A discussion about teaching culture

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February 23rd, 2012

Omaha, NE – Omaha Public Schools purchased thousands of copies of a cultural proficiency book last year, which cost the district over $130,000. Many people have now read the book, and they’re talking about it.

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Last summer, the Omaha Public School district purchased 8,000 copies – one for each staff member – of The Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Ethical Barriers Toward Profound School Change, a book that promotes the idea of teachers improving relationships with students of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. It was part of a staff development plan addressing diversity in the district.

The Cultural Proficiency Journey promotes the idea of teachers improving relationships with students of all racial and socio-economic backgrounds. (Photo credit Wikimedia Commons)

The decision sparked controversy at the time. The book addresses difficult issues, like white privilege and institutionalized racism. It advocates undoing what it calls “historical forms of oppression,” which include institutions that “channel wealth, power and resources to white people.” And it argues teachers often say they’re “colorblind” in the classroom, but that “pretending race doesn’t exist is not the same as creating equality.”

But in an interview with KVNO News, Janice Garnett, the Assistant Superintendent with OPS’ Human Resources department said teaching styles should change as the world changes.

“The need is to make sure we have the tools and the equipment to work effectively with all kids,” Garnett said. “When your demographics change, you need to make sure you have everything possible to reach all students.”

Now that there’s been some time to read the book, Omaha Table Talk hosted a discussion with about twenty people earlier this month at the Omaha Public Library’s Millard branch. Ken Hites said his three children attend OPS. After reading the book he said he wants to see how this will translate into giving all OPS children a better opportunity.

“What do they do, nuts and bolts wise, to their approach to teaching, interacting with kids?” Hites asked. Will OPS “move different teachers to different schools, making sure everything is fair because all the teachers aren’t the same? What’s their approach and what’s their plan, that’s what I would like to see next,” he said.

Monica Wynne is an OPS fifth grade teacher. She said several concepts including racism, teacher/student interactions, and white privilege is all addressed in this book. Wynne said this is a great starting place to develop culturally-aware teachings and staff.

“I think it just takes time for people to get comfortable to say what they really think and what they really feel,” Wynne said.

“When that level of comfort is reached, I think most people will realize that there was a team of people that cared about making a difference for the next generation,” she said.

Omaha Table Talk is a non-profit group that facilitates discussions on local and national issues about race and culture around a dinner table. The discussion could not be recorded – that’s one of the rules of Table Talk. But most people at the table said after reading the book they support many of the ideas presented. There was at least one man, however, who said the book is offensive and shouldn’t be forced on teachers. But, he also admitted, he hadn’t read it.

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