Chat Corner: Cultural Relativism in Public Schools

Sebastian and Angie discuss a recent The Federalist Papers article claiming: “In one school district in Oregon, a common American food eaten by millions each day [peanut butter and jelly sandwiches] is now being called ‘racist.’” After realizing the initial article was actually quoting an Examiner article, which was quoting a Twitchy article, which referred to the original Portland Tribune article from 2012, the conversation turned from, “is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich racist”, to the larger issue: cultural relativism in public schools and Sebastian’s experience teaching 3rd grade in Lawrence, MA.


ANGIE: The Federalist Papers: Liberals think peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are racist. “Look, if Michelle Obama doesn’t want kids eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in school, she should just come out and say so.”

SEBASTIAN: Props to the author and commentators on the article for completely missing the point.

ANGIE: What is the point? (I think I missed it too…). Is it that there should be a wider variety of meals beyond American ethnocentric fare?

SEBASTIAN: I thought the article was saying that using a peanut butter sandwich as a common point of reference in the classroom excludes the experience of students from other countries. And that it would be better to present material within a more inclusive dialogue that values different ethnic backgrounds.

SEBASTIAN: So if you’re talking about fractions, instead of just using a PB&J as your example you should solicit other culturally relevant examples (pitas, tortas, etc).

SEBASTIAN: Here’s a comment from the Tribune article that explains better what the principal meant:

“The PBJ reference was not actually about what kids eat for lunch. The comment was in reference to a teacher who used PBJ’s as a topic for a lesson. As a teacher – I know that a very commonly used writing assessment is writing a process piece describing how to make a PBJ. The assumption going in is that obviously everyone knows how to make a PBJ and can describe it. The problem is that this assumption just isn’t true – and assessing kids’ writing side by side, when one understands the topic and the other doesn’t understand it – gives a very biased result. I work in a school with about a 95% middle and upper class white population. We also have an increasing population of student refugees from Somalia. I can say, with absolute certainty, that those kids would completely bomb that assessment – not because they cannot write, but because they would have zero concept of making a PB&J.”

ANGIE: Well then.

SEBASTIAN: The issue of cultural relativism comes up a lot in classrooms with international students.

SEBASTIAN: My least favorite part about teaching math was word problems, because my students would struggle even though they knew how to do the underlying math.

ANGIE: Could they not understand the material? The examples?

SEBASTIAN: The subtleties of language. For example, Angie has fifteen oranges. She gives Sarah eight of them, and then Angie’s mom gives her three more. How many fewer oranges does Angie have now?

ANGIE: That sentence is even confusing me. How would you suggest altering the language?

SEBASTIAN: Yeah, welcome to standardized tests for third graders. And if English is your second language and you read below grade level that shit is almost impossible. There are multiple (easy) steps, but if you can’t decipher the language you can’t solve.

ANGIE: So even though these kids might understand math, understanding word problems, even ill constructed words problems, puts them at a disadvantage immediately.


SEBASTIAN: Take this problem: “Angie and Sarah had a party. They bought 20 cupcakes. When the party was done, they had 12 cupcakes left. How many did they eat?”

ANGIE: Is that an easier sentence to understand?

SEBASTIAN: I think that one is easier because there’s one step, but you have to know how to convert the words into an equation.

So then the question might be “which number sentence goes with the problem”:

20-12 = _

12- 20 = _

12 + _ = 20

20 + _ = 12

Long story short, standardized tests are some bullshit.

ANGIE: Instead of getting rid of word problems, the goal is to teach kids how to decipher them. This is intriguing, but is it really helping them to comprehend the initial word problem?

SEBASTIAN: A lot of what I taught was just rote memorization of what words mean. So kids who struggled with language had these cheat sheets that matched certain words with operations. So if you see more or increase or added then you use addition. Fewer, less than, decrease = subtraction. Sets of, pairs of, groups = multiplication, etc.  In terms of actual student comprehension, unsure. The incentives were to get the right test scores.

ANGIE: Early childhood mathematics relies a lot on word problems. Why not teach math and English together from an earlier age?

SEBASTIAN: We did. There was an emphasis on structuring lessons so that math and english covered the same areas. A lot of my math lessons started with me reading a story that illustrated the basic concept. So for division, we read this book called When the doorbell rang. The gist is two kids have 12 cupcakes to split evenly and then a whole bunch of their friends show up uninvited. So they have to split them evenly again.

ANGIE: I always hated when that happened. Are there key words in the story that might be harder for some kids to understand?

SEBASTIAN: multiplication and division were hardest since those are concepts taught for the first time in 3rd grade. It’s hard for kids to go from concept, to practice, to word problems over the course of a unit.

ANGIE: As a teacher, are you taught to acknowledge cultural relativism? To recognize when particular words or phrases appear in a lesson, pause, then discuss those words and phrases with the class?

SEBASTIAN: I was through a combination of background and professional development. The majority of my classroom was ESL, so it was a requirement. But in a lot of classrooms, where the bilingual or international population is low, teachers can get by without it and those students suffer.

ANGIE: Does it bother you when people misunderstand cultural relativism, like the initial author and the commenters in the Federalist Papers article?

SEBASTIAN: No not really.

ANGIE: Does it hurt teachers’ abilities to alter teaching methods to be more receptive for ESL and bilingual children?

SEBASTIAN: I think that some people genuinely believe the best thing you can do for immigrant kids is to rapidly assimilate them into American culture and that recognizing their ties to other cultures is a disservice. I disagree, but I acknowledge it’s a serious disagreement. I think that most schools are so segregated anyway that it doesn’t actually hurt equity or cultural competencies in most classrooms.

ANGIE: I know when I read the article I came to the same reductive view as the author– “peanut butter and jelly sandwiches aren’t racist!”  Racist is often overused in media to reduce an argument. It is unfortunate because I missed a larger issue– as a country of diverse opinion, backgrounds, families, and languages, cultural relativism is essential to teaching in many schools throughout the country. However, most of the time those schools are the least funded. Obsessions with teaching standardized tests hurt these students even more.

SEBASTIAN: Definitely. It’s especially galling because standardization is the last thing we need to promote in the classroom. Pretty much any decent job you can get today requires critical thinking or creativity.

ANGIE: I understand why standardized testing exists. It is important to see if students are learning grade appropriate material. But when standardized testing it preventing students from actually learning because of horribly written word problems, reading comprehension blocks, and other typical standardized testing fare, then there is a problem with the system. Also the fact it is run by corporations with the intent to make money and not our schools with the intent of teaching kids is a huge disservice to students..

SEBASTIAN: I think that as demographics shift, the idea of bilingual education or cultural competency in classrooms will start to fade. The old model of assimilation just won’t cut it anymore, and the data will start to speak for itself.