Being from suburban Kansas generally doesn't get you interested in African American, urban culture, or in the plights of recent immigrants. In fact it generally makes you prejudiced against them on some or many levels and certainly doesn't help you familiarize yourself with them. I grew up playing Bach on a violin and listening to very Caucasian, would-be punk rock acts. My parents both attended at least some college and my father had a very good job as a businessman in Kansas City. To say the least, in spite of my lackluster liberal longings, I had no idea what was outside of the bubble in which I grew up, not to mention the fact that I knew nothing about "the hood" (as my students lovingly refer to it). All I had to fall back on was my own experience, which was one placed somewhere between the middle-class and the upper middle-class of America. In spite of the "front" I put up, I knew all along that I was going to face some trouble once I got to the front line- I just underestimated how much.
In college I studied German as a second major, but really as an extra-curricular activity that was credit-bearing. I seemed to have a knack for the language, as well as picking up on aspects of the culture that my classmates could not. While that might be neat for someone learning German, picking up random accents after spending only a bit of time in a foreign area of the United States can definitely be seen as offensive by the native population.
Whatever skill I had with languages I took with me to the South Bronx. I picked up on idioms, expressions, and the accent of the folks with whom I worked. After a while I decided to show students that I knew something about them, having heard in the school of ed numerous times that the only way to get through to students was by getting to know them. I was also running out of ideas of what I could possibly do to connect to them and settle them down in class.
The problem with throwing what I perceived to be their culture back at them was that they could immediately tell what it was that I was doing. While they thought it was kind of funny (in a let's-make-fun-of-Mr.-James kind of way), it didn't really earn me any points, not to mention the fact that it could have been seen as culturally insensitive by a few extreme personalities. While learning about the community in which you work is a vital part of the job, even hinting at the idea that you've experienced it first hand on the ground when you've only been in a school a couple months- keeping in mind the fact the inside of the school you work in might itself be a far cry away from the community wherein that school is located- is quickly picked up by students as a lot of hot air.
Remember this: Don't "front," just show them you understand.
You should definitely know about the things in which the students are interested. I know way more about Lil Wayne than I'd ever prefer to, but it has helped greatly with a relationship I have this year with one of our most difficult students. It may seem pretty stereotypical, but if you don't know anything about the top ten major urban artists, you might look them up and listen to some of their music. Personally I still don't know much about Latino culture in the U.S., but I'm learning.
The more you know about the culture, the more it will come out naturally when you're teaching and talking to students. That is where it becomes a valuable asset.
Today's Wine: Samantha Starr Pinot Noir 2005. We took the train to Hoboken to have fondue last night and this is what we drank with it. It was nice, crisp, fruity and went well with the various things we stuck into hot cheese and oil.