Episode 22 – Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning: A Conversation with Toni Theisen

It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 22 - Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning: A Conversation with Toni Theisen

“We need culturally responsive learning. We need culturally responsive governing. We need culturally responsive cities. Our world is awakening to all the diversity that has been there, but has been marginalized. And we can’t do that anymore.

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“We can’t do that any more.”

There is an urgency in Toni Theisen (bio and resources) that comes from observing the world with an eye of compassion, a sense of justice, a stand of fairness and inclusivity, and a keen intelligence that probes deep underneath surfaces to discover the foundations of what works, what does not, and even what is wobbling and likely to collapse.

Toni knows the power of language to reveal and conceal ourselves and our intentions. She knows the power of cultures to provide insights into truths of human prospering and inclusion, human suffering an exclusion.

Thus, if you want to know what you should be looking at to help build the human community world-wide, turn to Toni and have a discussion and experience new ideas being shared from every angle. Toni shares her observations and thoughts, her research and conversations across cultures and languages, and she’ll bring the ideas into the discussion fearlessly, because she keeps her eye on the prize of cultural inclusion, diversity, and celebration.

Compassion and rigor — it’s a powerful combination. “We need to know our students and where they come from and what they believe in and what they do. And we need to let them have a voice to it, acknowledge it… So we have to provide rigor for those students so they’re challenged in the same way. Well, they might fall down a few times more, but give them some more scaffolding, let them be released from that box…. culturally responsive is not a set of strategies. It’s a pedagogy. It’s a belief. It’s a belief that all kids can have successful paths for the way that they want to go.”

According to Brown University,

“Culture is central to learning. It plays a role not only in communicating and receiving information, but also in shaping the thinking process of groups and individuals. A pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures offers full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references’ in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings,1994).

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It’s About Language – Episode 22 – Culturally Responsive Teaching: A Conversation with Toni Thiesen

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Norah Jones:     There we go. And it is my great pleasure to welcome Toni Theisen today. Hi Toni. Hi. How are you doing? I’m doing all right. How you doing? All right. How’s it going in Colorado?

Toni Theisen:    It’s a little cold. We have some snow, but it’s bright and sunny. And I think next week it’ll be warmer.

Norah Jones:     Well, you live in a beautiful area there in Fort Collins and Toni, I’m delighted to have you today with the conversation because you bring so many unique viewpoints and insights and breakthroughs into the world language education and world language thinking. And among the things that you have said to me is about that teaching — I know it’s a shock to some — but it’s not a monologue. It’s a dialogue. How have you lived that? What does that mean to you?

Toni Theisen:    Well, for me it means inclusiveness. It means that I can’t be the only person that’s making the decisions or keep myself in a silo or keep myself locked in a room. I need to really communicate with so many people that are involved in the teaching world, including the students, because the students really need their voice. And my dialogue has expanded over the years because I taught French for 40 years, but now I’m the director of world languages and our dual language program. And the dual language program has brought a lot of humility to my perspective, because I needed to learn more about, how do these students learn? First of all, being with the elementary, secondly, with being involved in different ways with heritage and native speakers as part of a dual language program. And I needed to know about, what does learning look like and what does connection look like? What does connection look like with families? And I’ve had so many opportunities to broaden my perspective, to think a little bit about and more about equity access and sustainability. With dialogue comes sustainability slowly by slowly.

Norah Jones:     Why is that true? What does dialog do to create that sustainability and that equity?

Toni Theisen:    Well, networks. We need networks. You know, I often think about some of the spider stories from Africa when they talk a little bit about how the spiders weave the webs in a positive way, because it’s all about connection. But as the legends go, when it’s time to change, spiders dismantle their webs and they start new ones. And if you think about that, we use the word networking a lot. And if you think about it and the reaction of an, a technical word, we even use, you know, the things like the worldwide web. We really use a lot of spider analogies because spiders are very important connections in the world and they let us know and things are not going well. So I think just having an opportunity to have networks brings more sustainability, because you have more people who are talking, who can add to the conversation and add to the building because you know, the topic that I’m working with and talking about today is culturally responsive teaching.

Toni Theisen:    But culturally responsive teaching is just, you know, a bit of the iceberg because we need culturally responsive learning. We need culturally responsive governing. We need culturally responsive cities. Our world is awakening to all the diversity that has been there, but has been marginalized. And we can’t do that anymore. I mean, there are a lot of excuses for it, but at the heart of culturally responsive teaching and your topic, I want to address a little bit, is culture. And the culture is really about language, traditions, families, behaviors, friendship, relationship, time. And I know so many world language teachers know about this, so this isn’t something new for them, but so many others are trying to be a part of it, but not understanding how to do it. It becomes a little bit more forced by the teaching role, without giving a chance to dialogue with people about what does that mean in that situation.

Toni Theisen:    And I think about where so many of us were with culture. Now we have interculturality. We had practices, products, perspectives, you know, your own compared to others. But we think about the iceberg of culture so much. We’ve been looking at that or others have been looking at the top of the iceberg. We all call them food, fair, festivals and fun, which really leads to a Frankenstein approach and look at the stereotypes and the culture. But down below are all the behaviors and the ideas of the culture. That really is where you can have the deep thinking dialogue to make culturally responsive teaching more culturally responsive.

Norah Jones:     Toni, when you talked about setting up a …. Spiders build new webs and dismantled the old, part of what it sounds like is happening is that there are a lot of old webs that are not being taken down, that in which perhaps these new webs are overlaid. How do you work with bringing the awareness of culturally responsive teaching and learning to folks that are engaged with older forms?

Toni Theisen:    Well, I could say very bluntly, one of the things we do at spiderwebs that kind of hang on in our garage, that in the summers, you take a power hose and blow them away. That’s really not the response to that! But okay: Why are we hanging on to those old webs? I think a lot of it has to do with some fear, but a lot of it is just not understanding the complexity of the situation. Like this morning from our district. Because we have a brand-new equity policy put into place, and it has a lot of good things to say, but sometimes we have an equity policy on paper, and they’re trying with all, you know… We have an equity director too, who is wonderful, who I’ve known for a long time and who has been an equity director once here in another district.

Toni Theisen:    But the first time that they were a year, she was kind of, “Great, well, we don’t really need you anymore. We solved this problem.” But a lot of things are laid on her to solve. I know there’s not an intent to do it, but there’s a lot of responsibility for all of that. And the first thing that she got herself involved with is the very high school that I taught at for many years. It was the Loveland High Indians, and we’ve been trying to break down that mascot for years. So it just got…. really how it got taken care of was some of the rules that were happening to the State. So she was able to bring in that power hose and blow that right out of the water, and within a month it was changed. So that’s still what, you know, because that was a long conversation.

Toni Theisen:    And several times I have used that equity policy because in stating what we need is trying to bring in, you know, a heritage, a Spanish heritage, a native speaker course. I responded in the form that we had to fill out in the presentation, I quoted from the equity policy. Kind of insane. Okay. I know we have to have a dialogue, but let me just remind you, this is what you’ve said and to, you know, to put those words in front of him, I said, we’ve got to make this useful along those lines. And to justify with that. I’m glad we have this equity policy because I’ve been able to use it several ways. And one of the things that I did with that is I put some research in there that was in Spanish. And the colleagues that I was working with it go, “What if they can’t read Spanish?”

Toni Theisen:    And I said, my response is, “It’s not my fault they’re monolingual. This is important information. It needs to be there.” So sometimes, you know, you have to kind of shout out a little bit and then massage that a little bit and then bring them in. You know, like we’re saying, we’ve got this infographic this morning about language for a more inclusive and supportive classroom. Here are some strategies in different environmental pieces and that’s from the director of education. And I appreciate that, you know, here it is, but it’s just going to a small group of us. And so I think, and everybody’s trying really hard, but you know, this… I really want to, you know, direct some of this conversation to this one of my main sources. There’s some wonderful resources that I think that you are putting so people can see; it’s a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. It’s by Zaretta Hammond.

Toni Theisen:    She really brings the brain into this, and saying, yes well, we still have, you know, a lot of those state tests and achievement gaps. And a lot of those things are set up for people to fail. I mean, you can’t make yearly progress usually because of, you know, the group, the special education students, or the kids who are in English language development. So how would you like to be that that kid and always causes the school to have to do things because that’s who you are. It’s totally absurd. It’s totally absurd. So she talked about some things, about lots of times the students who are in marginalized situations, whatever that means. And that’s not even a really good, that’s not even a good way to say it. Marginalized is what they are, but they’re kids in our classes, they’re kids in our schools, they’re people in our community and all of this stuff.

Toni Theisen:    And she talks about, you know, the dependent learner and the independent learner and the marginalized students are quite often in the dependent area, because, well, they can’t move on until they mastered this or they don’t, you know? And then things like the statement, she says, they’re dependent on the teacher to carry out most of the cognitive load. It’s unsure of how to tackle a new task… because what is so important, we all know as world language teachers, is we need to know our students and where they come from and what they believe in and what they do. And we need to let them have a voice to it, acknowledge it. And what we need to do is the dependent…. the independent learner, he’s who experiences all these different things, but the dependent learner is always stuck in this box. If it’s like recycling, recycling, the same thing over. If you think a little bit about it it’s kind of like when — maybe not the best analogy — but you know, if you’re in a, you see some people in a restaurant in another country and they don’t speak that language, all they do is speak louder and say the same thing. This is the same thing.

Toni Theisen:    So we have to provide rigor for those students so they’re challenged in the same way. Well, they might fall down a few times more, but give them some more scaffolding, let them be released from that box. You know, and when I think a little bit about this idea of a box… you know Amazon has this thing now about recycling a box. If you can take the box and what you have in it and put in it and start using it, and back in the box, you can put your own things to recycle, send it off and send it to Amazon. And they’ll recycle it. That’s the same type of thing as a spider, you know, an old spiderweb. Put a spiderweb in there. Release these kids. And she uses the example about a kid, you know, the teacher kind of goes up to the kid—and this doesn’t happen all the time, it’s less and less—

Toni Theisen:    He says, well, you know, you haven’t turned in your homework, you haven’t done your work and dah, dah, dah, dah. And of course the kid is ashamed and says, I’ll get it on it, I’ll do it. And then the conversation ends, but you’ve given no new ways for that kid to do that. And so the culturally responsive… and culturally responsive is not a set of strategies. It’s a pedagogy. It’s a belief. It’s a belief that all kids can have successful paths for the way that they want to go. You know, and, and we’re, we are still kind of looking at some things… All of us know, I would assume it’s making the assumption… because it was in one of the things she talks about in her book, she says that, you know, when we give those opportunities, we build new brain neurons in that kid. And so like, we build new webs in that kid’s brain to expand what they want to do

Norah Jones:     Sounds like new pathways.

Toni Theisen:    Exactly. And her book is filled with some wonderful things like that. When we, you know, you constantly talk a little bit about these pieces, but what’s so important is the awareness piece. A person has to look at their beliefs and their bias a lot. And you have to keep examining that, you know, and when you confront your own bias and put yourself in an uncomfortable situation, you have to think about how do I feel and how am I reacting? And that’s what I’ve been doing a little bit over these years now, with starting a dual language program because, you know, I was kind of like, here’s the second language acquisition wing of world language; where do I apply it, but what is different? And I keep learning and I keep learning and I keep learning. But then I want to hear from those involved in it, I want to be a good listener because being listening, I can understand, and then I can open up new stages of dialogue and ask new questions to make things even better for those programs and those needs, and the students involved.

Toni Theisen:    And I just get excited with this, but you know that the whole thing about awareness and self look at yourself, the other part of this is some teachers will say, well, you know, there’s so many kids sort of so many different places that so many different languages, how do I look at all this? You know, that’s one of the ways that in teaching in many content areas is a way to say, I don’t want to do this.

Toni Theisen:    You know, I’m going to have this activity for Back history month. That’s enough. Now we can go back to where we are regularly. She says to take a look at that idea of culture from the individualistic piece and the collectivism piece, because 30% of the world’s cultures are individualistic, ours being one of them. And we’re at the top of the list. So the individual, it’s almost to the point that it’s selfishness, we’re seeing some of that things played out a little bit in our culture just recently where the, you know, it’s all for me. And I get to do this as kind of like the independent person, but the collective cultures, which are like 70% of the cultures of the world are about working for the group’s betterment, helping out, bringing that dialogue in and kind of having, you know…. that was Edward T. Hall’s work and Hofstede’s work about culture, how it was people understand it. And there was even a chart that talks about at the level cultures are individualistic and collective. That’s kind of a simplistic way to look at it, but you know, one of the pieces that’s really important is the community of learning and the community of learning environments.

Norah Jones:     Okay. So let us know more about that.

Toni Theisen:    For example, with one of our dual language schools with a Title I there are a lot of students who come to our trailer park close by. Well, school doesn’t just end in school. The teachers and the community have community learning taking place in that trailer park. There is a community center. There are these two teachers who have lived there for a long time. They’re teachers in our district who really have organized this. The teachers come in to tutor. The learning keeps continuing. And because of that, you build relationships because it’s more than just going into tutoring. You’re meeting the families, you know, you’re talking, you’re outside of your community to extend that dialogue. So it’s like…it’s socio-cultural competence. I’m going to learn about the culture of the students. I can better serve them. And, you know, we can’t put all the load on the teacher, it’s the community.

Toni Theisen:    And it’s, you know, I mean…. just take a look at his whole deal with remote learning. There’s a lot of burden put on the teacher to do just astounding, almost impossible things. And then, you know, then the teachers get praised for just doing it, but you’re burning them out. They can’t take on the whole responsibility. And also by just kind of saying, well, that’s their job, anyhow. I mean, that kind of goes back to a long time ago that the majority of teachers are women and women, you know, that’s kinda their place to take care of children. I mean, look at even this pandemic, women that have elected to stay home for homeschooling that come from all types of professions, they’re taking the heat and the burden, and that’s an economic hit for them down the road, you know, for retirement and their families and everything. We keep resorting back to the point that it’s all on them. And so culturally responsibility, to be sustainable, is about developing that community of learners, you know, and creating an environment that is intellectually and socially safe for learning.

Norah Jones:     Toni, this is a lot bigger obviously than, say, a world language classroom, or culturally responsive, or awareness of those backgrounds that may be coming into the classroom, or about which students are learning. This is a systemic aspect…

Norah Jones:     There’s a sense that you are in the midst of language, in the midst of cultural education, in the midst of having experienced this for decades. What is it that the language teaching and learning communities can bring that can help to transform what you’re talking about, a transformational approach to education in general? How can language and cultural education lead?

Toni Theisen:    That was actually one of the points I wanted to get to because we have so much practice at it. We have got to turn around and start talking out of…. We always talk to our inner circle. Everyone turn around, walk out of the circle, and start talking to others. You know, one of the things that people get scared away from is like, Oh, you’ll get dissed off. Oh yeah, you’re just that world language teacher. What do you know about these situations? Well, we’re based in these pieces. So some of the things they might be able to do is because equity is a big word, culturally responsive is a big word. But people don’t really know what all of that means and how hard the work is. So sometimes you can start off by volunteering in the community. You know, they’re like the teachers going to the community center with a group of students close to our school in the trailer park. But you could also volunteer to do some things. For example, if in a school meeting that you have, say that I know one of our topics is equity. Can we share some of the things that from our content area has really supported that use of culture? Because you know, there’s still a lot of beliefs about language learning: you learn a bunch of words every year, you add more words, and culture is the tip of the iceberg and nothing really serious is going on.

Toni Theisen:    We’re getting better at that. People are believing more. You’re making headways into this, but there’s still a lot of it. I mean, you can be a real strong force in your school community because you have the knowledge of it. And you know, in a lot of places we’re starting to become a core piece of the curriculum, but you can be so easily pushed back in the corner when you don’t serve them anymore. You resist the push. You stand up and go, no, we’re going to be here now. And I think disruption is so important. You can do disruption politely and assertively because lots of times when you look, there are a lot of the students that come back to us, particularly our students who may come from different cultures and languages, et cetera, to kind of get grounded a little bit of what’s happening. In our school community of dual language, we have some teachers from the Teachers from Spain Program, and I’m the coordinator of getting them and bringing them.

Toni Theisen:    But that’s just like, that’s how school is going. I’m constantly helping them out in situations. I’m helping them find a place to live. The other day, they didn’t understand why their garbage wasn’t being picked up. I had to take one of them to the hospital because they didn’t understand the medical system. You know, checking in and making sure they’re okay because they haven’t been able to see their families for two years. So that’s part of that culturally responsive piece, because I understand the cultural aspects of that in it. But part of my job is to teach others because I don’t want to just hold all of this. Everybody can help. Does that make sense?

Norah Jones:     It does. It does. You know, it’s interesting because part of the definition that you provided about culturally responsive teaching had to do with making meaningful connections between what students learn in school and their life experiences and finding the relevance between what they’re learning and their lives. But you’re also very much sounding like you’re describing that same process for those that are educators.

Toni Theisen:    Absolutely. Absolutely. And community members, and community members. I’ve had several opportunities—and asked for several opportunities—to speak to the rotary organizations in my town. They were really interested about dual language. You know, that’s kind of become a buzzword and he wanted to know what that means. I’ve gone to the school board. I’ve, you know, I’ll take any place at all to talk and, you know, and to show off what this is doing. I mean, we even have some data with our first cohort group that went through, particularly at one school that was a Title I school. There was always a turnaround school, a turnaround school. When the first group got to the reading, you know, level three, when you get to grade three, when you start talking about the reading test, et cetera, that school moved from turnaround to proficiency. And one of the highest proficiencies in the district and people are going well, what did they do?

Toni Theisen:    How did they do that? A little bit of denial that you can’t possibly be in that position. And my response was, let’s take a look at the research of dual language. They’re getting double literacy. Let’s take a look at what we are providing with that, to that child, because you only learn to read once, but you could be supportive about different ways to learn and take in information through different cultural perspectives. You know, I like, I want to talk a little bit about this piece, about kinder kids. When you talk about learning sounds, et cetera, you know, there’s a big battle now, should we go to our phonemic awareness and the science of reading. Well, you take the vowel sounds in English, that produces 16 sounds so there’s all these things you have to learn for words. And a lot of them have to be memorized because they’re as crazy as anything. In Spanish, you’ve got five vowels and five sounds. Let’s move on. So they can start to pick up reading and sound and et cetera, because Spanish is so easy to read along with these words. They don’t need sight words: they need help with decoding. So you can’t just say let’s learn about reading. And that’s, what’s so wonderful about people who come from other places to teach in our schools that offer those, you know, multicultural lenses and culturally relevant lenses and equity lenses. We need to have people have more equity lenses.

Norah Jones:     Equity lenses. You have so much personal history of leadership and success with creating standards. Okay. So forth. Help me to…. help us to understand: you’ve got folks that will try to understand what you mean, who will be of good will to try to understand what you mean, but may need that scaffolding that you talked about earlier in this conversation. How does this approach get embedded into a system that those with less vision, but desire to help, can participate in, can succeed in, Toni?

Toni Theisen:    Well, I think one of the things that has to happen is that it has to become a priority. You know, in our district it is becoming a priority. They’re still figuring out a little bit about what that is, but we can be—as language people we can be a little bit more insistent that we look at these pieces because…. Let’s just take a look at the demographics of our country. There is so much diversity. If we’re not looking through these equity lenses, we’re missing out. When people come with multicultural perspective, creativity can change and we can open up our country. We can have, you know…. Economics, economics can change. Communities can change. Governments can change. Because we’re looking at different ways to do things and honoring the voice of all. I mean, as simple as in a classroom. I mean, lots of times, if you think of a language teacher, what we want to make, help other teachers understand, and the sustainability piece of culturally responsive: we are the bridge between one culture and another.

Toni Theisen:    So that bridge… how do we provide different ways for those students to access? So they have some, again, opportunities to critically think and create, not just sit in a corner and do low-level stuff or repetition one more time, but actually seeing what they can do. And quite often we learn from them about the possibilities. So I think what we have to keep, we have to keep plugging at it. We have to keep disrupting. Whomever wants to be in it. It’s not just language teachers. You know: who wants to be part of this wonderful transition in our world society, because we are a global community, and blasting out part of the old web that’s believing that we’re just an isolated country, that all thinks the same. And when we have black history month, that everyone in Black history month, that’s a, you know, a monoculture of perspective when we want to talk about Latinos, every Latino is the same, you’re forgetting about the uniqueness.

Toni Theisen:    I don’t have any answer to that. I just say, if you want to be part of this discovery and… because we feel better when more people are included, I would think in a general, general view of this. So scaffolding comes from we’re all dialoguing and finding new scaffolds. You know, when you think about… we can think of a scaffolding piece as single piece, like when you’re trying to fix a roof on one’s house, or we can look at scaffolding when we’re trying to repair a Gothic cathedral, which is just many, many facets, or when we’re trying to build a skyscraper. A scaffolding is lots of different places to jump around on.

Norah Jones:     It’s interesting because you don’t necessarily have a system, but you have an invitation. And you returned to the concept when we started out this conversation, namely that it’s a dialogue. We invite that dialogue and that’s what we began to learn. And that our students and our colleagues from all over the world have input to provide us. You have so many resources that I have indeed on the website here for people to take a look at. And Toni, what I’d like to do is first of all, invite you to recommend again, looking at those resources and what they might mean. And then I’ve got one more question for you. When you have the resources there, what do you hope that the listeners will get from accessing the resources as well as this podcast?

Toni Theisen:    Well, really, what I want them to get is that they can be a part of the dialogue at anytime they want. And they’re, you know, these are just a tiny bit of the resources, you know, so start stepping into it and see what others are writing about it, give it some thought and “Hmm, what can I do about this? And how can I open it to others?” You know, there’s some things about getting started with culturally responsive teaching. I really do like this book about culturally responsive teaching and the brain. There’s all kinds of study with, you know, multicultural, you’re talking like social injustice, you know, what interests you, what parts do you want to get into? And, you know, you can’t say, well, I’m, I’m too busy. Are we too bus not to think of really about… if we only think about what we’re teaching and doing, and that the student it’s, it’s the student… When is the child that we’re developing and moving forward and the tiny way that we have. And it might mean that we throw up this piece, we don’t need this.

Toni Theisen:    We need to listen to that child’s voice and find out that voice also to be amplified and shared with others. You don’t want to keep those secrets. Kids create new things, put them out in the world. I mean, there’s so many ways to do that now. They need different audiences. Find ways for them to do that. Also look for books that are written by people from other countries or in our own communities, from different language groups. You know, there’s a wonderful book, it’s called En Comunidad: Lessons for Centering the Voices and Experiences of Bilingual Latinx Students. I attended a webinar with that and I have the book and it’s just, there’s a lot of really interesting ways to perceive that, that I would never have perceived it because I come from a different cultural framework. But now it’s part of my big scaffolding piece. So keep building the parts of the scaffolding, join the spiders to build some web.

Norah Jones:     And that’s what I was going to turn to you and say, when you turn to this audience that is listening to you and you have an opportunity for one more exhortation, one more input, invitation, one more warning – what would you say?

Toni Theisen:    Join the dialogue. Don’t be afraid to join the dialogue. There’s so many of those dialogues going on. And you enter one and it’s not exactly what you want, move on, move on, but don’t be a roadblock.

Norah Jones:     What do you think will emerge?

Toni Theisen:    I think a lot more, a lot more robust caring, multicultural conversations, communities, and action I think our talking will turn into action.

Norah Jones:     You know, if people would discover for themselves the freedom, the experimentation, the personality, as well as the caring for others, Toni, that you have brought to your work in the world language community over these years, they would do well indeed. It would be a great start. Thanks for sharing that today on the podcast.

Toni Theisen:    Thank you very much. Very kind. Thank you to all of you. I believe that my email address is part of what is on the website?

Norah Jones:     Indeed!

Toni Theisen:    You can contact me at any time. I love to talk, obviously!

Norah Jones:     And I can certainly follow through by saying, yes, she’ll welcome your contact, friends, so go for it — in case you thought she was just kidding about that. She’s not. So go for it. Toni, again, thank you very much, and I really appreciate your spending time today with us.

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