Educational Anthropology as a Resource for Teacher Educators

My work as a second-grade teacher was strongly influenced by the sociocultural and anthropological perspectives embedded in my teacher preparation. While traditional approaches to education center a teacher’s intentions and goals for the classroom, I strove to see my students from their perspective. This approach helped me build a classroom community that valued students’ dignity, even when they acted in ways contrary to school expectations.

One of the most memorable cases of this involved my student Sarah. She once returned from lunch having gotten in trouble for flaunting her middle finger in all directions of the packed cafeteria, grinning with a friend of hers. The lunch aides were having none of this, and one of my colleagues reported to me that Sarah, when confronted, had said “I’m from Korea, and it’s not bad there, so it’s okay!” My coworker was not swayed by this explanation but left me to handle things with Sarah. I quickly decided that this didn’t really bother me, since she hadn’t targeted a particular student with her gesture and was simply playing with linguistic taboos. Who hasn’t?

While we had many discussions about linguistic diversity, unfortunately, I wasn’t able to revisit this particular incident with Sarah. I had plenty of other work to do that day. While I would have encouraged her to think about her impact on others, I was also appreciative of her awareness that communication and context depend on one another. This kind of reflection isn’t expected of second graders according to state standards, but Sarah’s cultural experiences had focused her attention on communicative diversity. Without an effort by her teachers to think through how Sarah saw her world, we were going to miss chances to see her contributions. Even worse, students are often punished on appropriate communication, contributing to racial disparities in discipline. Since ending my work as a classroom teacher, I think back and wish I had done more to highlight the contributions of my students’ linguistic and cultural perspective. But equipped as I was with an anthropological perspective, at least I didn’t overreact to a student exploring her linguistic context like all children do.

 Applied to teacher education, anthropological perspectives can uncover barriers to social justice that are embedded in current schooling practices and offer alternative ways of understanding children, their social and cultural knowledge, and their learning.

Convinced of the value of anthropological insights, as a teacher educator today, I continue to apply them to teaching and learning. I prepare my students to view educational policies that affect their work with a critical eye, and I build my courses with opportunities to see children’s cultural and linguistic experiences on their own terms and not through a school-based lens alone. Preparing teachers in this way fulfills the Council on Anthropology and Education’s mission to “advance anti-oppressive, socially equitable, and racially just solutions to educational problems through research using anthropological perspectives, theories, methods, and findings.” Working as a teacher or teacher educator in a context of oppression, social inequity, and racism means we continually confront policies and instructional practices that pose students as the problem. Teacher educators can productively share anthropological perspectives on student experiences and contributions, but we also need to ensure that contexts of student marginalization are centered in how we prepare teachers.

I developed some activities in this area in a recent course for pre-service general education teachers on supporting English Language Learners in grades K–4. This course, which took place in Pennsylvania, was required of anyone seeking elementary certification. Pennsylvania is one of roughly 10 states that include a general requirement for classroom teachers to be trained in ELL pedagogy—“over 30 states do not require ELL training for general classroom teachers beyond the federal requirements” (Education Commission of the States, 2014). The term English Language Leaner, although it was part of the title of the course and used in a large body of policy and research, is itself controversial for its emphasis on identifying a student’s lack of English knowledge. Researchers who focus on this student population closely examine how schools understand their needs and strengths, offering the term emergent bilingual as both more inclusive and oriented toward bilingualism, rather than English knowledge alone, as the desired outcome. The broad mandate of the course required that we discuss a large number of pre-selected topics, but there were still opportunities to incorporate an anthropological perspective in how we thought about the needs of emergent bilingual students in general education classrooms.

Below are three parts of the course that apply the critical aspects of the CAE mission.

The language gap

Fulfilling a state requirement that the course address assessment bias, we critically examined the “language gap” discourse. The idea that poor students of color are likely to have linguistic deficiencies that stand in the way of school success is widespread, not only by representation in the media or by politicians but also in other parts of my students’ coursework. Educational anthropologists have been at the forefront of critiques of that perspective. In my class on emergent bilingual students, and with the help of Dudley-Marling and Lucas (2009) we unpacked the assumptions of language gap research rooted in racism, not just the many methodological flaws of word gap research. These discussions were also a chance to invite my students’ life experiences into the teacher education classroom, since some of their own positions in racial and class hierarchies mean their communities are purportedly described by word gap projects, which are sadly still garnering funding and acclaim.

Learning outside of school

While addressing requirements that pre-service teachers learn to target their lessons on state standards, we tried on anthropological lenses that helped us see more of children’s capacity for learning. Pressures on teachers can lead to focusing only on the measurable and school-sanctioned behaviors meant to show evidence of learning, so with the help of Gee’s (2013) work on Discourses, my students considered the linguistic and cultural worlds they themselves participate in. This experience served as a touchstone that led my students to keep in mind the learning that children engage in outside of school. As we examined standards in specific content areas, my students asked themselves how some desired “academic” behavior, such as asking questions about scientific topics or stating the main idea of a text, might be continuous with other activities their students engage in.

Critiquing academic language

Finally, throughout the course and especially tied to our quest to see out-of-school learning as valid, I offered critiques of academic language as a theory underpinning language instruction. While we practiced identifying ways of using language that children can adopt to accomplish tasks like hypothesizing or summarizing, I argued that it simply is not helpful to imagine a universal separation between academic and nonacademic uses of language. I want my students to be prepared to confront unhelpful and marginalizing definitions of academic language, but this is quite difficult because so much scholarship and policy on language learners in schools is rooted in that concept. Ultimately, I encouraged my students to question it because I know it will almost certainly figure in their future teaching careers, where it will be up to them to help young people reach academic expectations without devaluing their other linguistic and cultural experiences.

Any teacher educator in a similar class can make space for critical and anthropological perspectives as they prepare their students for the classroom. Courses that focus on the needs of emergent bilingual students require that we address connections between language-in-education policies and inequity. Applied to teacher education, anthropological perspectives can uncover barriers to social justice that are embedded in current schooling practices and offer alternative ways of understanding children, their social and cultural knowledge, and their learning.

Mark C. Lewis is a doctoral candidate in Educational Linguistics at the University of Pennsylvania, Graduate School of Education. Mark’s research shows how language policies in education reflect sociopolitically conditioned understandings of teaching, learning, and students themselves. Mark tweets @mark3141592 and you can learn more about his research at his website.

Please send your comments and ideas for Anthropology News columns to CAE contributing editors Cathy Amanti ([email protected]) and Patricia D. López ([email protected]).

Cite as:  Lewis, Mark C. 2018. “Educational Anthropology as a Resource for Teacher Educators.” Anthropology News website, September 21, 2018. DOI: 10.1111/AN.966

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