You are on page 1of 11

The Majority as a Minority:

Embracing Cultural Capital in the Classroom


MATC Synthesis Paper

In partial fulfillment of the requirements for the Master of Arts Degree in Teaching and
Curriculum Department of Teacher Education, Michigan State University

Allison R. Voigt
PID A43738205
Summer Semester 2018
Introduction

I am a white female from an upper middle-class household in a suburb outside of Detroit,

Michigan. I was born into an abundance of privilege: privilege based on the color of my skin, my

parents’ occupations, as well as my family’s socioeconomic status. From kindergarten to high

school graduation, I attended Farmington Public Schools - consistently ranked one of the best

districts in Michigan - with people who looked just like I do: white and middle-class. After

graduation, I attended Michigan State University for my undergraduate degree in Elementary

Education. Once again, I was attending school with the majority of people who look just like me:

white, middle-class, and female. It was not until I graduated from Michigan State University and

was hired as a kindergarten teacher outside of Atlanta, Georgia that I was met with discomfort; I

was hired at a school whose demographics were predominantly Hispanic and African American.

I had gone through life as the majority (white, privileged). This was my first situation in which I

would be considered the minority: the first situation in which I would be considered the odd one

out.

As an educator, it is imperative we provide ourselves with opportunities to feel how our

students do. We are expected to learn and grow as people, therefore we must extend beyond our

comfort zone. Yet, so many educators never find themselves in situations similar to those of their

students: situations where they have difficulty relating to the tasks or content. Many educators

also never capitalize on their students’ diverse culture and ideals. So many of my students walk

outside their elementary school and are automatically categorized as a minority; however, 86%

of Norcross Elementary School is Hispanic/Latinx. They are a part of the majority inside the

classroom, thus lending itself to learning about amazing cultures. Upon entering the MATC at

Michigan State, it was my goal to become a better reading teacher; I wanted to learn all I could
about teaching reading so I could improve my students’ test scores and ensure they pass the

fourth grade. Now as I am ready to graduate from this program, I am realizing I am not leaving

as an amazing reading teacher (a better reading teacher? Certainly. Amazing? Not yet). Albeit, I

am graduating feeling prepared with strategies and ideas to empower and capitalize upon my

students’ unique and diverse cultures, simply because I was provided the opportunity to embrace

my own cultural identity and my students’ cultural identities through much of my coursework.

Relatable to Who?

“I just want to find literature that my students relate to, you know?” I meant well when

those words came out of my mouth, and those words came out of my mouth quite a bit. What I

meant was I was searching for literature where my students see themselves represented in print.

My journey to find texts where my students were able to see themselves and situations applicable

to their lives began during my undergraduate career. It has continuously been a work in progress

since. Literature, simply put, does not have a diverse cast of characters. Consequently, I became

exceptionally frustrated with the difficulties I encountered when searching for diverse texts. I

would buy a book simply because the protagonist was not white, therefore it had to be relatable

for my students.

It was not until TE 849 - Methods and Materials for Teaching Children & Adolescent

Literature (a course taken during Fall Semester 2017) that I was able to hone in on what relatable

means, as well as how what is considered relatable does not and will not apply to everyone. TE

849 surveys a plethora of genres in children’s literature, as well as ongoing and contemporary

issues each genre faces. The course explores conversations teachers and students may have while
reading these diverse texts. I was able to read texts from a variety of genres and by various

authors, analyzing how each of these genres can be used in the classroom to spark discussions.

One of the genres we analyzed in the course was multicultural literature: literature I am

perpetually searching to incorporate into my classroom library. The largest reasons I search for

this type of literature is that my students, more often than not, do not see their cultures portrayed

in a positive light. In this day and age, many of my students and their parents are terrified to be

deported. They firmly believe the president of the country in which they live despises them and

their culture. When they watch the news, they are consistently seeing how people who have the

same skin colors they do are “illegally moving to this country” or “are not as deserving for

opportunities.” With that, I find it exceptionally important to find books and literature where my

students are able to see themselves and their cultures reflected in a positive manner. In this

situation, I believe that relatability matters greatly.

In my paper entitled “Complicating Normality and Relatability” (Artifact 2), I analyze

the quest to find relatable literature for students. As well as how this quest can quickly turn into

grouping students together. In this essay, I state: “When searching for relatable literature, it is

impossible to find a book that will relate to a whole class. While one student may have gone

through an experience exactly like one presented in a book, another student may have no schema

regarding the occurrences... To assume my students all have the same experiences and the same

culture is a disservice to my classroom community.” By grouping my students together and

stating that, simply because the protagonist looks as my students do, they must have the same

experiences is an unacceptable assumption: an assumption that many educators hold. Simply

because students have the same skin tone or are from the same part of the world does not imply

they have the same interests, nor past experiences. Every student is different, just as their
interests are different. Allowing students the autonomy to choose books that may (or may not)

look as they do is crucial to their development as readers.

The first standard of the MATC program is understanding and committing to students

and their diverse cultures. The MATC program, especially TE 849, has taught me how important

it is to include multicultural literature inside the classroom without assigning it the label of

“relatable.” Simply placing multicultural literature allows students the autonomy to choose a

book where the protagonist may look as they do. Or it may extend even further and the student

may see themselves and their past life experiences reflected in the text. Even now, as I see my

students reaching for “Dog Man” or “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” instead of one of the texts I

painstakingly searched for, I feel a pain in my heart. However, I also realize part of the

enjoyment in literature is allowing students the autonomy to choose texts in which they find

interest.

Opportunities for Cultural Capital and Using Capital to Drive Instruction

The most exciting aspect of teaching is how there are continuously times and lessons

where you are able to expand upon your students’ cultural capital and their diversity. One of the

the ways the MATC program encouraged me to do so was through a book club. During the Fall

Semester 2017, I took TE 849 - Methods and Materials for Teaching Children & Adolescent

Literature. In this course, I was asked to create a teaching log where I was to use the information

I was learning in TE 849 and apply it in my own fourth grade classroom. The culminating

activity, or our Teaching Log Presentation (Artifact 5), required me to analyze the contexts

multicultural literature has in the real world. More specifically, how multicultural texts play out

with real students in real settings.


For these lessons, I worked with a small group of 5 high-achieving students and created a

book club. We read the text “Stella by Starlight” by Sharon M. Draper. I wanted our book club to

focus specifically on social justice issues, allowing each student to find deeper meanings from

the text by using their past experiences. It was in this book club where I was able to use

formative assessments, as well as my students’ in-depth discussions to guide our lessons. I had

the lessons typed and created ahead of time; however, more often than not, the discussion

occurred organically as my students created text-to-self connections and discussed the text with

one another. These discussions and the feedback they provided me is what drove my planning.

As our book club continued, I was constantly revising what the next day would look like based

on the discussions we had the day prior.

It was also in TE 807 where I reflected upon the factors that compose a good teacher

(Artifact 1). Many of the factors I discussed in my final course statement are those in which

multicultural literature can be incorporated. One of the ways I aspired to be a better teacher was

through better management of small-group work and providing opportunities for students to

work collaboratively. I found that, in reading, when I included literature in my classroom that

was reflective of my students’ cultures, they were significantly more engaged. After the success I

had with “Stella by Starlight,” I began another book group. This time using the text “Felita” by

Nicholasa Mohr. I will note that the students placed into this book club were less enthused by

reading than my book club with “Stella by Starlight.” However, as soon as we began reading,

they began to open up and wanted to continue reading. For a few of the students, this was the

first time I had ever seen them interested in picking up a book and continuing it. Due to the time

I spent with reflecting upon my previous book group (another factor discussed in my Artifact 1),
I was able to create and maintain a small-group that was engaged and collaborative in its

entirety.

Engaging in Research to Determine Students’ Motivations in Reading

My experiences in the MATC program allowed me to become an excellent teacher

researcher. In TE 807, I conducted research with my fourth grade class to determine what

motivates them to read (Artifact 4). One of the problems of practice I faced this past year is my

students’ lack of interest in books and reading. It was my hope to work with my students, using a

growth-mindset model, to enhance their motivation.

By engaging in this research, I was able to understand each student as a diverse

individual with different motivations for reading. At the beginning of the school year, I grouped

my students together and told my colleagues: “I just have a class that does not enjoy reading this

year!” However, after embarking upon this research journey, I was able to see many of my

students do enjoy reading, and they enjoy reading for a variety of reasons. For my students who

did not enjoy reading, I was able to use aspects of teaching growth mindsets to potentially pique

their interest. This required me to be a critically reflective educator, as I was asked to think about

what I was doing wrong as a teacher that made my students not engage in reading or literature.

Upon completing my research, I was able to refine my repertoire as a teacher of reading. Upon

realizing my students’ motivating factors in literature, I was better equipped to create lessons that

would fully engage my students in meaningful and diverse ways.

We Need Diverse Books!


During Spring Semester 2018, I took TE 836 - Awards and Classics of Children’s

Literature. This course focuses on contemporary classics and award winners in children’s and

young adult literature. It focuses specifically on people and communities who have been and

continue to be marginalized by and underrepresented in the school curriculum in the United

States. TE 836 allowed me to investigate how race, ethnicity, class, gender identity, sexuality,

language, religion, and disability are used by authors, as well as explored and learned by young

readers. In this course, I created a multicultural unit of study (Artifact 3).

This multicultural unit of study focused on books where the protagonists were of Latin

American descent. As an educator in a school where the majority of my students are of Latin

American descent, I chose texts where they were able to see themselves reflected. In creating a

unit of study around Latin American and Hispanic heritage, it was my goal to relate the content

to my students’ knowledge, their interests, and their personal lives and families. I wanted to

allow my students who do not often see themselves reflected in literature an opportunity to see

there are texts where the characters look as they do.

During TE 872, a course I am currently taking, I was asked to create a leadership project

where I identified a need my school setting had and then filled that need. In an attempt to provide

my students with more literature where they see their races or cultures represented, I plan to

create a diverse books committee at my school with fellow staff members. It is also my hope to

create a diverse book club with my students. This will be one of the first leadership roles I take

on in the field and is one I will continue to work on, even after graduating from the MATC

program (Artifact 7). While this leadership project proposal is a work in progress, I have found

that it has opened my eyes to the possibilities of teacher leadership at my school. Due to this
increased confidence, I am ecstatic to take on more leadership responsibilities in the upcoming

months and years.

Next year, I will serve as the grade level chair for the fourth grade team. In this

leadership role, I am excited to address the problem of practice that has continuously nagged me

since my undergraduate courses: how do we incorporate diverse books into the curriculum? I

will use the knowledge and information imparted in TE 872 to aid me in acting as a teacher

leader for my team. It is my hope to use the information acquired throughout the MATC program

to create a professional learning committee: one that contributes to the success of our students

through the use of multicultural literature and texts in the classroom.

Opportunities for Motivation

As I am finishing up my graduate studies through the MATC program, I am concurrently

taking TE 846 - Accommodating Differences in Literacy Learners. Looking back over my

MATC courses, I am able to see the importance of including students’ diverse backgrounds into

the classroom. However, the Literacy Learner Project (Artifact 6) I am currently working on

extends upon using my students’ diverse backgrounds and dives into the problems of practice

that occur in our educational system on a daily basis. As I am working with my literacy learner

student, Wilson, I am able to see how, in many ways, the educational system failed him as a

Hispanic male. Despite the fact he is nine-years-old and just completed fourth grade, he has an

automatic disadvantage in this world, especially as a reader and scholar. Wilson came to me as a

fourth grade student on a second grade level and completely disinterested in reading and

literature.
Through the use of pre-assessments to determine the areas of need and differentiated

lessons tailored specifically to Wilson, I have been able to see his astounding growth and

engagement in reading. I quickly realized Wilson is a student who benefits from one-on-one

attention, as well as positive reinforcement and feedback. Upon this realization, I was better able

to learn and grow as an educator for Wilson. He is not motivated by the same ideas many other

students are. Consequently, when creating plans for him, I realized I would have to teach in a

different way - in a way that would make sense specifically to Wilson and his interests, prior

knowledge, and life. This opportunity to work with Wilson as a literacy learner provided me with

a breadth of knowledge in regards to my own teaching. Realizing that Wilson is not motivated by

the same ideas as many other fourth grade students, affected how I wanted to go about teaching

Wilson the content area and lessons. While my Literacy Lesson Project is still a work in

progress, I have learned and reflected upon my own teaching pedagogy throughout the course of

my project.

Creating a Safe Space for all Students

In conclusion, my experiences in the MATC program have opened my eyes to the focus

in my teaching career: allowing all students the opportunity to see themselves reflected and

respected in the classroom. While this is a process, one that I will need to work on throughout the

entirety of my career, I aspire to encourage other educators to work on including students’

cultural capital. I am exceptionally thankful for my time in the MATC program, as it led me to

critically look at myself, my teaching practices, and my leadership roles in a school setting.

Ultimately, I leave the MATC program with a desire to embrace cultural diversity, diverse

books, and students’ cultural capitals, as well as to see what I can learn from them. It is my goal
to create a classroom that provides students with doors and mirrors to the world: doors that open

them to other cultures and diversity and mirrors that reflect what they see on a daily basis. I look

forward to the future with my diverse set of students, as it allows me an opportunity to continue

ways to create a safe, reflective space in my classroom.