Creating equitable classrooms

Educators attend a breakout session.

Educators attend a breakout session.

Dr. Paul Gorski told an audience of K-12 educators that many of the theories informing today's best practices in teaching students in poverty were actually debunked decades ago.

"As professional people, we should be offended by that," said Gorski, who was the keynote speaker for St. Scholastica's eighth annual 21st Century Teaching and Learning Conference. He is the founder of the Equity Literacy Institute and EdChange, and is an Associate Professor of Integrative Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA, where he teaches in the Education and Social Justice concentrations.

His keynote address, "Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap," focused on the need for systemic, structural changes to bring equity into the classroom. A series of trendy solutions have appeared lately, he said, including the "fixed vs. growth mindset" and the need to instill "grit" in students from low-income backgrounds. The problem with these, he explained, is that they all put the blame on the student.

"There's a stereotype that low-income kids have a mindset that does not allow them to value education," Gorski said. "We need to fix the environment, not the student."

21st Century Teaching and Learning Conference co-founder Chery Lucarelli, Ph.D., chair of graduate education programs, noted that the event provides relevant content for educators - such as Gorski's insights - year after year.

"Our keynote speakers allow us to address important educational issues and concerns that impact today's classrooms," she said. "We are thrilled with the ongoing success of the conference and this chance to bring educators together to learn and network."

In addition to Gorski's address, the conference included a full day of presentations on best practices in teaching, learning and leading, as well as networking opportunities and breakout sessions.

Gorski said that educators must challenge the assumption that the students' individual situations and perspectives, the so-called "culture of poverty" of their backgrounds, must be addressed. In actuality, he said, it's the structures within the schools - and their lack of equity - that need to be strategically addressed.

"Outcome inequities do not result from cultural defects in low-income families," he said. "They result from unequal access and opportunities."

He encouraged teachers to move from "equality," treating every student exactly the same, to true "equity," being sensitive, flexible and responsive to each student's unique situation. A student who has to work a part-time job to support her family or a student who must spend all of his free time babysitting his siblings should be given leeway for a late homework assignment, Gorski said, compared to a more affluent student who doesn't have to deal with such challenges and time constraints. Inflexible tardy and absentee policies have the same unintended consequences, he said, disproportionately impacting low-income students.

Gorski urged the attendees to begin thinking about equity in all situations.

"Start the conversation with: how will this impact the most marginalized students?"

Conference co-founder Amy Bergstrom, Ed.D., associate professor of education, is grateful that the College has been able to keep registration costs low, at $99 this year, making the event accessible to education professionals in the area.

"We have been fortunate to bring in national and international recognized speakers that for a small conference are pretty impressive," Bergstrom said. "I am extremely proud of the conference's growth, and its ability attract a diverse pool of both speakers and presenters that provide attendees a dynamic and interactive experience."

The event was covered by KBJR-TV Channel 6.