National Writing Project

Gloria Ladson-Billings: Biographical Information and List of References

By: Bob Fecho
Date: January 30, 2007

Summary: In a resource developed for NWP's African American Learners Project, Bob Fecho discusses Ladson-Billings' 2006 American Educational Research Association address as well as her writings and contributions to the field of education.

 

On Sunday, April 9, 2006, in an overflowing ballroom at the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings strode across the stage to deliver the Presidential Address to the assembled membership of the American Educational Research Association (AERA). Her talk, "From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools," was nothing short of galvanizing. In the hour's time of that talk, Dr. Ladson-Billings argued that it is foolish for American educators to try to narrow the achievement gap between white middle-class students and students of color without the larger American society acknowledging and confronting the accumulated educational debt owed to these marginalized students. Until educational stakeholders take responsibility for the inferior and inequitable resources, the persistent lack of funding, and the racism and classism that are institutionalized in the system, she continued, the achievement gap will remain firmly in place and children of color and of poverty will most certainly continue to be left behind.

I have been to Presidential Addresses at AERA before. All are well intentioned. Many, however, seem rote and facile. The better ones make you feel that, as an educator who cares about issues of culture, you aren't completely wasting your time by rolling a rock too large up a mountain too high. But the talk by Dr. Ladson-Billings on that Sunday in April was something else altogether. Hers was a talk that was as personal as it was academic, as passionate as it was objective, as literary as it was steeped in the research. Fixing her gaze on everyone in the hall, Dr. Ladson-Billings held us all accountable and suggested we each figure out our role in paying back what is owed. It didn't make the rock any smaller or the mountain less steep and long, but it did remind the educators in that room that helping all children to embrace learning is a priority and concern for all Americans and that those who come too easily to their privilege need to consider what they can do to level the playing field in U.S. classrooms. No victim-blaming was to go on here.

The power of this talk, one that lifted a ballroom of jaded and weary educators to their feet in long and vibrant applause, should have surprised no one who has come to know the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings. Having attended for twelve years and taught and supervised for ten years in Philadelphia public schools, Dr. Ladson-Billings knows and understands the complexities of teaching and learning in urban settings. The lessons learned as both a student and a teacher in an urban context remain with her still and permeate her work. As she has written, "I try not to romanticize my Philadelphia experience. It was the hardest work I have ever done. But I also recognize it as the foundation of my understanding of teaching and learning" (2004, xi).

Dr. Ladson-Billings built upon that foundation by completing an MA in education at the University of Washington and a PhD in curriculum and teacher education at Stanford University. After stints at Santa Clara University and Far West Educational Laboratory, she joined the faculty at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where she remains as Kellner Family Chair in Urban Education and professor of curriculum and instruction and educational policy studies.

She is perhaps best known for her book The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children, first published in 1994 and still in wide use in teacher education classes across the country. Within those pages, she described and advocated for what she called culturally relevant teaching, a stance that "uses student culture in order to maintain it and to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture" (1994, 17). Such a stance "empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes" (1994, 18). In a culturally relevant classroom, a child's culture is seen as a source of strength on which to rely and not a problem to be overcome or something completely invisible.

Based on work funded by a postdoctoral fellowship from the National Academy of Education and the Spencer Foundation, the book documents the practices of five African American teachers and three European American teachers, all elementary teachers who were deemed successful teachers of African American students. These teachers are living examples of culturally relevant teaching, and they serve to show how the same basic philosophy can be implemented in a range of ways and still remain effective. Additionally, Dr. Ladson-Billings used her own experiences as both student and teacher, woven seamlessly through the book, with the intent of eschewing traditional scholarly styles in order to better situate the research in the lives and contexts of classrooms.

Dr. Ladson-Billings has followed this widely successful and influential book with two others that, taken with The Dreamkeepers as a set, create somewhat of a trilogy. Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms (2001) explores, as implied by the title, the struggles and successes of new teachers crossing cultural boundaries. The more recent book of the two, Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education (2005), profiles seven prominent African American teacher educators—Cherry McGee Banks, Lisa Delpit, Geneva Gay, Carl Grant, Joyce King, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, and William Tate—with the intent of understanding the ways they are in, but not necessarily of the university and how their being African American has shaped their relationship with the academy.

The work of Dr. Ladson-Billings has been well recognized by the educational community. In addition to being elected president of the American Educational Research Association, she has served as editor for one of its journals and chair of a special interest group. Her scholarly awards include the H. I. Romnes Faculty Fellowship, the Palmer O. Johnson outstanding research award, a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, and the George and Louise Spindler Award from the Council on Anthropology and Education for significant and ongoing contributions to the field of educational anthropology.

But perhaps her most noteworthy accomplishment is that her work has engaged a generation of teachers and teacher educators in a dialogue surrounding the importance of investigating issues of culture in classrooms and teaching from a stance that recognizes the power of culture as a means for supporting the education of all children.

References

Ladson-Billings, G. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2001. Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2004. Foreword. In "Is This English?": Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom, by B. Fecho, xi-xii. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2005. Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Bibliography of Recommended Readings

Grant, C. A., and G. Ladson-Billings, eds. 1997. Dictionary of Multicultural Education. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. 1994. The Dreamkeepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2001. Crossing Over to Canaan: The Journey of New Teachers in Diverse Classrooms. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ladson-Billings, G., ed. 2003. Critical Race Theory Perspectives on the Social Studies: The Profession, Policies, and Curriculum. Greenwich, CT: Information Age Publishers.

Ladson-Billings, G. 2005. Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

Ladson-Billings, G., and D. Gillborn, eds. 2004. The Routledge Falmer Reader in Multicultural Education. London: Routledge Falmer.

Ladson-Billings, G., and W. Tate, eds. 2006. Education Research in the Public Interest: Social Justice, Action, and Policy. New York: Teachers College Press.

Useful Web Resources for Further Information

Web Page of Gloria Ladson-Billings at University of Wisconsin, Madison
http://www.education.wisc.edu/eps/faculty/ladson-billings.asp

AEI Speakers Bureau Biographical Notes
http://www.aeispeakers.com/print.php?SpeakerID=589

Video of Presidential Address to the American Educational Research Association
http://www.softconference.com/MEDIA/WMP/260407/#49.010

Review of Beyond the Big House: African American Educators on Teacher Education, published online at Penn GSE Perspectives on Urban Education, Volume 4, Issue 1, 2006
http://www.urbanedjournal.org/reviews/breview0020.pdf

About the Author BOB FECHO, a director of the Red Clay Writing Project in Georgia, received the James N. Britton Award in 2004 for his book "Is This English?": Race, Language, and Culture in the Classroom. Fecho taught English for 24 years for the School District of Philadelphia and has taught at the University of Georgia since 1998.

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