Stalking An Invisible Predator

Elsummeronline06_2 Summer Educational Leadership author Grace Sussman investigates her own cultural responsiveness in “The Violence You Don’t See

The last story you want to hear on your evening commute–a report that violent crime is rising faster than it has in the past 10 years. Some of you see the footprints of this phenomenon across your school communities. Grace Sussman thought she saw the hallmarks of a more violent culture when she switched from teaching in the ‘burbs to teaching in the city. Instead, she discovered a more insidious, unreported violence was alienating the highly resilient students in her classroom.

Sussman’s journey into the lives of her students started with an investigation of the roles of violence in their lives. Six critical questions and several classroom conversations later, she found herself facing her own assumptions:

From my conversations with my students, I expected to learn about the meaning that violence held for them, as well as about their social dynamics. I expected that I would then design new teaching strategies or include social skills as a curriculum piece. But the study held a surprise for me: It pointed out my ignorance of my students’ lives, cultures, and values. I had assumed that my students were more like me than they actually were.

The first revelation came while administering a standardized achievement test. I read the title of the reading section: “Cross-Country Skiing in the Hills.” I almost dropped the booklet. I felt like a traitor, encouraging my students to do their best while presenting them with a Sisyphus-like task: to score proficiently by grasping the nuances of an unfamiliar activity. Skiing was as foreign to them as navigating rough city streets would be to me. I looked at them, poised at their desks with sharpened pencils, ready to take the test, and I felt ashamed. Despite their intelligence and eagerness to do well, the deck was stacked against them. They would do poorly. Worse, they would be blamed for it (Ryan, 1971).

Sussman says that “cultural nonresponsiveness” can be a kind of violence in the classroom. Do you agree? How can teachers become more culturally responsive to students?