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District 95 book study aims to help educators to better know students

  • On Monday, about 40 CES District 95 educators gathered to share their thoughts and reactions to Zaretta Hammond's 'Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain' in preparation to help them better understand their students.

    On Monday, about 40 CES District 95 educators gathered to share their thoughts and reactions to Zaretta Hammond's 'Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain' in preparation to help them better understand their students.
    Courtesy of Stephanie Esters, CES 95 Communications

Submitted by Stephanie Esters
CES 95 Communications
updated: 7/5/2019 1:40 AM

Across social media, Carbondale Elementary School teachers posted pictures of their "summer reading' -- books photographed against the lush Atlantic waters off a Florida beach, positioned before the bountiful waters of an upstate Michigan lake, and still another ... showing appliances in a local kitchen.

It's the same book these teachers, their colleagues and support staff in CES District 95 are spending part of the summer reading: Zaretta Hammond's "Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students."

The book was chosen as one to help teachers glean ways to better know and relate to their students by helping them understand the significance of their students' cultural backgrounds, Superintendent Daniel Booth said.

"I think it is very important that we understand our students and how they learn," Booth said. "With our district being extremely diverse, more diverse than any district in southern IIlinois, I feel that it is important for us to understand how we can tailor our practice to best suit our students' needs."

In the book, Hammond cites research that says "culturally responsive education can strengthen student connectedness with school and enhance learning."

Almost 50 percent of the district's 1,536 students are black, and 11.1 percent are Hispanic, according to the district's Illinois State Report Card. Ten percent are English learners -- which means English is not their primary language -- and close to 70 percent of the students are from families considered low income.

In her book, Hammond suggests the educational gap can be lessened by teaching students to develop higher-order thinking skills and become independent learners.

Booth said that not only will teachers benefit from this reading and discussions, but also the students and their families, who will be encouraged to be more engaged.

Monday was the first of three book discussions facilitated by Roxanne Alldredge of the Illinois Multi-Tiered Support Systems Network (MTSS). About 40 staff attended the morning session and another two dozen an evening session.

The teachers are receptive to the book's research, as they look for ways to help them better connect with their students. For some, the teachings reaffirm what they learned in their education studies -- that relationship-building does enhance learning in the classroom.

One thing that Jennifer Burke, a teacher at Parrish Elementary School, does to help her students connect with classroom instruction is teach them the concept of mindfulness: being aware of concerns that an individual may have, so he or she can personally address that.

"It also helps us be more aware of each other so that we can be respectful with each person," Burke said.

"When we feel respected, we then have a solid base from which we can learn individually or as a group, problem solve, and share our knowledge with each other."

What she's enjoying most from this summer book study, though, is the opportunity to come together with her colleagues and friends to talk about what they are learning.

The sentiment is echoed by Thomas second-grade teacher Brooke Crombar, who noted that when she is teaching students of different cultures or backgrounds, her cultural lens doesn't make her perspective "right."

"It's how I see the world," Crombar said. "My students do things and perceive things based on their cultural lens. This doesn't make them wrong. By building that all-important relationship, we understand each other, and that's when learning takes place. Students will learn when they feel safe and valued."

Tamara McCutchen, a Lewis teacher who finished her first year with the district, said she will continue to develop the communal environment, as opposed to one focused on individualism, that Hammond espouses in her book.

"I will continue to create challenging instructional opportunities for my students that are specifically designed to expand their dendrites," she said. "Evidence-based research from Zaretta Hammond's book supports this approach, which states, 'Do not water down the curriculum for minority students.'"

For teachers like Michelle Boyce, a math interventionist at Thomas (second and third grade) and Lewis (fourth and fifth grade) schools, the book study discussions are a good start.

"I have always been interested in the structures of the brain related to our kids at school so this is where I will continue searching for ways to strengthen my math services for my kids," Boyce said. "I found some new strategies and reintroduced strategies in Part 3 of the book that I feel are beneficial. The book study has been a start to these discussions, but I believe we are going to have to go way beyond six hours to get to some solution-based discussions."

District teachers are supported in this by their building administrators -- people like LaTonya Mouzon, assistant principal at the pre-K to first-grade Parrish Elementary School.

"It is my goal to assist teachers in creating classroom environments where students are building their capacity to become independent learners through active classrooms that incorporate oral storytelling, movement and music," Mouzon said. "This is culturally responsive teaching."