Four truths that matter | The Chalkboard Project

Four truths that matter

Monday, December 7, 2015 Kris Anderson

Shadiin Garcia recently presented at Chalkboard’s annual board-affiliate meeting. Garcia, who is the deputy director of policy and research in the Oregon Chief Education Office, has worked in education for more than 20 years. She is completing her PhD at the University of Oregon, and specializes in culturally relevant curriculum, educational equity, and systemic change. Her presentation, related via a mixture of theory and personal stories, focused on education equity and the importance of ensuring that curricula and the full education experience is inclusive, representative, and affirming to those of all backgrounds and identities.

Garcia, who is Chicana and Laguna Pueblo from New Mexico, began by introducing four principles, or truths, that should guide all educators and policymakers. The first is simple, she said: what we put in front of students matters. Curriculum choices are not neutral: they are stamped by our own experience, by the families we serve, and by the systems and canons in which we work. She made clear that there are consequences to curriculum choices. If kids can’t recognize their own experience in certain assignments, it can function as a kind of “erasure”—a cultural whitewashing. Curricular choices matter, she says, and it is our own responsibilities to educate ourselves so that we can be genuinely culturally competent and inclusive.

Garcia’s second truth is that the way we talk about students and families matter. She outlined the difference between “asset-based thinking” and “deficit-based thinking.” Deficit-based thinking is something of which we are all guilty: grouping people by their barriers and lack of resources, rather than by those assets that work in their favor. Identifying communities by their challenges creates an at-risk narrative. Instead, an asset-based approach looks at strengths, at the gifts that a community or a person has working toward their advantage. Part of asset-based thinking is using positive terminology, she said: instead of “subgroup,” use “group”, and instead of “ELL”, try using “emerging bilingual student” (bilingualism is a huge asset and should be celebrated, she rightly added). Instead of the vocabulary of challenge, Garcia explained, we can use the lexicon of progress and optimism, speaking about a person’s leadership potential, and describing students as “promising,” “scholars,” “learners,” “graduates.” This isn’t just a matter of terminological nicety, Garcia noted. Rather, it is an essential part of education equity: every student should be regarded as having the same promise.

Garcia’s third truth is that listening for other paradigms and ways of knowing matters. She related a story of two of her sons in the schoolyard. The younger son suffered a cut while playing, and a teacher hurried over to take the boy in for clean-up and a Band-Aid. Garcia’s other son, who had been commissioned by Garcia to watch over his younger brother while at school, wouldn’t leave his brother’s side despite the teacher’s assurances that tending to the child was her job. The older son responded that it was also his job, which eventually led to him getting a referral. When Garcia went in to speak to the school about it, she finally convinced the teacher that it could be both of their jobs—both the older brother and the teacher could look out for the younger boy simultaneously. Garcia cited this as one small example of a wider inflexibility within established systems to see others’ viewpoints and ways of knowing.

Being open and accepting of other traditions is particularly important in a climate when stereotypes and micro-aggressions are more the norm, Garcia said. As an example, she explained that she had been told a number of times that “I’m a credit to my race.” While those who said this thought that they were paying a compliment, in actuality they were confirming racist biases. These little “micro-aggressions” happen all the time, Garcia said, and can only be defeated by “micro-affirmations:” by intentional gestures of caring and inclusion, and “by graceful acts of listening for other ways of being.”

These three truths—1. What you put in front of students matters; 2. The way you talk about students and families matters; and 3. Listening for other paradigms and ways of knowing matters—lead to a final overarching truth: 4. Policy matters.

Policy matters because institutions need to lead the way in removing barriers, she said. Garcia observed that these three initial principles overlap precisely with the founding principles of ethnic studies, which promotes respect and understanding among all races and cultures, supports student success, and teaches critical thinking skills. Ethnic studies’ demand for inclusivity is precisely why these three truths need to drive our education policy decisions, Garcia said. It is everyone’s responsibility, she said, and called upon attendees to focus their public policy and curriculum development around asset-based thinking and openness, and to work vigilantly to ensure that all cultures have access to inclusive curricula and the means to develop their own curricula if desired. This kind of intercultural equity is urgently needed, Garcia said, citing American Indian high school and higher education graduation rates as a sobering reminder that our education system (and our society) is not yet equal and inclusive. Ultimately, she concluded, our system needs a new approach that is inclusive, positive, and attentive to others’ stories. Her remarks concluded with a call to arms: “Let’s be architects [of reform] together!”

See photos from the annual event on the Facebook photo album.

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