Crossing the Cultural Divide: A Teaching Artist in a Bilingual Classroom

By Afi Scruggs

I thought I’d come up with the perfect procedure. 

I spent the 2021-2022 school year at the Scranton School on Cleveland’s west side. I taught a residency that mixed blues, songwriting, and drum loop production. My youngest students came up with great songs in the blues tradition, so I wanted to reward them. I gave each student an envelope for their parents, which contained a note telling them how their child wrote a song in class, and suggested the parents get the children to sing it for them. The envelopes were signed and sealed with a star sticker. 

The kids were excited, but one child raised her hand. Her parents didn’t speak English. Had I written the note in Spanish? 

No, I hadn’t. Not because I didn’t know Spanish and Google Translate would have helped me out. Even though I was in a school with a large Spanish-speaking population, it hadn’t dawned on me to write a translation. 

My biases and assumptions tripped me up. 

It was a humbling moment, and not just because I’d failed some of my students. As an African-American teaching artist, I constantly advocate for cultural sensitivity. Yet here I was, doing exactly what I’d argued against: assuming my experiences were the norm. 

Quite a bit has been written about tactics for teaching diverse classrooms. But some of those suggestions don’t work for teaching artists. I don’t have access to students’ IEPs (Individualized Education Plans). I don’t know who is an English Language Learner. In many cases, I don’t even know the students’ names until I arrive at my residency. I’m not able to collaborate with full-time staff, especially if I’m working in an afterschool program. 

More importantly, I live in an extremely segregated region. In Cleveland, redlining and racial covenants meant African Americans were concentrated in specific neighborhoods on the east side of the city. Later, suburbs opened to Black residents, but the dividing line was the Cuyahoga River, a boundary so impenetrable that even now generations on either side of the river know little to nothing about neighborhoods and suburbs on the other side.

 I moved to the area in the early 90s, when few African Americans lived on the west side of the city. In the last two decades, that side has become more diverse. Immigrants from the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Africa are settling in those neighborhoods. And gentrification is moving in as well. The Scranton School is at the crossroads of the forces, and the student population reflects that. But my bubble didn’t encompass those realities. I live in one of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs where I rarely hear languages other than English and the residents are mostly Whites and African Americans. 

The residency at Scranton showed me how narrow my world and my assumptions are. After the student’s question, I started working on integrating cultural competencies into my lessons and classroom routines. 

I started by admitting my vulnerability. I explained that I didn’t know Spanish, and I was trying to learn. Would the students help me? 

Yes, they would. 

I started each session with a call-and-response chant to “open the students’ ears.” I included Ago/Ame — from the Twi language in Ghana, and “Waaw” which means “yes” in Wolof, which is spoken in Senegal. At Scranton, I asked the students what other words I should add to the chant, both in English and Spanish. They came up with plenty. We settled on “When I say eso (that), you say esto (this).” 

For rhythm exercises, I brought in bilingual books. A favorite for the younger grades was “Señor Pancho Had A Rancho.”  The class created a drum loop with drum machine. We used that pattern to create our version of Old McDonald that alternated English and Spanish verses.

 I wish I could say I learned my lesson. However, the assumptions tripped me up again and again. I coached my upper-school students to write a hook —a chorus for a song. The assignment was to rewrite the hook for Diary, by Alicia Keys. This assignment had worked well with students at another school, so I was eager to try it out at Scranton. 

But the other school was located in one of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs— demographically a world away from the west side of the city. One student point blank told me: 

“Miss, I can’t write this in English.” 

“So write it in Spanish,” I replied. “Just keep it clean.“

He did. And the hook matched the music perfectly.



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