Culture Talk

Introduction to Culture Talk

In schools, people make a lot of quick, under-informed claims about other people’s culture “groups” as if we know a lot about other people’s everyday lives and behaviors, even when we don’t. Such claims are dangerous not only because they distort our sense of people, but because they make getting to know actual people seem unnecessary.

Hang on to a Principle of schooltalking for equity when you hear under-informed “Culture Talk”:

PRINCIPLE: Every conversation about group or individual experiences in schools needs to be fueled by inquiry with and about the people mentioned.

Go from shallow to deep. (Reject simplistic claims about other “cultures” in schools and start exploring people’s real experiences in specific contexts. And invite any speaker to do so too.)

In this section of, we’ll post resources that help us go from shallow “culture talk” to deeper understanding of people’s real experiences!


Are there common claims about “cultures” made where you live or work that you suspect are underinformed? Who makes these claims, about whom? Are these claims framed positively (e.g., groups said to “study a lot” or “care a lot” about school) or negatively (e.g., groups said to “misbehave’ or “not care”)? What consequences do those claims have for young people?

Or try this one:

THINK/DISCUSS: Consider: You are a teacher. Parent Night has just occurred, and many parents were missing. In the lunchroom, a colleague is commenting that a particular community was absent because folks from Group X do not “care.” How might you prompt that colleague to inquire more about the situation? Consider a response at the Try Tomorrow level.

Now consider: How might you start to learn more about experiences with the school, from specific parents you saw missing from Parent Night? Consider the pros and cons of various questions you might ask when approaching a parent. Then pinpoint a Principle or Core Tension behind each suggestion.

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Featured #schooltalking effort

Here’s a lesson striving for deeper rather than shallow understanding:"Black Muslims in the United States: An Introductory Activity," by Alison Kysia of Teaching for Change. (

In the activity, students read character biographies about Black Muslim Americans from colonization to the present. Students then introduce their characters to one another in a “meet and greet.”

Alison wrote a great overview about designing and piloting the lesson, in Rethinking Schools. In it, she describes the need to create new teaching resources that help students explore and discuss “the fact that Muslims have been part of U.S. history since colonization.”

Alison asks educators to move beyond what she calls “the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’ teaching approach,” which “represents Islam as a religion that can be summed up in a memorizable list of beliefs and rituals. This approach reduces Muslims to a set of stereotypes that reinforce media caricatures of Islam as foreign and unidimensional and Muslims as automatons who blindly follow an inflexible faith.” She argues that the “Five Pillars” approach also fails to help students see connections between Islamophobia, anti-Black racism, and anti-immigrant racism in the U.S.

“Muslims are complicated people who have rich and varied relationships with their religious identity. The caricatures we see in the media become all that more believable when we are taught that 1,500-year-old traditions can be summed up in neat, formulaic ways,” Alison argues. So, “Maybe we should begin our inquiry into Muslims and Islam and Islamophobia in the place where we live rather than in some other place."

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Featured #schooltalking effort

In Chapter 4 of Schooltalk, I argue that equity effort requires "a basic willingness to respectfully learn more about and from the complex people [we share] schools with, in order to better support students." Can home visits help? Many educators have found that they indeed can build relationships and trust with both families and students through home visits, if they approach home visits as opportunities to learn from and bond with parents and students rather than only get school information“out.” As one educator I know put it, teacher home visits had been great for her as a child: “I recall feeling a great deal of pride when my teachers came to participate in our home life. They didn’t visit to tell us what we were lacking or doing wrong. They came to get to know us, to share information, to sometimes even eat and drink with us.”

Here’s a teacher’s description of visiting her fourth graders’ families for the first time. I like how it describes in detail how the teacher carefully overcame an initial teacher-family power differential by listening respectfully to parents as sources of knowledge, rather than just talking at them. Check it out!

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Featured #schooltalking effort

Think about a group of young people and families that’s routinely misrepresented by neighbors or the media.

How might more accurate stories be invited, via classrooms or community organizations?

Just found two recent examples of youth stories shared digitally:

  1. U.S. undocumented youth choosing bravely to speak into a camera to define themselves.
  2. U.S. Muslim youth, interviewed by an ally. 

What stories would you love to hear young people (or families) invited to tell about their own lives—or their contributions to a school, neighborhood, town, city, or region? How could adults inviting such stories navigate core tensions of personal and family privacy, so that no youth felt pressured to "share"? Might a solution be to engage stories like these, already available online or in books?

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