When I was in the classroom, I was fortunate to teach in a community that I knew intimately as a child. Of course, there was still more I had to learn, but my foundational knowledge gave me a head start in understanding my students’ lives. Many of us, however, teach in communities that are foreign to us. That is why it is important that we, in hopes of developing as culturally responsive educators, not only understand our students and their families better, but also learn about the existing assets in the communities where we teach.
Too often, the rhetoric in education focuses on what our students, particularly underserved students of color, and their communities do not have instead of focusing on what they do have. What if we changed our mindsets to value what students already bring to schools as well as the many ways the communities surrounding our schools can enrich instruction?
To begin to forge partnerships with our school communities, I recommend a community development approach called asset mapping, which involves identifying the tangible and intangible resources in communities. These resources could be people, institutions, businesses, natural resources, organizations and physical structures. Essentially, asset mapping allows us to identify opportunities and resources to enhance teaching and learning for our students.
Asset mapping begins with identifying, tapping into and supporting leaders—and emerging leaders—in a given community. It is based on the belief that all residents in a community, regardless of their backgrounds or other characteristics, can play effective roles in addressing and solving important local matters. When we educators regard the people in a community as individuals with talents, skills and knowledge that could benefit the community and our students’ education, we shift from deficit-based to asset-based mindsets. For example, community members can offer mentoring, career planning and internship opportunities to students. Asset mapping allows us to see community members as partners in enriching the lives of youth, which communicates to students that their families, their neighbors and they themselves matter.
Along with identifying community leaders, another important process of asset mapping is identifying local institutions with which we can partner in educating our students. Here are some likely institutions that exist in communities:
- Associations (e.g., tenants’ associations)
- Local businesses
- Educational entities (e.g., schools and after-school programs)
- Political entities (e.g., local representatives’ offices)
- Religious establishments (e.g., churches, synagogues and mosques)
I recommend identifying at least one of each type of institution and at least two concrete ways to partner with them yearly. Some institutions might remain constant, but new ones may emerge that can further enhance the work you’re doing.
For instance, as a teacher in the South Bronx, I used community assets to fill my school’s gaps in athletic, arts, music and social justice programming. To engage families, I invited them to my classroom for end-of-unit celebrations and to class trips. I also communicated with families often through weekly check-in letters, an online class blog of assignments and lessons, and telephone calls. Having regular communication and dialogue with families allowed me to gain important information about my students’ lives, which, in turn, helped me be responsive to their realities in my interactions and instruction.
Since my school did not have a health education program, I asked AmeriCorps volunteers to teach my students lessons on nutrition, substance and alcohol abuse, safe sex practices and other health topics. I supplemented my teaching of African-American history and the African slave trade by inviting Columbia University students to teach my students West African dance. I encouraged my students to express themselves and use art as a form of activism by partnering with the Studio in a School program and an artist from the DreamYard project.
I formed many more partnerships—and you can, too—but it is important to be vigilant in addressing our biases and our power and privilege before engaging in this work. For one, when we engage with communities, we want to be open to the many gifts they may have to offer and push ourselves to refrain from judgments about what specific communities may or may not value.
By connecting our classrooms to the communities where we teach, we move our students’ educational experiences beyond four walls. We allow for more authentic learning experiences by taking advantage of community assets. Most crucial, however, is that communities become more engaged in developing and educating their youth, and the youth become more engaged in the continued health of their communities.
Simmons is a lifelong activist, educator and student of life from the Bronx, New York. She currently serves as the director of implementation at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence.