City Life

Special Report: Connecting to cultures

MMSD works to build relationships with students

Madison West High School teacher Danielle Borneman beams as three of her students—one Asian, one Hispanic and one African American—share their career goals.

“I just love when they talk about this,” says Borneman, a former social studies teacher who coordinates the school’s AVID program. AVID, or Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a program used in 46 states and 16 other countries or territories. It aims to help students from certain socioeconomic backgrounds start on a path toward college. 

“I want to be something in the business world,” says Terjuan Short, an African American junior with a strong voice who uses his hands to express himself. He enjoyed reading books at the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County when he was younger, but he never considered college an option until a middle school teacher suggested it.

Diana Tamayo-Morales, a junior, was born in the U.S. but lived for a time in her family’s native Mexico. She took English classes in summer school to catch up to classmates. Now she’s an honor student who wants to be a biomedical engineer. She is grateful school officials allowed her to help organize a family night for Hispanic parents. Among the activities that night, teachers explained ways to access student grades via the online site Infinite Campus. 

Virginia Quach is a junior whose parents came to the U.S. from Vietnam. Her parents speak only Cantonese, and the school has no interpreters to help them. “I’m the only one [in my family] who can look up things on the computer about my assignments and grades,” Quach says. “They don’t understand anything about getting into college or what you need to do.” Quach tutors other students and plans to become a teacher.

Each of these students has succeeded in part because of teachers who understand that their cultural backgrounds require a different approach to school and learning. These three students are taking honors courses, but they each need support to achieve what their white counterparts might take for granted, Borneman says.

That’s the idea behind culturally responsive teaching, an approach the Madison Metropolitan School District uses in its schools to help narrow the academic achievement gap for students of color and students from low-income families. Closing that gap was a main goal of the districtwide strategic framework, now in its fifth year, developed by MMSD Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham and her staff. Cheatham’s team is working on an extension of the plan expected to be ready by August.

Culturally responsive teaching is not diversity training, nor are teachers expected to learn about every language and culture. Rather, the approach encourages a mostly white, middle-class teaching staff to recognize that some traditional teaching methods don’t work for an increasingly diverse student population and may, in fact, put those students further behind.

For some teachers this is nothing new. Understanding a child’s background and creating a personal relationship with each student is a no-brainer. They understand that children who come from diverse cultures often succeed by collaborating in groups or teams, and so talking in class may not be a sign of disrespect or cheating. Others may feel comfortable letting go of the traditional European-based classroom style.

To help administrators and staff understand the concept, teachers this year at each Madison school building are using Zaretta Hammond’s book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students” as a guiding text. Hammond taught English and literacy in California, and her book focuses on ways a person’s culture programs the brain to process data and affects learning relationships.

Culturally responsive teaching doesn’t have to be complicated, says Sue Gorud, executive director of professional learning and leadership for the district.

Making small changes—such as pronouncing a student’s name correctly, learning about a kid’s favorite band or basketball team or even sharing how teachers overcame a personal struggle as a student—can make a difference, Gorud says.

To help educate teachers on this method, the district provides training and encourages instructors to spend time observing in other classrooms. Along those lines, students at Memorial High School created some professional development sessions designed to help teachers understand how best to relate to students of diverse backgrounds in the classroom. The three sessions that took place at Memorial were in the topic areas of race relations, microaggressions and cultural relevance; LGBTQ+ overview, bullying and harassment; and social justice issues, creating change and advocacy.

It’s too early to tell whether this new approach to teaching has moved the needle on achievement rates, but Alex Fralin, chief of schools for secondary education, is hopeful.

Much of his day is spent visiting classrooms with principals in the district’s 12 middle schools and seven high schools. He says kids are more engaged with their teachers, and suspensions are down.

“This year we’ve focused on the ‘why’ of this,” Fralin says. “If students of color leave class without a sense of belonging, they find value somewhere else, in the hallway, with their friends or out in the community. We want them to find value in the classroom.”

West High School

As an AVID teacher, Borneman received training in culturally responsive teaching before her peers did at West.

The AVID program aims to help close achievement gaps by preparing all students for college or other postsecondary opportunities. These kids are not the gifted students who breeze through school or those who struggle the most. They’re the ones who need a boost to reach their full potential, Borneman says. About 200 of West’s 2,000 students are enrolled in AVID.

AVID students are in regular classrooms but meet in an AVID elective course every school day.

On a fall morning, Borneman asked a class of about 25 to move their chairs into a circle. They were there to discuss an essay she had asked them to read about assimilation in the age of President Donald Trump.

Borneman says she sets a high bar for students and asks them to be respectful and allow others to speak. 

Short, the junior with the booming voice, was in that class. Because the class was nearly all nonwhite, Short says, the students felt safe discussing topics like cultural dialect and feeling pressure to change their hairstyles to fit in. 

Borneman, who is white, says that part of culturally responsive teaching is creating a space where all students feel accepted and safe in talking about culture and society’s reaction to different cultures.

“I think some teachers are afraid to do anything because they’re afraid of doing the wrong thing,” she says. “But if you ask the students, they will tell you what they need.”

Short wishes teachers would ask about or be aware of specific needs of students of color and the perceptions they might hold. As the only nonwhite student in one of his honors classes last year, he recalls being the last student chosen when the class was asked to pair up for an activity.

“That made me feel terrible,” he says. “If you’re the last person, then you know they don’t really want to be your partner; they didn’t have a choice. It’s hard to be the only minority in a class. They all stare, and you feel like you don’t belong there.”

The emotions raised by that feeling of exclusion hinders learning, Borneman says. So when pairing students, she asks them to turn to the person sitting next to them. 

This year, AVID intentionally grouped its students together in honors classes so they wouldn’t be the only people of color in their classes.

“These are tweaks,” the teacher says. “Anyone can do this.”

West High School Principal Karen Boran praised Borneman’s teaching skills and personal relationships with students and says that’s the goal for the entire school.

Boran is new to West this year, having worked in Chicago public schools. Students at her last high school—where she was principal—were about 95 percent Hispanic and mostly from low-income families. During her tenure, she says, student performance went from among the worst in the district to among the best.

She plans for similar success at West. Culturally responsive teaching will play a big role, Boran says. The school’s student population is 47 percent students of color, and in the 2018-19 school year, this group is projected to be the majority. 

“We’re still a very individualistic, ‘pull yourself up by the bootstraps’ culture,” Boran says. “But in other cultures, people succeed by working together. So our schools are culturally incongruent for many of our kids. We need to change that.”

The school faces big challenges. State data show huge differences in both standardized test scores and the number of students of color at West completing Advanced Placement, or AP, classes.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, for the 2016-17 school year, about 13 percent of black 11th-graders at West were proficient on the ACT’s English language arts exam, and 8 percent of blacks were proficient in math on the test.

White 11th-grade students, on the other hand, scored about 83 percent proficient in English language arts and about 77 percent proficient in math.

Hispanic students were about 28 percent proficient in ELA and 20 percent proficient in math. 

Wisconsin now uses the ACT college entrance exam as a standardized test at the high school level. Borneman argues that the tests are culturally biased toward white students, and Quach notes wealthier families can afford to hire tutors to help their kids prep for the test.

The number of students taking AP courses and exams at West also skews white.

Although a third of all students take AP classes, state data show that in 2015-16, a total of seven black students took AP exams, compared with 28 mixed-race students, 45 Hispanic students, 128 Asian students and 389 white students. There is a cost for taking the exams, which may also be a factor in how many students take the test. And taking the exams may help students earn college credit.

These numbers do not mean students of color are less capable than other students, Borneman says. 
In her AVID class, she assigned them a college-level book to read without telling the students it was college level. She says they quickly grasped the materials.

“To say ‘I care for you, I believe in you,’ it’s so important,” Boran says. “There still are teachers who think, ‘I taught it, they didn’t learn it, that’s it.’ But there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Sennett Middle School

Last fall, just six weeks into his tenure as interim Sennett Middle School principal, Daniel Kigeya said culturally responsive teaching is an important piece of improving the school’s ranking.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, the school was rated “meets few expectations” in a state report card that considers such benchmarks as student achievement and growth, closing achievement gaps and attendance rates.

The school’s student population is two-thirds students of color and about two-thirds students from low-income families. 

“This is a very diverse student makeup,” Kigeya says. “It’s about getting teachers to understand and use their students’ backgrounds to meet their academic needs.”

He says everyone, including teachers, has a cultural background.

“That’s part of what teachers need to recognize,” Kigeya says. “Even they have a cultural set of values and beliefs. Sometimes white, middle-class teachers don’t see that.”

A classic example, he says, is a teacher who considers it disrespectful when a student is asked a question and that student turns away. But in the student’s culture, it may be considered impolite to look eye-to-eye at an authority figure. Rather than disciplining that student, the teacher can instead ask the question in another way.

“When we consider culture, we have to look at these aspects,” he says. “The student has [the capacity] to learn, but it’s the teacher’s job to tap into that, to build those personal relationships. We’re at the beginning process of that.”

In Kirstin Fruit’s reading class at Sennett, students speak both Spanish and English. The class is largely Hispanic, and on this fall day they are editing stories they wrote about personal heroes.

While the overall assignment began with a study of Greek myths and heroes, the individual assignment allowed students to choose people from their own families or cultures.

Fruit didn’t ask her students to sit quietly and edit their own work during the class. She created six stations in the classroom. Each station represented a part of the writing process, such as editing, spelling, transitions or endings. Each station had a captain, a way to help students take on leadership roles, Fruit says.

Students spoke freely during the assignment, leaning over to see someone else’s computer notebook if a classmate asked for help. Fruit allowed the students to talk but brought the class back to focus if they strayed from the assignment.

“This is one of my most talkative classes,” she says. “But that also means they do well using the Socratic method, because they’re not afraid to speak up and share their ideas.”

The Socratic method, used in many schools, encourages students to ask questions and use critical thought to reach conclusions about the texts they are studying.

“Everybody’s voice matters,” Fruit says. “I want them all to see that.”

Glendale Elementary School

Heather Maggit, a fifth-grade teacher at Glendale Elementary School, started this particular school day in October with a morning meeting to review plans for the day and allow students to talk about issues. 

After that meeting, students reviewed and worked on polishing letters they wrote to their fifth-grade peers at Frank Allis Elementary School. Next school year, both classes will attend middle school together. 

“We found kids work harder when they have an authentic audience they want to impress,” says Maggit, who is in her 10th year of teaching at Glendale. “I think it’s also important for the students to get to know each other, so they will have some friends and people they know when they … move to a new school.”

Frank Allis Elementary has a student makeup similar to Glendale’s. About 75 percent of Glendale’s students are students of color, mostly Hispanic.

Glendale Elementary School Principal Benjamin Ketterer, now in his 17th year at the school, says educators there believe staff collaboration makes for better teaching.

“Together we are going to improve outcomes for our students,” he says. The school has been using this collaborative approach in various degrees for many years, but it has been more systemic in the past four or five years.

“Every year there are layers to what we do,” Ketterer says. “As we become more diverse, as we dig into student relationships, we want to understand where our students live; what is their background?”

Those efforts include neighborhood tours for staff, as well as looking for new ways to engage families in the school. 

“That is the piece that changes the most,” Ketterer says. “Forming relationships with families is important, and we need to make sure approaches work and give them what they need.”

As in other schools within the district, staff members are encouraged to get to know students as people, not just learners. That can mean interacting beyond the classroom.

“We view the classroom as a learning environment,” Ketterer says. “But what about the cafeteria? Or recess? Our classroom teachers are in the lunchroom, they are learning about students as people, not just a student who studies math, or a student who is good in reading. Having that kind of connection as a person makes a difference.”

Maggit makes connections with students in her daily morning meetings, and she's not the only teacher who meets with students at the start of each school day—every class at Glendale begins with one. 

Students greet each other and discuss plans for the day, things on their mind, last night’s activities and more.

“It’s a research-based activity that provides a predictable, consistent structure for students,” Ketterer says. “It gets students set up for the day.”

The school’s motto, he says, is “I’m a learner, together we achieve.”

Looking Ahead

While all Madison schools have adopted the Hammond text to help support the district’s 27,500 students through culturally responsive teaching, school principals and teachers have integrated the

Cheatham, MMSD’s superintendent, noted it’s an institutional change, and changing institutions takes time. Still, she is hopeful that some foundational pieces have been established through the strategic framework, and that improvements will be made at an accelerated rate.

“Culturally responsive teaching means building strong, authentic relationships and partnerships with students,” says Cheatham. “By developing stronger rapport and alliance between teachers and students, especially African American and other marginalized youth, we gain the cognitive insight needed to help them learn.”

Gorud says consistency is important to make the approach work, and administrators will continue to provide teachers with training as the district's student pool continues to become more diverse.

"This is ongoing," Gorud says. "We will be working on this quest for many years to come."

Patti Zarling is a writer based in Green Bay who has written about education as a newspaper reporter in northeastern Wisconsin. This special report was created with support from Madison Gas and Electric and Summit Credit Union.

For more on the strategic framework, click here for a Q&A with Jennifer Cheatham, MMSD's superintendent.


Madison Magazine Subscription

Get Madison Magazine delivered to your office or home.

Gift subscriptions now available!

Subscribe Now

Dining & Drink

E-Newsletter Registration

This Week's Circulars