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First, Do No Harm: A Q&A with Christina Grove About Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching

Christina Grove

Christina Grove, the District's new CLR Instructional Leader, was surprised in 2021 with the District's Teacher of the Year Award.

Far too often, the behaviors of Black students in classrooms are viewed by educators as disruptive rather than as an asset, said Christina Grove, The School District of University City’s new CLR Instructional Leader. Black students are often shushed, corrected and shamed for displaying their cultural identities in school. And, alarmingly, research shows Black students are more disproportionately disciplined, suspended and expelled from public schools in America than white students.

For decades, schools have struggled to address disproportionate rates of expulsions and suspensions of Black students. Despite federal decrees and complaints from groups like the ACLU, adults in school cultures often blame the student and their parents as the culprits for failing to conform, when, in fact, the schools have failed to address gaps in understanding between their established school cultures and students’ positive home cultures.

About five years ago, the District began embracing the work of researcher Sharroky Hollie, the author of “Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching.” Referred to as CLR, this practice urges teachers to recognize their innate biases regarding students of different cultures; validate and affirm those differences and behaviors; and bridge the gap to accelerate positive relationships and classroom learning.

The District is doubling down on this process with the appointment of Grove to a new CLR Instructional Leader position. In the fall, we talked with Grove, a former District Teacher of the Year who most recently taught social studies at Brittany Woods Middle School. Grove is a 1994 graduate of University City High School, and her two children attend/attended the District.

Tell us a little bit about your history and how you came into this work.
I am a second-career educator who comes from a family of educators. Prior to joining this profession, I’d worked with a local bar association coordinating continuing education for attorneys, as well as educational outreach programs for K-12 students. My first foray into a public school setting saw me working in a space with a strong social justice and law focus. So, it was in that place I learned to interrogate the inequities in education’s systems and structures.

What is your model for bringing the CLR mindset to our classroom educators? How far along is the District in this process?
Our district’s work with CLR utilizes Dr. Sharroky Hollie’s framework. In his model, there is an emphasis on understanding students’ cultural identities in order to validate and affirm their ways of being and brilliance, in order to build and bridge them toward their academic goals. SDUC has been enmeshed in this work for more than five years. In that time, several teachers have been coached specifically around using CLR strategies for classroom response, discussion, movement, literacy and vocabulary instruction. Additionally, teacher leaders and administrators have received training on how to structure and implement building level teams charged with supporting teacher development within their schools. This year, my work is focused around supporting new teachers with the mindset and skillset development necessary to begin or further their journey toward being culturally and linguistically responsive practitioners.

What are some subtle biases that teachers need to recognize that may be leading them to educate with less rigor?
Each of us, as educators, have to work to ensure that the high levels of support we seek to give students is matched with equally high expectations around their brilliance and capabilities. We are all aware that students can come to us with varying levels of skill development. None of those perceived gaps preclude students from striving for and achieving excellence. We have to ensure that we can see that, even when students can’t see it for themselves. And, we can’t let our cultural lens and preconceived notions
of what brilliance “looks like” hinder us from seeing the fullness of what our students (and their families and caregivers) bring with them every day.

Give an example of a culturally based student behavior that is often viewed as disruptive in a classroom, and how could that be
addressed by teachers as an asset?
Each person values “realness” to varying degrees, often informed by their cultural identities. For example, in much of our society’s youth culture, “keepin’ it a buck/100/real” is prized highly. For some previous generations, a perception of what it means to be “nice” means one is often expected to quash their true feelings about a topic in order to spare others’ feelings. Enter the middle school student who walks in a classroom and says “Ugh, it stinks in here!” That student sees it as their right and responsibility to be honest. Their teacher sees it as rude. The culturally and linguistically responsive practitioner recognizes their own possible bias around the value of the behavior; validates and affirms the student’s expression of the behavior, while also facilitating their thinking around how that statement might impact others in the learning community; and looks for ways to proactively utilize that cultural behavior in the learning. (Realness is especially useful when engaging in critical analysis of dominant/traditional historical narratives.)

Where have you seen the most progress in District classrooms?
There are buildings in our district where this work is going forward with intention. I’ve been in classroom spaces with our youngest scholars at Julia Goldstein Early Childhood Education Center, where teachers use call and response attention grabbers, engaging in conversations around connections between things learned in home cultures and in school spaces, and utilizing multilingual text resources around the classroom. I have also engaged with multiple teachers who have a strong desire to honor student cultural identities in meaningful ways beyond typical stereotypes to help push learning and relationships forward. We have a ways to go, but we are moving in the right direction.

What work is ahead for you?
My work this year revolves around our newest team members. This year I will be supporting their development via whole group professional development, as well as individual coaching opportunities. In addition, I am pushing forth my own learning – working to understand the history and future of asset pedagogies (one of which is CLR) so that I can push my own thinking and help our teachers integrate this seamlessly into their practice.

Any final reflections?
This work is fundamental to providing all School District of University City students, families and caregivers with the educational opportunities they desire and deserve. Zaretta Hammond, the author of “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” said, “All education is culturally responsive. The question is ‘who is it culturally responsive to?’” It is my intention to help teachers develop ways of being and instructional practices that are culturally responsive to ALL of our students.