The daily musings of a substitute teacher in East Central Illinois.

Book Review II: The Dreamkeepers

Today I was a 7th grade math teacher at Edison Middle School in Champaign. I am fairly certain I was working with a different group of 7th graders than I have been, because the students today were considerably different from those I have come to know extremely well. Some of the classes were incredibly rambunctious and even disrespectful, while the others were really awesome. Rather than write about my experiences today (which included a boy and girl making out right in front of me after school–like, right right in front of me), I’ve decided to share my second book review.

As mentioned earlier, I have decided to take time during my prep periods/plan time each day to read through the vocational literature I have acquired over the years. After completing these books, I will provide a review here. The reviews will mostly focus on my impressions of the overall text and how I feel it relates to my personal philosophy. In addition to wanting to share what I think about the books that I was required to read in my classes (as well as those books that have ended up in my hands through various means), I am also interested in seeing how my own ideas have changed over time.

The first book I selected to read was The Dreamkeepers by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ph.D. (However, my review of Dr. Doug J. Mackenzie’s Setting Limits in the Classroom was posted first due to its coinciding with some experiences I had while teaching that day.) The subtitle of this book is Successful Teachers of African American Children. From the beginning, the book is set out to be an expanded writing based on Ladson-Billings research over the course of three years in a majority African American community school district in northern California. The purpose of the study was to identify what methodologies have been most successful in helping African American students to achieve academic success. The book was of interest to me because there is a sizable African American population the Champaign school district (about 40%). I am well aware of the challenges facing the African American community, particularly in terms of high poverty, high unemployment, high incarceration rates, low mortality, and low high school graduation rates, among many, many other challenges. So I decided to read Dr. Ladson-Billings book to see what methods would help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my students who are so often in difficult situations.

On the one hand, the book is full of amazing teaching strategies. The main focus is on what Ladson-Billings terms culturally relevant teaching. I love the principles of this pedagogy and find that it fits in quite well with my own philosophical leanings. To be brief, culturally relevant teaching “is a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” The thing that struck me the most as I read through the book was that these teaching strategies are appropriate for every classroom setting, which led me to a key question that was never answered: What teaching strategies will specifically help me improve my teaching and improve the lives of my African American students?” Throughout the book, Ladson-Billings focuses on African American students and their teachers, yet there is nothing in the book that is actually specific to teaching African American students. I could go through the entire book and remove every reference to race and still have an excellent resource for successful pedagogy. If the point of the research was to emphasise that minority students will best benefit from receiving high quality education, then I am at a loss as to why this was never explicitly stated. More importantly, there was nothing to indicate that high quality education for minority students is somehow different from high quality education for majority students. So what is the point of the book?

I really don’t know. It annoys me to have to say that, because I truly enjoyed reading about successful teaching strategies. I truly believe that all students will benefit from the application of culturally relevant teaching. In the end, I would recommend this book to all, but I with the warning that you may have to sift through a lot of chaff to find the kernels of wisdom.

(I have four pages of notes from the book and most of them are critical of Dr. Ladson-Billings approach to her own research. If you are not interested in reading all of them, you can probably stop here.)

So here are my notes, in the order in which I wrote them:

…The over-representation of African American males in suspension and dropout rates…”

This is a quote from the introduction to the text. But there is absolutely no attempt to contextualise or explain the reason for this over-representation. I feel like the implication is that schools simply don’t care about their minority students and so they (the students) end up suspended or dropout and the blame falls entirely on the schools. Seven pages in, I couldn’t help but feel that Ladson-Billings had done her research in an effort to prove that middle-class communities are white and racist, while inner-city/urban communities are black and oppressed by the majority. I resent the notion that middle-class is a synonym for white and urban is a synonym for black. Even if the majority ethnic groups are found in those locations, there are still African Americans in the middle-class and whites living in inner-city communities.

There was an interesting note on p. 11 that there are many African American students who purposely fail in school because they have come to equate success with being white and therefore have come to believe that the only way to preserve their culture is to not do anything that is considered white. The best way to help African American students to succeed is to give them examples of members of their culture who have been successful without losing their culture. That alone will help improve conditions far more than anything else.

…The public schools have yet to demonstrate a sustained effort to provide quality education for African Americans.”

My biggest question about this quote is this: what about the schools that have demonstrated such sustained efforts, but are struggling to deal with students who actively work against such efforts? (Recall that we just discussed that students have been known to fail on purpose.) If there is no attempt to overcome students’ apathy towards education, then the quality education will be wasted. As the old cliché says, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. You can lead a student to education, but you can’t make him think.

There is also a strain of thought throughout the text that indicates that public school teachers treat African American students differently (although what is meant by this is never really explained). There are several anecdotes given, although they may have been simply hypotheticals. A criticism of this entire concept is that the book purports to be an account on successful teaching of African American students that is somehow different from successful teaching of non-African American students, but we aren’t supposed to teach them differently. It is a bit contradictory, I think.

Lest you think that all of my notes are negative, I will point out that many of them focused on the strengths of culturally relevant teaching. I don’t have any desire to  outline the fullness of this methodology. I love the idea of embracing students’ backgrounds and implementing them into my teaching. I believe that my students are all capable of success, academically, socially, and otherwise. Having crossed the thousand-word mark quite a while ago, I will close with this kernel of truth found near the end of the book: Instruction and learning should never be used as punishment.

This was a great book to read about strong pedagogy, but it failed to present a believable thesis on what makes one successful when specifically teaching African American students. However, it is definitely worth reading up on culturally relevant teaching and understanding how it can be applied to the classroom, regardless of the ethnic make-up of that class.


13 responses

  1. Could it be the point of the book is to prop up the flimsy notion that “culturally relevant teaching” is some great, new panacea that will save the African-American student from himself?

    These sorts of racially charged agendas only muddy the waters of education. Good teaching is good teaching. Every good teacher has within her bag of tricks the notion that she must begin where the student is. What helps the African-American student will benefit the European-American student and the Asian-American and so on.

    The fault, as I see it, lies in the mistaken post-modernist assumption that minority cultures should be placed on the altar of education in an equal place with the dominant culture, when in fact they should be blended into the dominant culture. African-American “culture” might be the beginning point for the student, but it should not be where she is headed. Good teaching should assist that student to navigate successfully in the dominant culture.

    Unfortunately, multiculturalism has eroded the will of educators to defend and support any sort of high standard in favor of a cacophony of lower standards. It sounds to me like your author is making a poor attempt to make a good practice seem multicultural.

    March 8, 2011 at 9:50 am

  2. Culturally relevant teaching is not meant to save the African American student from himself. In fact, the entire philosophy behind that particular statement is in direct opposition to the philosophy that guides culturally relevant education. The notion that a minority group must be saved from itself presupposes that the group is somehow deficient. Culturally relevant teaching, on the other hand, presupposes that every cultural group has strengths that should be embraced, encouraged, developed, and connected to the classroom community and curriculum. Multicultural education is in the same vein of thought.

    I support culturally relevant education. I believe it to be one of the best innovations in pedagogy. I believe that the assimilationist approach that you seem to propose (the idea that minority students should be taught to blend into the dominant culture) is damaging to all students. I also recognise that culture goes far beyond the broad demographics that we currently focus upon. I am a middle-class heterosexual white Christian male. But my culture is more nuanced than is suggested by the media, by books, etc. My family background is unique and therefore my culture is unique. Culturally relevant teaching allows each student to share what he or she has with the classroom community.

    Multiculturalism also emphasises that the dominant culture is rarely dominant in the lives of a great very many. There is no reason that education should focus on a particular group.

    All of that being said, I feel that Ladson-Billings limits culturally relevant teaching in an effort to focus primarily upon African American students. Of course, she has a vested interest in doing so, and I understand her reasons. But I believe her book would have been much stronger if she had made an greater effort to make culturally relevant teaching relevant for every group, not just the one in which she is personally vested.

    March 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response. I appreciate that you have taken time to consider my points. And, if I may, I flatter myself by thinking that in playing something of a gadfly, I’m helping you to sharpen your own ideas–so if we disagree on various points that is to be expected and even applauded, yes?

    History argues that American “culture” is an on-going product of intertwining impulses of assimilation and pluralism. The reason I find multiculturalism deficient is because it denies that historical process of creating a more or less unified culture. Your background and mine are both part of that aggregate. Multiculturalism is a form of pluralism, but because its proponents seem to suggest that it is morally preferred, we run the risk of thinking that assimilation is a negative. In fact, both of these patterns work together in various ways, times, and places, to produce the dominant culture in more or less the same way your ideal classroom community might work—by allowing the components to exist as best they can while pressuring them to conform in various ways to a universal standard.

    (My personal opinion is that multiculturalism is a pernicious evil, but I will keep that to myself by putting it in parentheses.) I am a frank and unabashed assimilationist and think it is much more important for our society that cultural differences be minimized and blended into the whole, and I believe ways to do this can be found that aren’t harsh or mandatory or dictatorial. Ironically, culturally relevant teaching as you have described it appears to be a good method for achieving unity with the dominant culture. By embracing we borrow; by encouraging we emulate; by developing we learn; by connecting we create new patterns that then characterize the dominant culture. I do not see this as damaging in the least; while multiculturalism, as I understand it, would encourage difference over unity, and that seems to be a sure way to reinforce divisiveness and even—worst case scenario—tribalism. I agree with the idea that “culturally relevant teaching allows each student to share what he or she has with the classroom community,” but I would take that one step further and argue that the product of that sharing is the dominant culture.

    I don’t agree with your point that the “dominant culture is rarely dominant in the lives” of many; in fact, the dominant culture pervades everything. Whether we look at technology, language, religion, media, music, architecture, literature, pop culture, even consumerism, and on and on, it would be difficult to find very many people in this country at least who have not been exposed and influenced by the dominant culture. Education must reinforce that culture by virtue of its very operations: an assumption of English literacy being most basic, but we could point to pedagogy, the architecture and regimentation of classrooms, the curriculum, etc. My only real point in this discussion is that I see real discrepancies between the concepts I find in educational philosophy, and the trends and patterns of development in history; as a historian, I have to wonder if teachers aren’t being sold a bill of goods.

    March 8, 2011 at 11:24 pm

  4. So what we have here is the conflict between theory and practice.

    In theory, multiculturalism embraces all of the cultures within a given community. We recognise the contributions that all have made, see how our differences make us stronger and more diverse and, yes, our differences actually make us stronger, because where one has and another has not, we learn and add to each other’s worldview. Thus the theory of multiculturalism is that our differences combine to make something greater than just the sum of our parts.

    In practice, multiculturalism has quite often been presented as “non middle class White heterosexual male-dominant culture”. In fact, this was a huge point of contention in one of my courses in which we discussed multiculturalism, particularly when my classmates and I (most of us middle class White Americans) felt that multiculturalism supported the ridiculous doctrine of white guilt. But that is not what it should be.

    Your assimilationist views are fairly similar to those of multiculturalism (in theory), with the exception that you feel differences should be minimised. Multiculturalism does not embrace differences over unity. Multiculturalism embraces differences for unity. E pluribus unum – out of many, one. That is what multiculturalism should strive to produce. Assimilationism, on the other hand, would have us ignore all differences as non-essential when viewed in the stronger light of the dominant culture. Assimilationism says that the contributions of the minority, while admirable, are nothing when compared to those of the majority. Assimilationism is the idea that we can comfortably pretend to give tribute to the minority communities by setting aside a single month (and the shortest one at that) out of the year to recognise one minority communities contributions, and then carry on our merry way ignoring them the rest of the year.

    Concepts and practices. They should be connected. Alas, many times they are not. I strive to mesh my philosophical views, my pedagogical theories, and my actual practices in a way that is relevant to both myself and my students.

    March 9, 2011 at 7:19 am

  5. Whoah, Nellie, hold the phone. I don’t think your understanding of multiculturalism is the same as mine. The way educational philosophers (by which I broadly mean people who write on both theory and practice of education) I have encountered—and as homework mule for the missus recently, I have read/skimmed about 10-12 articles on the topic—discuss multiculturalism is very different than what you have described.

    Multiculturalism is very much about removing any sense of a “dominant culture” and exclusively emphasizing minority cultures in its place. From what I’ve read, multiculturalism very much embraces difference over unity. There is precious little sense of any sort of true, working diversity in it and a marked undertone of “white guilt.” Of course, true diversity is impossible—after all, the point of my last comment was that history reveals not consistent assimilation, but the push and pull between assimilation and pluralism that gradually produces an identifiably dominant culture.

    Diversity cannot exist for long before it leads naturally to assimilation. Unity and diversity—yin, yang. Multiculturalism is pernicious because it seeks to maintain a false diversity in a sort of stasis intended to deny the natural rise of a dominant synthesis. Hegel’s dialectic is a very powerful metaphor, I think, for what I see in American history. Multicultural theorists and practitioners paddle in the shallows, unaware of history’s tsunami coming undeniably their way.

    My notions of assimilation arise more out of a curiosity about how it might be encouraged in order to minimize fears and reactionism in our current environment, and thus is more socially and politically directed than educationally or culturally. To state it baldly: how can we assimilate foreign populations quickly, efficiently, kindly, and more or less organically? What policies encourage assimilation? What trends support it?

    Of course this touches on the classroom, because education can be said to be a great equalizer. One very good way to support assimilation would be to encourage English language instruction. That view does NOT need to violate the principles that, for example, the missus is learning in her own studies—but could it be hastened by being attached to some advantage or privilege. A tax cut of some sort, for example? Thus my assimilationism points not to the minimization of differences so much as it points to the encouragement of unity. A subtle but important distinction.

    I have an abiding love for other cultures (though I am rather more Eurocentric, obviously, than anything else), so I am not on a witch hunt against other cultures. I am interested in a strong, vibrant dominant culture that is both tolerant of other cultures and unwavering in its own dynamic character. It is the unum for which we strive, after all. Not the pluribum. Multiculturalism as I have found it betrays that standard.

    Assimilationism is not to ignore the minority, but to set it in its proper place vis-à-vis the majority. Assimilationism admires the contributions of the minority and adapts them in ways that make sense to the whole. Assimilationism is the idea that the entire society will use what it finds useful from every minority and cast the rest aside. Assimilationism is the idea that nobody gets their own month, and if you don’t want to be ignored then get up off your duff and do something, because you will be ignored by society and by history unless you earn your place at the table.

    March 9, 2011 at 9:57 am

  6. As with many of my philosophical and theoretical views, I am sure that my ideal is different from what others would wish for. I do think that what multiculturalism was meant to bring about and what it has brought about are vastly different. I will stand by my definition, though, as one that makes sense and brings about much good in the world and in my profession.

    I admit to having a lot of difficulty accepting your claim that assimilationism keeps the minority “in its proper place”–your belief that “if you don’t want to be ignored then get up off your duff and do something” ignores a great deal of the very history which you study. As long as the majority gets to make the rules, then the majority will make the rules such that the majority will continue to be the majority. This approach will only maintain the status quo of marginalisation.

    March 9, 2011 at 10:03 pm

  7. Actually, my “get up off your duff-ism” does not ignore history. We see it constantly. Look at the trail of tears. The average student might see that as an example of a majority unrighteously imposing its power against a minority, and of course on the surface they would be right–but in the struggle between the two forces, the Cherokee fought with every majority tool possible–newspapers, courts, legislation. They lost their land, it might be argued, because they had become too integrated into the majority. Look at Civil Rights. Look at Westward settlement. So many of these examples from history reveal a willingness on the part of the marginalized and the minority populations to “get up off their duffs” and do something to change their situations vis-a-vis the majority. They were not always victorious of course, but they made the effort. Effort, as you and I both know, however heroic, does not guarantee victory.

    Your problem, if I may state it in such terms, is that you read my comments through a liberal lens that does not appear to take into account the realities of our current cultural situation. Majority and minority (let’s not make this about race) exist in any human collective system. They interact with each other. Sometimes they co-exist, sometimes one assimilates into the other. Sometimes, one crumbles into many factions. Sometimes one rises up and crushes the other. These things will always play out according to their nature. Read your Federalist Papers, especially the one on faction–by Madison I think. The founding fathers wanted factions to help maintain a balance. Majority and minority create balance, and when there is imbalance they struggle until balance is re-established, and that struggle can often be bloody and violent. Jefferson’s comment about revolution every 20 years was simply an acknowledgement of this very real fact about human affairs. “Get-up-off-your-duffism” is not the arrogant cry of a prejudiced white man, it is the acknowledgement that a minority or marginalized group must either integrate or overthrow the established order in some (not necessarily violent) way.

    I would prefer a healthy encouragement of assimilation. After all, you are right, the majority makes the rules, so let’s get as many into the majority peacefully as possible. As I once wrote about our Ramadan dinner at the mosque last year: I want “to reach out and find a way to connect and see these people in the same light as I see myself–as children of God, my brothers and sisters, people I can live and build with, people I can go to for friendship, conversation, enrichment, people who feel as I feel when I look at my wife, my children, my home, people who acknowledge the rule of law, and who can be a positive force in my community.” That is the ideal of assimilationism.

    March 11, 2011 at 9:26 am

  8. The simplest explanation of my ideal is that I believe in the “tossed salad” metaphor of what makes the United States great, rather than the “melting pot” metaphor. I believe our greatness, and the greatness of any nation, is in the diversity of its people. Just as a strong stock portfolio will contain many different kinds of investments, so our nation, and any nation that would be great, will embrace many different ideas, cultures, and practices.

    I honestly do not see the value of a ruling majority. I think of the governments that have a majority rule and I compare them to those that have many parties. The majority rule is how we have things like the situation in Wisconsin right now. Diversity is how we have true non-partisanship (I don’t even care for bipartisanship).

    Finally, you are right that the minority must assimilate or over-throw. The problem, though, is that assimilation effectively destroys the culture, beliefs, and practices of the minority, and change is hard to come by until members of the majority get behind it. The civil rights laws would never have passed without the support of members of the majority. Women’s right to vote? Forget about it. Religious freedom? Never gonna happen without the support of those in power. So, as a White middle-class male, I am in a position to say that my group, which is definitely the majority, in political power if not actual numbers, needs to give up our strangle-hold on power and accept that diversity is better. In short, I respectfully disagree with your assimilationism. But hey, that’s one of the things that makes our society great: we can disagree!

    March 11, 2011 at 2:55 pm

  9. Let us sidestep unhelpful metaphors and go right to the undeniable reality of the human condition: Government (as one aspect of culture) will always be in the hands of the powerful (whether majority or minority matters not). In other areas of culture, however, we see a more complex process of interaction between the majority and minority aspects of that culture.

    You made the statement in another venue that American culture is no longer unique in the world, but perhaps one way it could be said to continue to be unique is that the outsider has a better chance of ultimately fitting in, and certainly his children’s chances of fitting in are increased as well. I would love to find numbers supporting that point, but let me simply point to you.

    You have claimed in my presence to be of Slovenian stock—southeastern European, Slavic, probably Catholic by faith, and probably your ancestors were miners or laborers or peasants in the old country. Probably, given their settlement in eastern Pennsylvania, they worked in the mining or steel industries. Forgive me if I’m not getting details correctly–I’m working from memory here. If you could trace your ancestry and find the exact point in the line where being Slovenian no longer mattered, so far as your family’s ability to associate with other groups around them socially, religiously, matrimonially, economically, etc., at that point I would say they had assimilated. What aspects of Slovenian culture survived beyond that point? Very few, I’d bet. Is that a great sticking point for you? What is worth regaining? Will you hang a Slovenian folk decorations about the house? Relearn the language? Become Catholic? What are you really missing because your ancestors shuffled off the old ways of their homelands?

    Yes, change is hard without majority support—no matter what venue we look at, which is why I think part of the national debate should be devoted to a “kinder, gentler” policy of assimilation. Let’s welcome the world, but let’s gently urge them to give up their differences to a certain degree to reduce tensions and keep the peace between groups, but also paradoxically to be able to better appreciate the otherness of certain groups. Once aspects of a culture have ceased to become the characterizing features of a despised group of outsiders and have become the quaint or “interesting” practices of people who are “among us,” then we can better appreciate the culture of the other.

    There has to be a tempering process. Look at the Chinese, for example. The Chinese first came to this country and were despised. It was illegal to marry one; it was illegal for the Chinese to do many things; and for awhile, it was even illegal for the Chinese to be in this country. But then there came a point at which there was a need for their labor, a critical mass was reached, communities (China Towns) popped up everywhere in which the Chinese could live more or less in isolated fashion. And then people from outside began to see China Towns as places to go to find certain foods and commodities. Commerce led the way, and now the Chinese and the descendants of the Chinese live wherever they like. To a degree they have assimilated. Wouldn’t it be nice if Government had led the way to encourage such interactions rather than take a more or less anti-Chinese stand, resulting in lost lives and decades of retarded growth and integration?

    Assimilation does not need to destroy the culture of those who integrate. What it must do, however, is put that culture in is proper place in the whole. Here I can’t help but throw out another unhelpful metaphor: a fruit cake is not all candied fruit, after all. See what I mean about metaphors? Useless for serious discussion–and yet we keep using them, even in the Church.

    But if culture is lost, we should remember that much of culture is simply the trappings of survival that become romanticized by the people who come after. Trading one means of survival for a new one in a new place is not destructive. Government can lead the way in the process, but people have to stop thinking about these issues in the same old tired ways.

    You make some other comments too that deserve a response, but I don’t want to be a bother or take you too far from the point of your blog, which is education. Still, a few questions for you to ponder: If diversity leads to non-partisanship, doesn’t that essentially cancel out diversity? And, if diversity leads to the end of diversity, wherein can we really say that the freedom to disagree makes our society “great”? For disagreement seems to encourage diversity, of opinion anyway, which would lead naturally to factions (partisanship), which would lead ultimately back to non-partisanship? Somehow, there’s a screw loose in all of this. And finally, when a self-proclaimed WMCM says his “group” needs to give up “our strangle-hold on power” does that not smack of white guilt to you?

    March 11, 2011 at 8:20 pm

  10. Tania McDermott

    I though that white guilt and white culture has to do with the Anglo- Saxon – Tutonic tribes of Europe who supposedly are the ones controling all the money and power, so I do not see how Slovenia culture got into this conversation. Not all who came from Southeastern Europe were uneducated. People come to the US for many reasons – often religious and political… at times economic, althought times are hard for everyone now. Multiculturalism is ok so long that it does not lump all whites in one group. This is the biggests problem I have with it. I am white but not Anglo, not Saxon, not Tutonic and yeah Atilla was bad, but so were all the other tribes. Multiculturalism, I think is more focused on race, in general, than a tribe in particular, although I can see how it can bring to tribal pride in me…

    February 24, 2012 at 7:54 am

  11. “White guilt” is generally used to describe the idea that any person who is White, and especially White males, are somehow responsible for the sins of their symbolic fathers.

    There are a variety of strains of education ideology when it comes to the application of multiculturalism. There are some who use it to teach about non-white cultures. There are others that use it as a framework for embracing diversity in all forms, not just in race/ethnicity. I am a part of the latter group, and am pleased that there are many educators and policy-makers in my district who agree.

    Culture is so much more than race or ethnicity. Culture is also religion, creed, socio-economic status, ideology, nationality, and a host of other demographic indicators.

    February 25, 2012 at 11:53 am

  12. k.

    I completely agree with Alex T. Valenic here and offer another reading suggestion for you all: “But that’s Just Good Teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy” by Gloria Ladston-Billings –>

    May 24, 2012 at 4:48 am

  13. Thanks for visiting! Please stop by my newer blog, to keep up with my more recent posts.

    May 24, 2012 at 7:21 am

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