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Jennifer Smith: Help students share their voices

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A few years ago, my daughter came home from her first day of kindergarten. She was so excited to tell me all about her first day of school and quick to ask for a snack. I eagerly listened to her as I unpacked her backpack. When I got to her lunchbox, I noticed that her food was still there, untouched.

I asked her why, and she said she wasn’t able to get the container open and that no one heard her when she asked for help. I was frustrated and disappointed. Why hadn’t anyone noticed that she wasn’t eating? Why hadn’t someone helped her open her food? No one intentionally denied my child food that day, yet she left school hungry.

Not having lunch one day was not devastating for my daughter, but it was a reminder for me that every day we have students sitting in classrooms who feel like they go unnoticed, whose voices are not acknowledged or appreciated, and who are not provided the same access to education as their peers. The Illinois State Board of Education’s proposal for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Standards can help ensure that children from all backgrounds feel welcome in their classrooms. When students feel accepted in a classroom, they are able to focus on learning rather than on the fear of being treated unfairly.

The standards apply to teacher preparation programs and will serve to help pre-service teachers learn how to make sure that the voices of diverse populations are present in the classroom. They detail best practices in the classroom as they encourage teachers to engage in self-reflection and to spend time learning about and partnering with their students’ families. By doing so, teachers are better able to make connections between the curriculum and the lived experiences of their students. Each of these strategies are tools that great teachers already incorporate into their classrooms and the standards aim to provide more support for ensuring pre-service teachers are aware of these strategies and how to skillfully use them.

According to the Illinois Report Card, 82% of current teachers in Illinois are white, while 52% of the pupils in our state are students of color. This means that many new teachers may be entering classrooms unprepared for the diverse students that they will teach. The Culturally Responsive Teaching and Leading standards will help prepare our new teachers to identify and acknowledge the strengths and voices of all their students. Even in classrooms where the students and teachers may share a similar background there may be diversity in religion, family structure, and a host of other characteristics. The standards encourage educational experiences that provide students with mirrors to view themselves reflected in society and windows so they learn more about the world around them.

The standards also include a component regarding student voice and advocacy. This doesn’t mean that teachers or students are required to lead or participate in a movement. Instead it encourages pre-service teachers to understand how to help students develop age-level appropriate advocacy skills, which can help them advocate for themselves at school and in the future. For instance, these skills can help a student speak up if they are not able to access their lunch or their learning materials.

As my daughter continues to progress through school, I want her to learn from teachers who treat her and her classmates fairly because ultimately, while all of our children may be sitting at the same educational table, we need to ensure that their individual voices are heard and that they are all able to partake in learning.

Jennifer Smith is a parent of two children and resides in Mahomet. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Senior Research Fellow.

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