Matt Bacon-Brenes, Oregon State Teacher of the Year 2018, cares about creating an environment that is conducive to learning for children from all backgrounds. Being Teacher of the Year is much more than a title; Bacon-Brenes and his fellow TOYs will meet up throughout the year to discuss the impact they want to have on the education environment in America.
When I spoke with Bacon-Brenes, he had just returned from a trip to Google’s headquarters where he had met with other TOYs from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day, discussing how they want to do education differently.
“You know, a lot of it at Google was about advocacy, but advocacy done with the development of a narrative,” he said. “How are you going to do this well? How are you going to tell your story and convince others that public education is vital; that it is critical to our well being as a country, the well being of our people.”
Bacon-Brenes has been teaching language for a long time, but about 8 years ago he began teaching American History through the languages that he teaches – Japanese and Spanish. He is currently teaching at Mt. Tabor Middle School in Portland, in the Japanese magnet program.
“Initially I didn’t think I would enjoy [teaching American History], I hated it in high school because of the way it was taught,” he said. “But I’ve come full circle and I love teaching american history.”
Teaching American history in Japanese is an important factor for Bacon-Brenes. “I think it opens so many doors for my students and me in terms of looking at something like the second amendment, kind of a hot topic in our country, and this obsession in our country with individual rights at the expense of other individual rights. Like you can buy an assault rifle when you’re 18 years old. And that’s such an American value that a lot of other nations don’t hold near and dear and it has to do with our history and it has to do with our extreme individualistic bent in our country.”
“Japan is who I work with a lot and I try to help my students understand and try to reach across that cultural divide.” Bacon-Brenes explained that the U.S. values individualism much higher than Japan, which gives him an opportunity to teach American and Japanese perspectives in his classroom.
“Any time you teach language you teach culture as well. Any time you teach language and not culture, you’re in trouble.” But it’s not just about teaching from a culturally diverse perspective, it’s also about connecting with students from diverse backgrounds.
Bacon-Brenes isn’t teaching American history the way many of us were taught the subject. “The history I learned was fairly monotone, or fairly uni-perspective. In other words, it was a very white-male telling of history. You know, here are the facts, what was the date of this war. As a consequence I thought it was incredibly dry, I thought it was meaningless.”
“So my approach has been far more about that history is only important to study if it teaches something about where we are today,” he said. “And history is only done well in my perspective and is valuable if it is inclusive.”
“I work a lot with cross cultural communication and history and multi-perspectives.” Bacon-Brenes explained that this multi-perspective approach is key to creating an inclusive environment for all students.
For Bacon-Brenes, creating an inclusive learning environment is not just about the way in which you teach, but it’s also about creating a classroom that is conducive to learning for students from all cultures and communities. “I also am a huge advocate of being culturally relevant. Not just about the content of what you teach but the way in which you make it culturally accessible to all people in the classroom despite where they’re coming from.”
“I think there are a lot of teachers doing great stuff changing the framework by which we look at history, said Bacon-Brenes. “And there has certainly been lots of academics who have done this…offered us ways of telling history that has flipped it on it’s head. Telling it from the losers perspective, telling it from those who suffer. So I try to offer that kind of approach to history, where it’s multi-perspective and attached to how we live today.”
The goal in all of this is to make learning about history feel relevant for every student. “In doing so my hope is that they say ‘Oh, history is alive, it’s important,’ it’s not just a sequential, linear approach to history.” Bacon-Brenes said he didn’t invent this approach to teaching, but something that he does differently is also engage students in the Japanese perspective in his classroom.
“Let’s look at how Japan might think about this. So the U.S., for example, is known as the land of the free, the country of liberty. I always say to my kids, given what you know about Japan, if America’s highest value is liberty, or freedom, what would you fill in the blank for Japan? Japan’s greatest value is ____. It’s wa, wa is harmony.”
Bacon-Brenes’ multi-perspective approach allows him and his students to cover a variety of topics in the classroom and how those are connected to history. “We talk a lot about race, we talk a lot about gender, we talk a lot about modern connected to past. My first lesson this year was all about the statue, and why we have statues in public places.”
Specifically, Bacon-Brenes and his students discussed civil war statues and icons and their complicated history. “It’s not just somewhere else, it’s in Oregon. So what’s in the flag, and why is this confederate flag being flown in Oregon when this war ended in 1865 and slavery ended and what’s the point? But it’s not just here, if you drive up to Washington you can see a park dedicated to Jefferson Davis, the president of the confederacy, and two confederate flags flying and a blue bonnet flag. It’s like, what the hell is up with that? This is 2018. It’s that kind of stuff that I try to connect them to past and present so there is a reason to study it.”
When talking about what he wants to do this year in the TOY group, he said that there are so many different things that he would like to do that it is hard to narrow it down. But Bacon-Brenes is most interested in looking at history through a multi-perspective lens.
“If we have this white washed version of history, then we are absolutely sending this message out to everybody that not everybody is American,” he said. “I often get really focused on this word American. What does it mean to be American? I think it would be interesting to hear “What is an American.”
You’d be fascinated, I hear this come up all the time when I hear people talk about being American and us and them and often it’s racially based. It’s a white person. I try to advocate for a multi perspective approach to history that spends far more time telling the stories of those people that are not told.”
A multi-perspective approach also includes creating a classroom environment that is conducive to learning for all students, no matter their background. “I’m also a huge advocate of being culturally relevant. Not just about the content of what you teach but the way in which you bring culture into the classroom and culturally make it accessible to all people in the classroom despite where they’re coming from. That’s called culturally responsive teaching.”
Culturally responsive teaching is about helping all students access the classroom in the way that works for them. “In a nutshell, the idea is that everybody who comes into the classroom as an instructor brings their own cultural norms, and often, especially for white people, it’s very unconscious,” he said. “It’s not necessarily bad, per say, but if you’re walking into a classroom, and Mt. Tabor is predominately white, if you’re walking in here as a black kid, especially if you’re a black male you’re very aware, and if you’re an asian-american you’re often very aware of your color and your culture that can be different.
“There are all kinds of messages out there – sometimes it’s the content of what’s being taught and often times it’s just how the classroom is run because of the culture of the instructor,” added Bacon-Brenes. “Often if I come in and I don’t make a space for all to access [the content] in a way that works for them, there is a gap in success, called the achievement gap.”
“Most white people don’t often think about it because it just works for them. It worked for me. I’m one of the greater benefactors of that kind of a system,” explained Bacon-Brenes. “I didn’t really know it. About eight years ago I started working with the staff here, trying to really unpack the idea of whiteness and how that plays out in our lives, in our students lives, and how we run our classroom. It has been the most powerful work that I have been involved with.”
Bacon-Brenes and his colleagues are now looking at recent research into the neuroscience of teaching and how that science can lead to a more inclusive classroom environment. “Most recently we’re stepping into a book on the topic of culturally responsive teaching and the brain using neuroscience, how do we promote authentic engagement and rigor among the culturally diverse students we teach.”