The Power and Necessity of Learning from Books That Reflect Our Communities
Luma Mufleh on Designing Culturally Responsive Curricula
In my work as the leader of the Fugees Academy, the school I started for children who are refugees, I’ve noticed that even with the best of intentions, there’s often this gap between what adults teach… and what students actually absorb. There’s a term in education circles right now, “culturally responsive teaching.” I get upset when I hear people talking about “the unit” they taught on that. It’s not a unit, it’s not posters on the wall, or having a guest speaker; it’s a way of building meaning, for all of us.
Here I share a couple of stories based on my own experiences—as a school leader and from my childhood—that I hope will get people thinking about how many cultural references we take for granted. Teachers, coaches, parents—really, anyone who finds themselves interacting with someone from a background different than their own—can benefit from slowing down a bit to check for understanding.
Designing an academic program for kids who are arriving at their education with a significant deficit to make up isn’t simple. A big part of our work involves rejecting another aspect of the same white paternalism inherent in social promotion: books from only the Western canon, word problems with only American names, classrooms that don’t prioritize our community’s contributions and values.
At Fugees Academy, we are constantly searching for ways to make lessons and learning materials relevant to all races and ethnicities represented in the school. Just as it’s important for students to see adults who look and sound like them, they also need to see themselves in the books they read, the math problems they solve, and the songs they sing.
A few years ago, sixth graders Samia, Gaston, and Nahom were huddled over a book during reading period, the sun shining through the window behind them.
“You ask her,” I heard Gaston tell Samia. Samia shook her head adamantly.
Nahom seemed to take a big breath. “Coach?” he asked. “What is a dick?”
“What is a dick? It’s here in the book.” He pointed to the open pages.
“Let me see what book you’re reading.” We had received donated boxes of books, and I hadn’t gone through all of them before the kids began eagerly choosing their own. I knelt down next to the students’ table.
“It says Dick and Jane,” Nahom said.
I laughed, mostly out of relief. “Oh! It’s a name. Dick is a name.”
“A name?” Now the kids all looked confused.
“Yes, just like Nahom, or Samia, or Gaston.”
I took a seat and started reading the book out loud, only this time I changed the names to ones that would be familiar to them. This is a skill I have honed over forty years since my early tutoring days: trying to make things more relevant to students by changing names and settings and using a lot (a lot) of soccer analogies. For my daughters, stories about mommy and daddy have recently become stories about mommy and mama.
Even though I was using new names, the kids were unimpressed.
“This is boring,” Gaston said.
“It’s an old book,” I said.
“So Dick is a name,” Samia said, looking satisfied with this new knowledge.
“Hold on, Samia. It’s a name, but it’s almost never used anymore.”
“Do you know a Dick?” he asked.
“Um. Not really.” I knew what I had to do. Our students too often use American slang out of context and are accidentally rude or obscene. They watch something on TV or hear it on the playground, then use the word to try to fit in. I knew how this “dick” thing was going to play out if I didn’t step in.
“It also has a bad meaning,” I said.
“A name has a bad meaning?”
I understood their confusion. Names—their stories and their meanings—were a highly regarded part of their cultures.
“Yes. It also means ‘penis,’ a boy’s private parts.”
Six wide eyes looked back at me.
Like my students, I had no interest in books I couldn’t relate to.
One afternoon when I was in the first grade, I was visiting my grandmother after school. Still struggling with all-English instruction, I was feeling tired and frustrated, and she sensed it.
“How was school today?” she asked.
“It was okay, but everyone is smarter than I am.”
“Why do you say that?”
“The teacher read a story and they all laughed at some parts and got scared at other parts, but I didn’t understand why.”
“What was the story about, Lamloom?” she asked, stroking my hair.
“It was about a red jacket. And the red jacket went to visit a grandmother, but it wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone on the way. And then a dog wanted to eat the jacket. But jackets don’t talk and dogs don’t eat jackets! I just don’t think I am very smart.”
My grandmother looked at me sympathetically. “Why don’t I tell you the story of Leila and the wolf?” she said.
I loved that story and I loved when my grandmother told it. It wasn’t in a book she read from—in Arabic, the oral tradition is strong. I grew up listening to my grandmother tell stories, some true, some fables, many wildly embellished.
“Yes, please, tell me again.”
“Kan ya makan, fi kadeem al zaman,” she began. Once upon a time. That’s the way all our stories began. The storyteller would say, “Kan ya makan,” and the listeners would reply, “Fi kadeem al zaman.”
“There was a girl called Leila who wore a red hat. One day, her mother asked her to take food to her grandmother’s house but warned her not to speak to anyone until she got there. On the way, Leila meets a wolf. The wolf asks Leila to play, but she refuses. She says she is going to her grandmother’s house with some food. The wolf says they should gather flowers to give to the grandmother.”
My grandmother paused and looked at me, waiting to see if I understood.
“Little Red Riding Hood is a name!” I exclaimed. “The jacket is Leila!”
This is a simple example but one that demonstrates what is lost when cultural barriers aren’t considered. Little Red Riding Hood was inaccessible to my Arabic-oriented brain, so I missed out on the lessons of the fairy tale. I was too focused on a talking jacket to appreciate the moral of the story. Nahom, Samia, and Gaston couldn’t practice their reading skills because of one confounding word. I speak English with native fluency, but to this day, when I don’t understand an idea or concept in English, I plug in Arabic names or places to light up different parts of my brain. I’ve been doing this my entire life.
Zaretta Hammond, the self-described “former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter,” is best known for her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. In a recent workshop she hosted for school leaders and teachers, Hammond shared an observation about the term “culturally responsive.” She described—with apparent frustration—fielding emails and comments from well-intentioned folks seeking a workshop or a reading list or a curriculum recommendation so they can “do CRT.” When the adults who have power in a school or in a school system try to change an aspect of their programming to be more culturally responsive, they often do so with a sense of urgency, a desire for action. Urgency and action are fine, but if we want things to change, we have to admit to ourselves that our schools wouldn’t be failing so many kids if it were as easy as good intentions, a workshop, and a reading list.Like my students, I had no interest in books I couldn’t relate to.
Hammond’s book details neuroscience principles that explain how vital it is to commit to a practice of centering the children we are actually teaching in our teaching. CRT incorporates much of what I’ve discussed in previous chapters: a focus on community, strong relationships with students’ families, a diverse staff, caring adults, and high expectations for all students. It also stresses the importance of a culturally diverse curriculum, one that integrates ideas related to the students’ backgrounds and cultures. Curriculums that aren’t adapted in this way are not only alienating for students but also discouraging, disheartening, and confusing.
That said, there is no shortcut, no way to copy and paste. There is no “culturally responsive” curriculum that a school can just plug in and play. To be truly culturally responsive, we need to make sure our reading lists and story problems reflect the lived experiences of the students in our buildings, but that has to be the icing on the cake, the natural extension of long, slow, respectful relationship and community building. Otherwise it’s just icing.
We face challenges when choosing books about the refugee or immigrant experience. Too many books focus on depressing aspects of our identity, and too few actually celebrate the multitudes we contain. Trust me, refugees don’t want to constantly read about how shitty their lives are. We want to read books that highlight our complexities and our dynamism, ones that don’t lump us all together into the same huddled mass. We get enough of that in real life.
Excerpted from Learning America © 2022 by Luma Mufleh. Reproduced by permission of Mariner Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.