.
When I say I work specifically to support learners who are historically marginalized and underserved, these approaches are applicable to majority white communities as well.
Q: What questions do you hope a veteran educator would become more present to after being introduced to the idea of culturally responsive education?
A: When I did my Masters in Elementary Education, my program was specifically focused on social justice and multicultural education. After each unit, we would think about what we learned in the context of these ideas, based on James Banks Five Dimensions of Multicultural Education:
- Content integration
- The knowledge construction process
- Prejudice reduction
- An equity pedagogy
- An empowering school culture and social structure
This is tied directly to what I would like teachers to do. With James Banks’ blessing, I designed a framework that holds teachers accountable to build equity in their teaching practice. One question I hope they would ask themselves when speaking with students at the end of a lesson or as they are writing out the lessons before bringing it into the classroom is: Were there multiple perspectives presented within the content of the lesson?
This is something I was intentional about in my own teaching. When I was teaching a unit on the Great Depression, I noticed there was a lacking representation from the Asian community. Acknowledging a missing piece like that comes from asking ourselves, was there a perspective missing from this lesson? Why or why not? It immediately makes you ask “whose history is this?” When that question is surfaced, you start looking at yourself and how you can contribute a richer story that engages all of your students.
What ended up happening during our history lessons as the year progressed is they started asking about who wasn’t there. When that question became their focus, now I knew they were holding accountability in this learning space.
Another great question is: Does this lesson or unit help unpack biases or stereotypes? We all walk around with biases and stereotypes. Where are they coming from? How is television, social media, or leaders we are in direct contact with shaping our worldview? How are we making sure we aren’t building up our stereotypes and biases, so that when we become adults we don’t begin perpetuating them?
When I would teach during recess time, I saw this as the most important time to see how a student’s socio-emotional skills were developing. One time, I heard one of my fourth-graders say something incredibly stereotypical about Asian culture. In that moment, I didn’t say anything, but the next morning we had a community meeting and the question of the day was: “What are stereotypes?”
I put a variety of statements I had heard from my students in the past and simply asked what they thought of those statements. We talked about what stereotypes mean and how they can label a group based on untrue statements. You can infuse that kind of discussion in any lesson throughout the day. And, I believe it is our responsibility as teachers to ensure we don’t build on harmful biases and stereotypes.
Overall, it’s a responsibility to be reflective of what we innately bring to the classroom in the form of biases and stereotypes and intentionally address those gaps.
Q: How can this type of reflective process be held accountable by the learners just as much as it is held by the educator?
A: The approaches have to be developmentally appropriate for each age group. What’s important with the youngest learners is a lot of repetition through different applications. When I was with my fourth graders, I was making sure I was infusing prejudice reduction in my class, while at the same time promoting knowledge construction. I would help my students understand how knowledge is created and influenced by cultural assumptions, perspectives, and biases.
As I built that in, I wanted them to start implementing this thinking on their own. Every lesson, I started with a hook—usually a photograph. I would find a picture online or share a picture of my family (to build relationship) and have the students guess who was in the picture. What ended up happening during our history lessons as the year progressed is they started asking about who wasn’t there. I would respond with, “I don’t know, let’s figure that out together.” When that question became their focus, now I knew they were holding accountability in this learning space.
What I found really interesting about this approach was how I learned this while working at a very privileged, private school that was centered around curriculum that was racially diverse. Seeing how empowered and emboldened these learners were to make change made me ask why this type of approach couldn’t exist in public schools? You don’t need great funding to ask these types of questions.
Q: What question do you wish people asked you more often?
A: How can we have more people of color at the table making decisions? When I walk into spaces with educators who are trying to lead change, I don’t often see anyone else. I don’t see people from the community who represent a diversity of backgrounds who can help find solutions. It’s not just a matter of being at the table but also being partners in building things together. How can we all build solutions for our students? If you’re doing this work, you have to remember to include folks who you might not think to include. They might not be the first people you go to because they might not have the money or the visibility to be on your radar. That’s the question I wish we kept front and center as we look to make change.
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