Laurence Tan: TEP Alumnus Honored for Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Toronto native uses personal experiences and understanding of youth culture, to reinforce learning in the classroom.

Laurence Tan (’02, Ed.M., Teacher Education Program), a fifth grade teacher at 122nd Street Elementary School in South Los Angeles and alumnus of UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS), gives his class the task of creating models of their dream houses and cars. In tandem with this seemingly fanciful assignment, he propels them to aspire to college and the careers that would realize these dreams.

“My favorite things about being in Mr. Tan’s class are that he’s really funny, we go on a lot of field trips, and we get a lot of advanced [level] work,” says Jessica Ortiz, one of his students, during one of Tan’s afterschool tutoring sessions.

“Mr. Tan” strives to bring his students the capacity to aspire and dream, as well as  the tools needed to achieve their dreams.

“He pushes us to do good,” agreed her classmate Cristal Andrade. “He said I had to come every single day to tutoring. He made almost all of us get 100 percent in math.”

“I like that he’s very fair with our work,” notes Andres Barrera, another of Tan’s fifth graders. “If we don’t finish our essay, we don’t go on the field trip. If we don’t finish our homework, we don’t go to recess.”

It is Tan’s belief in the innate ability of his students and his combination of tough love and raising the bar that earned him the 2013 Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching from Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He says that when he was considering a teaching career, his experiences with mentoring at-risk students challenged him to infuse his lessons with leadership.

“One of the reasons I became a teacher is because I did a mentoring program after school with ’at-risk‘ 5th and 6th graders,” says Tan. “I would do a lot of high school conference workshops as an undergrad. So when I came into teaching officially, I [wondered], how can I shake some things up? I was also a unique learner, I didn’t always just want to do things from a book.”

Tan says that in order to present curriculum most effectively, he strives to keep abreast of his students’ own youth culture in order to convey a genuine response to them. He says that being in touch with them goes beyond simply being acquainted with their media and slang, but extends to teaching personal and social values through a common context.

“Even though there’s an age gap, there’s no gap in terms of relevance,” says Tan. “I grew up on hip hop that was more [socially] conscious, and they are growing up on hip hop that isn’t. If I’m going to be responsive, I have to understand why they like 2Chainz when I think [his music] is garbage. But I don’t tell them that. I say, ‘Okay, let’s do a lesson and deconstruct some of the messages coming from these songs.’ And then I bridge in some of the things that I think are a little more appropriate. That’s where I start – validating the individual [student] and what they come in with.”

Tan continually raises the bar for his students by challenging them to develop college-level vocabulary and critical thinking skills. Borrowing lesson ideas from teaching colleagues in high schools and higher education, he adapts them to fifth grade lesson plans, navigating through the “dehumanizing” aspects of curriculum with humor and empathy.

“I think the biggest thing that I do is engage them,” says Tan. “I don’t put up a front for my students. There are certain things I have to do as their teacher, but I tell them embarrassing stories about myself that relate to our lessons. It makes me a more [accessible] person vs. ‘Mr. Tan on a pedestal.’

Tan’s students celebrate their teacher’s recognition as a “Culturally Responsive” teacher, by the Southern Poverty Law Center. L-R: Cristal Andrade, Jessica Ortiz, Zayra Reyes, Destiny Galariz, Andres Barrera, Joshua Gonzales, and Stephanie Vargas

“We do a lot of things outside the box. In order to do that, there has to be a lot of trust and respect built. As their teacher, I want to earn their trust.”

Tan balances the focus on meeting core standards with as many field trips as possible, writing grants to garner support from Target and Fedco to support experiential learning outside of his classroom. This has included field trips to landmark educational sites such as Discovery Science Center – for which Tan secured a scholarship from the Center to make the trip possible – and Griffith Observatory. Earlier this year, Tan brought his students to UCLA to meet award-winning children’s and youth author Pam Muñoz Ryan, who wrote “Esperanza Rising,” a book that he teaches in his class. In addition, the enterprising Tan has also secured funding from Best Buy and Jordan Brand to provide his students with lap tops, flip cameras for video projects, and interactive clickers for class presentations.

“I need [my students] to get out [of the classroom],” Tan says. “I need them to experience life. With these projects and field trips, it’s my way of saying, ‘Life is not all about tests’ even though they’re going to look at [students’] test scores. Everything I try to do ties into real world use, not just 5th grade use. We look at how to apply it all to middle school, high school, or college.”

Tan’s own extracurricular projects include the Watts Youth Collective, an organization that he founded with former students to promote social change through media. The group creates videos, PSAs, and documentaries on issues like Black-Brown conflict and racial profiling in order to counter the racial and social stereotypes that young people are faced with in media and to create understanding in their communities.

“The students are fully engrossed in multimedia today, which makes teaching and learning very interesting,” says Tan. “It can be very difficult at times because, generally speaking, a kid would rather learn from a movie than a textbook. In conducting both lessons and projects centered around critical media analysis, literacy, and problem solving, my students can start to transform themselves from consumers to producers of their own stories, knowledge, and media.

“We start this process in the classroom, but it fully extends itself with the work we do in WYC,” he says. “Students have to ‘do the knowledge’ and research and analyze subjects that most impact their communities and themselves.  The overall process is so powerful and transformative for the youth, especially when you see older students passing on the knowledge to the younger ones.”

Through giving his students the opportunity to learn in ways unique to their own personal experience, the freedom to build big dreams, and the tools to begin achieving those dreams, Tan provides more than the average LAUSD education. His students would agree.

“The most important thing I learned is to believe in yourself,” says Joshua Gonzalez.

When asked what she thought the most important thing she learned in Tan’s class was, Zayra Reyes was a bit more expansive.

“Almost everything,” she says.

Tan recently presented his research at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association, including his papers, “Debunking the ‘Culture of Poverty’: Youth Researchers Using Community Cultural Wealth for Academic/Social Empowerment” and “The Beauty Within: YPAR (Youth Participatory Action Research) Drawing From Students’ Linguistic and Familial Capital.” Tan also took part in roundtable discussions on “Decolonial Curriculum as a Tool for Transformational Resistance: Urban Classrooms as a Space for Healing and Action” and “I’ve Created a Monster!” Moving Beyond the Pedagogy Fetish: From Praxis to All Power to the People.”

For a video of Tan teaching, click here.


Above: TEP alumnus Laurence Tan and his fifth grade class at 112nd Street Elementary School.