Saturday, September 16, 2017

Culturally Responsive Connections

My focus as a school counselor is forming connections with my students and connecting them with their education. That also means I have to put effort into not creating disconnections with my students or barriers to connections. I must stay aware of what I choose to say and do and display that could cause a disconnection. As an adult in the building/authority figure, my students aren't necessarily going to be comfortable telling me that they feel insulted or offended by something I have said or done or displayed. That onus of awareness is on me, not on my students. 

As a school counselor, I believe part of my job is to make sure ALL of my students feel safe and comfortable in my office and in speaking with me. And while I work to make our whole school a safe and comfortable place for ALL students, I am aware that there are places and people in a school that  students may not feel accepted. So being the school counselor, I pay attention to and consider how the things I say, do, and display may impact my diverse student population.I pay attention to and consider how the things I say, do, and display model cultural responsiveness and inclusion for ALL of my students. If I don't consider and pay attention to these things, I run the risk of creating disconnections with students or at the very least run the risk of only connecting with students on a surface level. And how can I be the school counselor for ALL of my students - ALL OF THEM - if I am creating disconnections for some of them. 
To be culturally responsive in education means being able to learn from, relate to, and respect all cultures. To be culturally responsive in education means including positive references to and representations of the various cultures of my students and the cultures not represented by my students.  
On the basic surface level, culture is language, food, celebration, art, literature, dance, music, visual arts, etc.  Beyond that surface level, culture is more. It is body language, eye contact, customs, personal space, concept of time, definitions of beauty, attitudes toward elders and adolescents, and so very much more. 

I try to educate myself and consider all of these pieces of culture when I am interacting with and modeling for my students. 
I say all of this to say that I have seen a worrisome and disturbing trend among school counselors of using pieces of different cultures and turning them into cutesy or joke-like images and sayings. I am concerned about how these things create disconnections between school counselors and their student population. I am concerned how these things model cultural insensitivity and disrespect for other students and staff. 
Lately, I've seen many counselor created bulletin boards and office doors using the phrase "Let's taco-bout it" to show all the things students can discuss with their school counselor. Many of these displays were inspired by the note cards recently sold at the Target dollar-spot (pictured below). These note cards are also being used by school counselors to give to students for appointments to talk to the counselor as well. 

So what's the problem with "Let's taco-about it?"  Tacos are a traditional Mexican dish (Not a Hispanic dish). To take that piece of a culture (their food) and turn it into a joke or something cute makes light of a part of their culture and turns their culture into a joke or something "cute." 
I have spoken out on various counseling social media groups when I have seen this to address the issue only to be dismissed and told...of course... that I am being too sensitive or that  the use of the phrase and multiple images of tacos on a bulletin board are more like a "pun" or "play on words" and not a joke. 
Well... 1) it is very concerning when school counselors - the supposedly open-minded empathetic listeners of a school - are so quick to dismiss others without considering their perspective and 2) the very definition of  a pun is "a joke exploiting the different possible meanings of a word" and the definition of  a play on words is "a word or turn of phrase with a double meaning, a pun or other humorous use of language." So a pun or play on words IS a joke or something humorous and we really shouldn't be turning aspects of someone's culture into a joke or something humorous to laugh at, make light of, or devalue.  
We have to be culturally responsive in our connections as school counselors and to create disconnections by taking parts of a culture and turning them into a joke takes away our ability to do the amazing work of school counseling where we support students socially, emotionally, and academically. By taking parts of a culture and turning them into a joke takes away our ability to do the amazing work of school counselling where we work to create systemic change among the  programs and student population in our buildings. 
And by taking parts of a culture and turning them into a joke takes away our ability to model cultural responsiveness, celebration of diversity and inclusion for ALL of our students. 
One of the other responses I have received in addressing these culturally insensitive displays and phrases is that it's okay in the building that they work in because that culture is not represented in their student population. That culture doesn't have to be represented in your student population because we should be modeling appropriate and inclusive language and behavior for ALL of our students. We should be the ones showing our students how to be culturally responsive, how to be inclusive, and how to learn from the background and experiences of everyone.  We should be creating "windows and "mirrors."We should be including literature and images of ALL cultures in what we do -  not only to represent the students we work with but also to give a voice to the cultures not represented by the students in our schools. We should not model that it is okay to turn another person's culture into a joke or something "cute."
 I know the sting of being told that your culture isn't important enough to discuss in a classroom because there are not enough students from that culture in the classroom so it won't be worthwhile. That's what I was told in a high school class when a teacher asked for suggestions about what else we would like to learn in the class. When I suggested the Harlem Renaissance, I was told that there were not enough black students in the class to study if only African-Americans can learn from and enjoy that amazing movement. The impact was a message I received, loud and clear, that I wasn't important, worthy, or significant. 
I have seen this quote by Dr. Rudin Bishop  in various blogs and articles that relates to this issue...  

Some of the other things that I have seen become popular recently that can create the same disconnections and cultural insensitivity environment as the "let's taco-bout it" displays include.....
* displays and t-shirts that say "no prob-llama" with a llama depicted. ("Problema" being a Spanish word and "prob-llama" being a joke of that word).
* titles, posters, and t-shirts that say "Nah I'mma Stay..." or "Nah Am A Stay..." usually followed by at home or in bed or other phrase endings. (Namaste being a traditional greeting in Hindi or Nepalese or other languages and "Nah I'mma Stay" being a joke of that greeting). 
* the use of tipis (or tepees) in a classroom or office for a cute camping theme or other decoration (Tipis being a traditional dwelling for many Native American tribes that has very important and significant meaning in its specific physical construction as well as it's connection to the spirituality of that Native American tribe and a tepee in a classroom that is placed their just to be cute). 
* the use of animal prints behind the words "love the skin you're in" on bulletin boards and in hallways. (the concern with this is the relation of human skin color to animal hides when there has been such a long history  in our country of African-Americans being likened to animals especially African-American males). 

I love the metaphor  "windows" and "mirrors" in education and curriculum. I referenced this metaphor above. So, here are a few links to some of other blog posts that address mirrors and windows. Although they discuss classroom texts and the gaps between teacher and student races and ethnicity, the concepts still apply to our work as school counselors and how we create appropriate and supportive mirrors and windows for our students. 
Blog post on Scholastic by Chad Everett:
Blog post on  Huffington Post by Gregory Michie: 

My sincere hope is that any school counselors or other educators who read this blog post, do so with an open mind and please consider the powerful impact you make with your words, actions, and displays in your classrooms, offices, and hallways.  

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