Transcription of the episode “Engaging young black men in school: What we can learn from art class”

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi, I’m  Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern- Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Dr. Don Siler. Dr. Siler is assistant professor of education at the University of  St Joseph in Hartford, where he’s taught since 2014. Welcome, Don.

Don S: [00:00:32] Hey, how you doing?

Jon M: [00:00:34] Good. Could you talk some about your own experiences and how you came to focus on your areas of interest as a teacher educator?

Don S: [00:00:43] So I was raised in…I tell my students constantly. I’m from North Philly, so I was raised in North Philly and we eventually moved around the city. But as a product of the Philadelphia public schools, and like a lot of other Black and Brown kids, I found myself kind of feeling a little disenchanted, disenfranchised.

There were teachers who would tell me, I tell my students just this little anecdote, but there were teachers who would tell me, you’re bright. You’re very bright, you’re so bright. And for me, I thought that they were telling me that I was light skinned, that my skin was a little bit more fair than other classmates. I didn’t really grasp it at first. I think the first teacher who said that used that word was probably second grade. But eventually I came to find out what that meant, what bright meant, high test scores and academic acumen, but I still didn’t feel any interest or any comfort in the classroom. So as I started to go through the process and go up in years, aside from a health issue, a significant health issue when I was in my middle teens, but that, when it coincided with my lack of interest in school, I just kind felt like there was no need for me to be there. There was no clear connection between what was happening in the classroom and what was happening in my outside life with my family, with me physically, with the people that I knew, with my community. So eventually, much to the sorrow of my family members, I eventually dropped out.

So I finished ninth grade. I actually failed ninth grade my first time because I didn’t go to class, didn’t go to school at all. I played hooky for basically a year. I saw how upset that made my mother, so then I went to ninth grade a second time, got put into a magnet class, got all A’s. And in my mind that just proved to me that there was no value in it cause I just went in and  I just did the work. There was no enrichment, there was nothing special. So about a month or two into my 10th grade year, I just, I just stopped going, between the physical issues I was dealing with and just no interest whatsoever and nothing connecting with me, I just stopped going. What I did find when I was in school was that the art classroom felt different than the other classes.

For me and for a lot of my classmates, the art classroom felt like a place where even when there were specific assignments, the art classroom felt like a place where we could go in and be ourselves, where we didn’t have to kind of just batten down and get a book or get a worksheet and just do the work we were told to do or take the test were told to take. We could actually do something that seemed to matter to us. And it was also a place where. I felt like I had some value. So in the art classroom, I felt like my worth was clear in that room. I had a little bit of skill. Classmates seem to like some of the things that I did, but it was, it was definitely kind of a, an equalizer, a comforting space, a safe space.

And it was those experiences that eventually led me to pursuing my degree as an art educator. And then eventually, yeah, going forward with my research. 

Jon M: [00:03:52] And what did you do? What did you do after you dropped out?

Don S: [00:03:57] So my brother and I actually ended up working a bunch of temp jobs. So I worked at a bridal warehouse. I worked as a mover. I acted as my mother’s chauffeur. She didn’t like driving. If you’ve driven around Philly, you would understand why she didn’t like driving. It’s not New York, but it’s, it’s still kind of rough. So I did those things. That’s basically, and I was a caregiver. I had been a caregiver for my father and a caregiver for my nephews and my niece. So I did that for awhile.

And then a story that I don’t necessarily share with a lot of people is when one of my brothers fell ill and was on the verge of passing away, I was 19. While he was sick, he, he told me that I, I had, before he died, he needed me to go to college and that’s all he said. And so this was, I was 19, he said it in about, I believe it was September when he’s really started to get bad. So I rushed and took the test for the GED, did well enough, and then I took the SATs and I applied to Temple University, so I was able to maybe three days before he passed in December, I believe it was December 23rd, I was able to come in and tell him and show him my actual college registration. So he was really, I don’t know that I would have done it, because I was kind of finding myself slipping into that kind of mode, that urban malaise where you’re just living life so that life gets lived as opposed to really trying to do things that are better or make things better. So I, I will always credit him for being kind of the force that moved me forward. 

I had one rough year at Temple, but then I, I kinda, I finally found my footing and just kept going. One thing, another thing, that happened was my family really wanted me to go into education because, especially my sister, because she understood that there was a dearth of black male teachers in schools. So she really felt like that between who I am as a person and my, perceived intelligence, that I would be beneficial to students. It wasn’t until my late sophomore year of college when I realized that I could actually major in art education, so I could kind of cross those streams and do something that felt both good in the larger scheme of things to give back and to make sure that I’m supporting other students, but something that was actually kind of at my core, which would be related to the arts, and I’ve been able to keep that thread going through all of my work since then.

Amy H-L: [00:06:35] So when you say that you went back to a magnet school and got all A’s, but there was like nothing there that you were, what was lacking? 

Don S: [00:06:49] I won’t say it was, there was one specific teacher, and I can’t recall his name at this moment, who was clearly very caring. He was the advisory teacher. He was very thoughtful, very kind. He ran marathons and really tried to connect with us. But it wasn’t necessarily him as an individual, it was just everything else. Like the work itself was basically, even classes were like multiple choice tests where you were asked a question and then you responded to that question where you were given a few options that you could choose from.

There were no projects. It was all geared towards making sure that you will be able to be successful on assessments and making sure that you remembered information, but there was no connection to the information. It just didn’t have any value for me. You know, I would go into school and they would tell me all these things, and then I would go home and my entire home life had no relation to it. It just didn’t make sense. And I had family members who would tell me how important education was, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I didn’t understand how that value would manifest when I was done. Why was I dealing with the, the both the physical issues and just general boredom and malaise.

If there wasn’t going to be any potential benefit, and it wasn’t until college, once I was able to choose my major and really focus on things that I felt were important, that’s when I started to feel like there was a clear value in education. Up until then, I was doing it because I was supposed to do it, and as soon as I didn’t have to do it anymore, I stopped doing it. And that’s why I ended up dropping out. 

Amy H-L: [00:08:21] So, you were learning, but you just didn’t see any value in what you wewre learning didn’t feel that there was any value?

It was, it was less learning. I had one teacher who during that year that I basically skipped the whole year. I had been out of school for maybe two or three weeks and he made a comment during class cause he was frustrated at a student’s test scores and he said, we’re not all like Don. Don could miss a couple of weeks come in and get an 85 or a 90 on the test.

Most of us need to be able to study. And he thought that he was praising me. But that really helped to kind of crystallize the fact that the school wasn’t giving me anything. It was my own. I was good at playing school. I was good at figuring out the right answer. I was good at deductive reasoning. I was good at kind of looking at the evidence, but it didn’t mean that school was teaching me discrete things. Math classes, maybe. There were concepts that I had to pick up. But outside of that, most of the information was just, I was able to kind of figure it out. If the information was there, I could figure the information out. So I’m not suggesting that I’m some kind of a savant. I’m saying that there was no engagement with the materials that really made school feel like it meant something.

Jon M: [00:09:35] There’s a phrase “game of school.” What’s your sense of what that means and did that apply at all to you or to your classmates, do you feel? 

Don S: [00:09:46] I think that it did in my mind. Thinking about the game of school makes me think of hidden curriculum. It makes me think of the idea that there are certain traits, certain characteristics, certain cognitive meanings that make someone more likely to be successful in school.  It would be partially to blame for things like disparate test scores between students of color and white students. It would also be something that you could understand, well, that would be more socialization,. But if you’re thinking about why young ladies’ math scores are a little bit lower, it’s partially because of socialization, but it’s also partially because certain students are trained to look at school a certain way.

There are definitive cultural aspects that play a role in that. But I think of the game of school as being from a group, whether that be having college educated parents who can then guide you through all of these different processes and rituals and rights of traditional education or just being like me, just someone who for whom that way of thinking makes sense. So it’s a very, it’s a very singular way of thinking about learning, but it’s also a very singular way of thinking about, let’s say, even behavior in the classroom. What is disruptive versus what is being engaged. 

Jon M: [00:11:04] So you did your dissertation and some followup work specifically around looking at the experiences of, of several young black men boys in, in I think an eighth grade class in the middle school class.  What did you find in that study? What did you find was happening.

Don S: [00:11:28] So part of the root of that study was I wanted to see whether or not I was an outlier in terms of the way I felt when I was in the art classroom, whether or not it inspired comfort and engagement in other students the way that it had with me. So I started to look up as much literature as I could that kind of both to lay out what engagement actually is, but also to kind of look at what the factors are in an art classroom that might have made it a distinctive experience. So what I tried to figure out was what aspect, if at all, whether or not black students, black male students, were feeling like their experiences in the art classroom were different than their other classrooms, whether or not they felt more engaged, and, if so, to what they attributed. So this was a phenomenological piece. So I spent a lot of time focusing on… 

Jon M: [00:12:23] Would you clarify or listeners, what does phenomenological mean in concrete terms?

Don S: [00:12:28] Okay, so phenomenology is a research methodology that focuses on the experiences of individuals or small groups. A lot of literature that I read suggested that that high quality phenomenological research will oftentimes hit it saturation point as you near 10 people. Whereas with ethnography, you tend to want to be a little bit, a little bit broader. So phenomenological research really focuses on the experiences of people who are in the situation.

So studying the phenomenon, not as an outsider, not, not taking an etic view, but studying the phenomena with the person or people who experienced it as your primary sources. So with phenomenology, you’re basically allowing their lived experience to be empirical, with the exception of let’s say they said, well, I liked the art classroom because the aliens came down and told me that I should like the art classroom. That type of statement would be kind of the bar for. If you could find some reason to doubt the reality of something someone said, then that would kind of call it into question when you’re doing, your data analysis. But for the most part, phenomenology focuses on looking at the experiences of the individuals revaluing their experiences as basically empirical evidence for that phenomenon because they are seeing it and experiencing it and feeling it the way that they see, experience, and feel it. So it’s not necessarily my job to say, “yeah but” throughout the process. That’s kind of a quick and dirty lay version of phenomenology. But the whole focus for this study was to see what their experiences were like.

Steinar Kvale did some work around interview, how to structure interviews. So I went with his three-interview format and the focus of the interviews. The first interview was a conversation around what their experiences in the past had been as it pertained to both school and art. They kind of laid a groundwork. The second interviews were related to how they were experiencing both of those things at the time of the interviews. And in the third set of interviews, we would talk about our focus on how they projected, so kind of having them predict or project  what they thought the future would hold for them in those areas.

So that way it kept what we were talking about grounded in school and art, traditional classroom and the art classroom. But it also allowed them to dig into their experiences and it helped me to see what experiences they had had with the arts outside of school, in their homes, what their general relationship to education was via their parents as well as their siblings. Many of them had siblings that had influence.

And I also did six months of observations, where I went to the school, watched the class. It was partial participant observation, so I did some, I did help sometimes in the class itself. They knew that I was there to do research.

After the first month with consultation with the art teacher, we decided on several students.

The criteria that we focused on to see which students would be involved was students who traditionally had some issues. Over some issues around behavior or some issues around comfort in other classrooms, traditional classrooms, but who did not show any issues in the art classroom. But I also look for students whose behavior patterns in the art classroom were distinct.

So I kind of use those criteria to build up the students that we wanted. And I spoke to the art teacher and a couple of classroom teachers to decide which students, for whom it would be appropriate. There were a couple of interesting students who had other diagnoses that I did not want. I didn’t want to disrupt their classroom experience. It was too valuable for them,.

But for the most part, what I found with those students is their background in the arts varied. Their background with education was almost scripted, what you would expect to hear an adolescent say, which was, I enjoyed elementary school.  Elementary school was great. We came to middle school. Things got harder and more complicated, and I don’t like it as much. But when I go into the art classroom, I enjoy it. They all said that, even though all of their backgrounds were different. They all had varied experiences with the arts.

There were a couple of questions about their identities as artists. None of them acknowledged that they thought that they would be an artist in the future, and I thought that that was important, that I wasn’t necessarily being skewed by students who had self-selected themselves or who spent their whole life developing as an artist.

So it was really interesting to find that it wasn’t their experience in the arts that made a difference in terms of how they perceive the art classroom. It really was more about what happened when they got to the art classroom. It was about the environment itself, the pedagogy that happened in the classroom, as opposed to just the idea of art. Some of them did draw on their own. Some of them did have a high value for visual arts, even though they did not see themselves as artists, but the most consistent thing was there was a repetition of, the theme of comfort, the theme of expression, and the theme of them being able to be themselves in that space as opposed to being the student, being being what I felt like I was, which was someone who just had to come in and do the work and not necessarily find the connection.

Amy H-L: [00:18:04] And you’ve spoken about three kinds of engagement, the emotional, the cognitive, and the behavioral. Could you speak to that?

Don S: [00:18:14] Sure. I chose that triumvirate, that little trio of. engagement titles, because there are other folks who have broken engagement down into a lot more categories, but they all tend to fall under those three. So emotional engagement would be their joy. In doing the work, their happiness, their comfort, the ways in which they feel like the work belongs to them. The cognitive engagement more relates to the complexity of the task. Are they trying hard? Are they working to get the work done? Are they having to think and process information?

But the behavioral engagement is the one that we tend to fall back on the most, which is kind of problematic, which is what can be observed. What are they actually doing? So I think in, in my actual dissertation, I write it that one of the students, I can’t remember what, uh, Lee, uh, spent part of the class wandering and talking to people and to the naked eye or to an observer.

Behaviourally he would seem disengaged because he was physically moving. He was talking, he was joking, he was giggling. He was, you know, he would poke someone body and then kind of jog away. Um. But you could also see that he was happy. He was enjoying what he was doing. He was thinking about next steps because every time he got up and moved, he was going to get something or put something back.

He was engaging in socialization as he continued to be focused on his task. So if I had just focused on behavioral engagement, it would have been very easy to kind of be blinded by the fact that he was up and moving during class and kind of, I won’t say antagonizing other classmates, but we all know the type of student who jokes with other classmates consistently, but not in a cool way. So it would have been very easy for the teacher to say sit down, stop making noise. But in all actuality, he was always going up out one of the tasks and he was in a doing it pleasantly, doing it as if he was both emotionally engaged and potentially cognitively engaged because he was constantly involved in one of the processes of the task itself.

Jon M: [00:20:25] So you mentioned that the pedagogy in the classroom was part of what really made the difference for the students. so what was, what do you see as the mixture between that particular teacher’s pedagogy and the fact that it was in an arts class. 

Don S: [00:20:43] Yeah, so a lot of my work is, even now working with my grad students, is rooted in the studio methods, which is Hetland, Winner, Veenemsa, and Sheridan’s work. They have a book out, Studio Thinking, and I think they have a second version of it out as well. And that talks about how art classroom pedagogy, ideal, high quality art classroom pedagogy kind of follows a studio model that keeps students constantly engaged and keeps the instructor constantly engaged. So at base, art classroom pedagogy is supposed to be engaging, because students have some agency in what’s happening in the classroom. The teacher is constantly connecting with the students, and if the work is connected with the students, then the teacher is constantly connecting with the students.

But the classroom teacher that I was working with had also acknowledged the fact that he was consciously understanding the interactions and the social pressures of adolescence so his students were allowed to move as long as they were being productive. His students were allowed to speak as long as they were still being productive and not disrupting others. They would sometimes use profanity or joke with each other, and his only real line was when the joking or profanity became sexual or aggressive.

He didn’t want students being cruel to each other or making others, making each other feel that they were, and then unsafe environment. So that was really the only time that he was stopped. So when they would be joking around and cursing, and once again, when I say cursing them, I’m not talking about like sailors, I’m talking about using fairly mild, expletives as just interjections, as just components, of their everyday speech. He didn’t interact with that, and he told me in during his interview that part of the reason for that was that he noticed that the students feel more comfortable when they’re allowed to speak the way that they want to speak, when they are allowed to socialize as they work. So he had created this combination of what I would consider culturally responsive, culturally sustaining pedagogy, both with the work being student centered, rooted in student experiences, as well as addressing the content that he needed to cover. BUt also his pedagogy had been adjusted and framed around students’ culture and the student needs so that he was not forcing them to become different people when they walked into his classroom. He was allowing them to be themselves, but understand the parameters under which they were expected to behave when they were in that classroom. So he really did incorporate both art classroom pedagogy studio method as well as culturally responsive, we call this  “authentic pedagogy. ” I don’t know that he was aware. I don’t know what his background was in culturally responsive pedagogy, but I know that what he did fell into that range.

Amy H-L: [00:23:39] Like so many things we talk about, funding comes into it. Arts are one of the first places that school budgets cut, right? Do you see this as an ethical issue?

Don S: [00:23:55] It really boils down to how we perceive art. But it’s kind of a double edged sword because when we talk about the funding cuts, when we talk about the arts disappearing, we’re not talking about the arts disappearing from overly affluent schools. We’re talking about the arts disappearing from schools that are more likely to be serving poor students, schools that are more likely to be underserved themselves.

So I don’t know that it’s even an ethical issue. I think culturally, we understand the value of the arts, but then we, we walk headlong into this kind of elitist classes, the classes issue of, well then who deserves them. Who deserves to get them. So I think that we as a culture, both educationally and otherwise, we understand about your part, but we are falling back into that kind of old, traditional, classic idea of the arts belonging to the a cultured people to a certain group of people.

So those funding cuts normally come from schools that, ironically, where the students would be probably even more served. So, yes, there is an issue in terms of where the arts funding is cut, but I don’t think that we as a culture don’t understand what’s happening. I think we’re just not comfortable discussing, like we’re not comfortable discussing the fact that it’s happening to specific groups, but it still falls back on the focus on things like standardized tests. As long as we are focusing on standardized testing, it’s not just the arts, it’s arts, it’s athletics, all kinds of extracurriculars. It’s the merging of, you know, social studies and history and other classes. It’s the removal of even the slightest hint of trade classes in schools. It is a focus on English language arts and math as if they are the only two subjects and they are all encompassing.

Jon M: [00:25:51] You know, that’s, that’s really interesting because one of the things I do a lot is write grants for school districts and you know, they’re endlessly having to try to justify the arts by saying that they lead to higher test scores  in language arts and math. And I noticed that you actually cite some examples, which I’m going to be sure to use in some grants, knowing that that they do in fact do that.

But also it sounds from everything that you’re saying, that that’s really missing the point. So could you talk to both of those? You know, both, whether in fact, there is empirical evidence that students working in the arts does play over into the standardized tests on language arts and math. And also why it’s, I don’t know the right word to use, whether it’s unethical or some other word, to value the, to measure the value of the arts strictly as kind of this hopeful step towards better language arts or math scores. Y

Don S: [00:26:58] Yeah. I will, if you don’t mind, I’ll answer those kind of in reverse order. I think that it builds to the argument I mentioned that just a moment ago. If we are looking at the arts, we understand that there is a cultural value in the arts. We understand that. We assume that people who have the most money and have the most culture, they have all kinds of expensive art around their homes. They’ve been to museums. THey go to the opera. These are things that we associate with being of higher socioeconomic status. So there is an understanding —  Yes. Air quotes. Thank you. — So there is an understanding of the value of the arts. What becomes problematic about that first understanding is that it tends to be kind of classist and it tends to assume that the arts means you’re better than anyone else. 

Where the arts are actually, and I use some of Paul Taylor’s work out of U Penn, because the arts are actually kind of the most basic expression of human experience, right. They are a tool store. He calls them socioreligious. So there is the actual object, which is the embodiment of the concept. But then there is our response to it and our response when making it. And in terms of being a socioreligious, it means that there is a cultural value and it has very high esteem. And that is fairly universal. One of the main things that goes across all cultures, whether you’re talking institutional culture, ethnicity, racial culture, or the smaller subcultures, whether you’re talking about athletics, there are aesthetic considerations for all of them. So the artists themselves are kind of the, the nitty gritty root of things that we do and engage with every single day. There are conversations around visual culture, even if you’re looking at the packaging of things in a grocery store. So you cannot escape them. You can’t do anything without them. You have conversations around music. People talk about the emotional impact of music or poetry. These are things that are at the root of the human experience. So when we talk about them being subservient to English language arts test scores, it seems kind of upside down. So you don’t take the root of something and then say, well, there’s going to help us with this one little thing over here in this corner. So yes, I firmly believe in the value of incorporating arts into the classroom, but not because they will help test scores, even though they do.

The reason that they help test scores or the reason that they help students understand things better is because they tend to a. help students relax. Because we are breaking down the wall between their everyday life and what’s happening in the school, which tends to be much more sterile, but oftentimes, and Howard Gardner moves towards this and I use his work a lot, what they also start to do is they engage people cognitively in the information receiving, transmitting, and processing.

So giving students things musically allows them to process both the verbal and the musical components, the pattern-making components. GIving students things to use visually. We have a much larger capacity for visual memory and much easier visual recall. So just by incorporating the arts into the classroom in an authentic way, what we’re actually doing is we’re broadening the ways in which students get information, the ways in which students can process that information, and the ways in which students can give that information back to teachers. 

So. I would say that arts integration is relevant to test scores, but I would say it’s more relevant to overall student outcomes, whether that be them finding their fields, finding their niche, feeling more comfortable in the classroom, but it is not a one to one where there were all those studies that were done that said, listening to Mozart or Beethoven in utero or as a small child will just automatically through some kind of osmosis change someone’s test scores. And that’s not, that’s not necessarily what’s always born out by the data. But what does tend to be much more clear is that relevance, comfort, security. I’m not necessarily going all the way over to Maslow’s hierarchy because I think that any categorization becomes a little bit suspect, but moving students more towards feeling safe in that room or feeling safe in that space allows them to be able to process the information better. So in terms of the arts affecting test scores, it’s not a direct one to one. It is creating a scenario or an environment in which the arts are welcome or present and also engaged.

And I think, and I tell my students a lot, that it’s very important that when you’re doing this type of thing, use our national arts standards, the art standards for education. What they talk about is that it is not necessarily, when you’re involved in the arts in the classroom, it is not about acumen. It is not about secondary learning. It is about having students actually engage with the content in multiple ways. So don’t always have them paint. Have them examine a painting and better understand a painting. Understand the social context through the painting. Understand the emotion through painting. So it is more about developing a better relationship with the arts than it is about using the arts as some subservient tool to fix things. There are tools that help us to use the arts, so Thomas Armstrong’s work and Howard  Gardner’s work would go directly towards that. 

You can use those ideas and are David Sousa as well. You can use those ideas on cognition and those ideas on multiple intelligences as tools to better engage students. To change your environment, to change your pedagogy, but it’s not the arts. The arts are not necessarily the tool. They can be a vehicle though.

Amy H-L: [00:32:49] You’ve written not just about arts integration in other subjects, but also about arts-based pedagogy as something that can take place in other subject areas. What does that look like?

Don S: [00:33:05] So in my classes right now, I teach graduate courses and I work with inservice teachers. I use studio methods in almost all of my classes, whether it’s a research class, I teach educational research. I teach assessment. I teach courses on multiple intelligences. I teach courses on digital technology.  I’ve taught a lot of different courses. But what is, what tends to be consistent is that I try to use studio methods as much as I can. Demonstrate the work. Show what needs to be done. GIve them an opportunity to do a quick, small version of the work. And then engage individually as possible or in groups as possible.

When I have larger groups or larger classes, then it’s important for me to be able to kind of help them to form whether they do pair and shares or if I form them into small groups. But it’s mainly about being able to connect with the students. And this is really where arts-based pedagogy and culturally responsive, culturally sustaining pedagogy kind of connect.

It is very important that everything that my students do to work with their students, that it be related to something that they are currently doing. It needs to be something that they are worth working on. So there are no, I try my best to make sure that there are no throwaway assignments, and then that way it is relevant to them because it is their experience it is what they need the learning to be attached to. But I also spend a great deal of time giving them individual feedback. So we’ll talk about a concept, then work on a concept, and then I circulate the room. I help them there. They help each other. We engage in a lot of peer teaching. So the things that you would imagine going on in an art classroom or especially a studio art classroom are things that I have going on, that myself and some of my colleagues have going on in our regular day to day teaching.

Jon M: [00:34:52] Could you give some examples of what this looks like in your graduate program? Sort of what you might have students, you know, in say a research methods course, how you might start them out. 

Don S: [00:35:07] So in my research course, the first thing that we do the first night, as opposed to having a general icebreaker, is I have them write a mini research proposal on themselves, which in itself is not necessarily groundbreaking, but they have to develop an introduction, just introduce themselves to us.  It has to be rooted in something that they want. To be able to, they want their classmates to be able to study about them. It should be something their classmates don’t know. So even that is centered on them, is centered on their experience, is centered on their life, but they’re also engaging with the structure of the work that is to come.

So they write out this mini proposal and we have conversations about it, and I use that as the springboard. You’re talking about what those different parts should look like and how they should work. I give them about a one sentence layout of what the purpose should look like, what the significance should look like, what their methodology should look like, what their data analysis, data collection and analysis should look like. I give them about a sentence each to give them an idea and then I immerse them in the work, then immerse them in the discussions around the work. So as are sharing, we’re talking to each other and we’re deciding what type of methodology would work, would it be qualitative or quantitative? And we’re using that to kind of build into what they’re going to be doing over the following, I teach eight week modules. So then as we start reading more about the different components of a research proposal, they already have at least a baseline. They’re starting to think about what they want to research that is rooted in their instruction or their practice or their classroom. And then throughout the process, they are reading, they are working, they are reading, they’re working.

They have dedicated class time where I come around and work directly with them. We tend to build our, in all of my classes, we tend to build the projects together as opposed to having the projects be go off, do it on your own, and then I will assess it at the end. So far, I’ve been able to use that model across the different courses that I teach.

And the students themselves have seen the, they seem to get a lot from it because at no point that they feel like it’s not relevant. That’s really what I struggled with when I was a student. I’m trying to model what I hope that they’re able to get from my courses, which is keeping everything relevant to the students has to start with the students themselves. And it does not come at the sacrifice of whatever content they’re supposed to be covering. I don’t know any of my students who might eventually listen to this will pull their hair out because they’ve heard me say that a thousand times.

Jon M: [00:37:37] You’ve mentioned that there’s a brain-based argument for this kind of pedagogy. What is that?

Don S: [00:37:43] So David Sousa’s work around, the field is kind of playfully called neuro-education, but looking at the cognitive aspects of learning, looking specifically at what happens in the brain. So David Sousa’s work focuses on understanding how relevance, immediacy of practice, can affect longterm memory.

Storage can affect the students’ ability to gather and gain information and keep information and how important these things are showing to be in terms of their overall longterm recall, students being able to get that information back later on. Howard  Gardner’s work with multiple intelligences really focuses on different parts of the brain and how traumatic brain injury issues at birth can affect small parts of the brain. And how that affects the way that people take in and process and give back specific types of information. So I think that oftentimes multiple intelligences is kind of taught as if it is this cute flowery thing where you just kind of get in touch with your feelings and you want to let the kids paint. But what multiple intelligences really focus on  is it’s not about acumen, it’s not about skill. It is about the parts of the brain that are active when certain types of information are being presented, when that information is being processed by the brain or by the person, and how they want to give that information back.

So there are some things that are inherent across all of us. If you think back to early ages or back when we had to remember phone numbers. The way that our brain kind of finds a pattern to chunk numbers. That will be a part of it. The way that we can remember things visually or remember certain songs, even though we haven’t heard them over years. It’s not necessarily just, it’s not the same type of memory. 

S o with Howard Gardner’s work, it really focuses on let’s look at the different ways that students can be given information, and let’s look at the different ways that they can then take that information and synthesize it into something that is their own, and then let’s look at all of the different modalities that they can give that information back. So he did a lot of work around savants, MRIs, FMRIs, looking at which parts of the brain are active when certain types of information are presented, but also looking at what happens to people when certain parts of the brain are affected. So certain parts of the brain that will affect things like anguage, being able to speak, being able to actually form words, the parts of the brain that allow us to recognize images and relmember them and recall the images, the parts of the brain that actually allow us to remember musical tones or different patterns, and he is laid them out in ways that explain how they overlap.

So this is not a, an argument like multiple intelligences is often broken down into, well, I’m a visual learner, so I need everything visually. What Howard Gardner argues is that we all have each of the intelligences at varying levels, depending on socialization, depending on the time of day. But by varying the ways in which we give and receive information, we increased the likelihood that somebody, that more students are going to be positively affected by that information.

So instead of only going the logical and linguistic roots, breaking it up and changing things up means that more students are going to be engaged and that students in general will be engaged in more complex thinking processes where the intelligence is, will overlap and reinforce learning. 

Amy H-L: [00:41:13] That’s fascinating. Could you give us a concrete example of that?

Don S: [00:41:20] Of using multiple intelligences in the classroom? Sure. One thing that I do, and once again, my students will vouch for this, is I have a very simple task, just to kind of show that this can exist on a very baseline or it can exist in a much more complex. I’ll give you an idea of both. One of the basic tasks I use, I took directly from Armstrong, which is a punctuation assessment. So instead of having students write out a sentence using the correct punctuation or filling in the blanks of punctuation, what I ask students to do is give an image that will reflect the punctuation, a physical movement that reflects the punctuation, a sound or a song that reflects the punctuation. And what they generally come up with is the period will be, um, I’ve gotten, you know, stop in the name of love would be one song that people will use or they will just hold their hand up in front of them as the physical motion that means stop. And what that shows is that I can get the same information as to whether or not they understand what the punctuation means by having them use a different modality. So instead of just having it be textual, they can show it in a different way. That does not mean you remove them writing sentences. It means that for  a formative assessment or an informal check for knowledge, you can use something like this. You just to give them a better way of showing their learning. Some students struggle with the verbalization. Some students struggle with understanding things visually. By broadening the ways in which they can give their information back, we get a closer approximation of what they actually learn and what they actually know as opposed to forcing them all back into a specific box through which they have to show their knowledge.

Now a more complex version. There are a couple of different ones. I have my students do digital stories. And the goal of the digital stories is for them to be able to present information to their students while encouraging literacy, but also using all of the regular requirements of what we would consider, you know, a story arc. So I have gotten everything from students who, one student created a story about a dragon that was attacking a castle. But he was a computer teacher, so the dragon was malware or a virus. That castle was the computer, the wall of the castle or turrets was the firewall, the brave knight was the antivirus.Had I just said, draw a picture of a night, it wouldn’t have gotten the same response when he created the video and then added music. What he then created was this kind of multimedia engaging work. That allowed students to understand things on more than one level. They didn’t just hear a story. They didn’t just see a picture. They didn’t just read a book. They saw a moving video with music that was thematically appropriate. So you can create these complex things that will allow students to have more than one inroad into understanding the concepts as opposed to just giving them texts. He could have very easily just said, here’s a firewall, here’s the antivirus, here’s what these things do. But by creating a story or a piece of art, he was able to make it more engaging.

I have another student whose digital story was this absolutely, and I hope she listens to this because this really is a masterpiece, but she developed a story of pangea, and she found images and she made continental drift into an urban teenage love story., where they are drifting apart and they’re affecting the people around them and they’re making mountains out of mole hills. HAd she just made it a story, it would have been fine. But by making it this, this piece of art, that had urban music. It had characters that looked relatable to her students. It had visuals. It had a flow to it. It had her narration. It created something that was much more complex. 

So that’s, let’s say, engaging in multiple intelligences. I’m talking about creating things that allow students to understand information on multiple levels. I’ve also, years ago we had a a marketing program or a marketing assignment that we created when I was teaching art, and the goal of this assignment was just to create a marketing campaign, but they still had to do multiple components. They had to come up with a logo, a slogan, a jingle, a spokesperson. They had to come up with basically what the commercial would say. They had to have visuals. They had to create the ad themselves. They had to choose the product. And the complexity of that assignment. having them go through those steps, allowed them to think about the different parts of it as opposed to me just saying, you’re going to make a product and sell it to someone so. Anytime you’re engaging in a multiple intelligence or an arts-based  project, it is important to make sure that the steps and the criteria are very clear, very distinct, but that the outcomes are still measurable using the same criteria, the same rubric. You’re not changing the rubric. You are changing the ways in which they are allowed to show their understanding.

Jon M: [00:46:34] Going back a little bit to when you were telling about cultural responsive, sustaining education, and a lot of your work obviously focuses on phenomenologically, you know, the experience that somebody is going through. What’s it mean to say that culturally responsive, sustaining education has to be experience-based in order to be really meaningful and effective?

Don S: [00:47:01] Well, I mean, from the cognitive side, Sousa makes the argument very clearly that the relevance of the content and how the content is delivered is key to whether or not the students will retain it and see value in retaining it. These are not like conscious processes where students are like, I’m bored with this work. I’m going to forget it. This is a cognitive process whereby if the information doesn’t have some connection to them, it is harder for them to keep it. So in that way, culturally responsive teaching is actually a tool for retention and a tool for understanding and a tool for learning.

But on the other side of it, I’m thinking about it in the way that Gloria Ladson-Billing talked about it in terms of the development of relationships. If we’re talking about marginalized students whose existence is fraught with [inaudible], or if we’re talking about non marginalized kids for whom we want their educational experience to really be what it should be, then we have to be able to open up the ways in which they’re allowed to connect with the content and connect with the teachers. And it still has to be rooted in or respective of their experiences, the students’ experiences and the teacher’s experiences as well. So when I think about culturally responsive teaching from Ladson-Billing or [inaudible]. What I’m really thinking about is student centered teaching that allows for multiple entry points, multiple resources, multiple voices, multiple stories using those funds of knowledge that the students come in with to develop the curriculum, to develop the processes, develop the projects or incorporating places, especially if you’re talking about art classroom pedagogy, incorporating spaces where in those students can put their own selves in, where they can make it about themselves. So it doesn’t have to be the teacher. pre-planning because  a huge part of culturally responsive teaching has to be about kind of assessing students on the fly and assessing students as you learn them, as you understand them, and figuring out how to take what you just got and make it into something valuable for that student.

Make it into some, or for those students, make it into something that will actually matter to them. Teachers receiving the training they need to lead these culturally responsive classrooms? Ideally, they would be, I, I have to say that my initial teacher training was back in the 90s so the things are definitely a little bit different, but I have been to a couple of different grad schools since then, and there was an emphasis in certain spaces on the idea of. 

The science of teaching the science of what it takes to be a teacher. Lesson planning, understanding and unpacking standards, developing targets and essential questions and enduring understandings, taking the reforms and the structures and making them make sense. The culturally responsive part really does fall into the art side of teaching.

You know, the art of teaching it is the more humanistic side. I know that at USJ we have made some pretty significant strides over the last 10 years to really increase the focus of our humanism in the classroom and our culturally responsive teaching. All of our position descriptions when we are looking to hire new people have a heavy focus on things like equity, social justice, cultural response, and fusion.

Being willing to teach the courses that we have, but not just teaching our diversity courses, but making sure that there is a thread. Of multiculturalism, culturally responsive ism, that there are threads of these throughout all of our courses. So we have made sure that our department spends a great deal of time looking at the ways that we can incorporate culturally responsive teaching in our classrooms, whether it be through making sure that we are much more inclusive and open and welcoming environment where students, once they get in, they feel comfortable and safe no matter what their backgrounds, our backgrounds are.

But also making sure that we are recruiting. You know, we’ve recently went coed. We have a lot more males on campus, but we have a lot more black males on campus that we noted there. It’s still a dearth of black males in education. So looking at them as a potential pool of future teachers, but not just saying, let’s draw them in and pull them in.

And then once they get here, they’re just going to have to adjust. What do we have to adjust as professionals. My colleagues and I to help them to feel more comfortable. But several of us are also working in terms of professional development at local school districts to see what we can do to support inservice teachers, not to tell them what they’re not doing correctly but to kind of build on what they’re already doing that is culturally responsive, that is equity focused, and help them move along that path so that the students in their classrooms are benefiting. So we’re attempting to model, but we’re also attempting to work directly with school districts. I would still say that there is a long way to go in a lot of districts.

When I have conversations with a lot of my grad students about their undergraduate work, there’s not a lot of focus on cultural responsive teaching. There’s not a lot of work around equity. There’s not even a lot of work around assessing it, so there’s definitely some work to be done, but there are people out there who are doing the work and really trying to make sure that that work is centered both in the students, variances in the students’ funds of knowledge, but also in, those are the people who will be teaching it.

The question that we get a lot of times is, what do we do in terms of, you know, how can I be culturally responsive when I have a classroom full of white students? And that’s kind of having a narrow view of what culture is. You know, there are many cultures represented within that classroom as well. At the same time, you still want to expose students to as many perspectives and as many voices as we possibly can, especially those of people who have been historically marginalized and silent.

Jon M: [00:53:07] Thank you, Dr. Don Siler of University of St. Joseph. Thank you. 

Amy H-L: [00:53:12] And thank you listeners for joining us. Check out our website for more episodes and articles. We’ve begun to post annotated transcripts of our interviews. We offer professional development on social emotional learning with a focus on ethics in the New York City area.

Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti.  Till next week.

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