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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Author Interview: ‘No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 14, 2020 10 min read
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In this first post of a two-part interview, Mariana Souto-Manning answers questions about the book she co-authored, No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching. Mariana Souto-Manning is a professor of education at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City.

LF: How would you define culturally relevant teaching? Do you consider it the same as or different from what others call culturally responsive teaching or culturally sustaining pedagogy?

Mariana Souto-Manning:

Culturally relevant teaching was developed by Gloria Ladson-Billings (here’s an interview where she explains her concept). It has three tenets: high expectations combined with high levels of support; cultural competence (the ability to develop deep knowledge of one’s own culture and history as well as the culture and history of at least another cultural group); and critical consciousness (critical meta-awareness--an awareness of issues of injustice in schooling in society and their historical and racial roots, as well as a commitment to interrupting injustice and fostering justice).

These serve as compasses to orient curriculum and teaching, while accounting for the situated and contextual nature of teaching. Importantly, culturally relevant teachers regard their students capably--as persons from whom they can and should learn. As Ladson-Billings underscored, you have to teach as if the next Martin Luther King Jr., Toni Morrison, César Chávez are in your class--because they just might be. Ethically, culturally relevant teaching demands that teachers have high expectations for their students and work to ensure that their brilliance is able to shine. Morally, culturally relevant teachers know that Black, Indigenous, and children of color are geniuses.

As such, they refuse to orient to whiteness or center whiteness in their practices. Culturally responsive teaching is a concept developed by Geneva Gay, focusing specifically on curriculum and teaching. Gay explained that there are five essential elements to culturally responsive teaching: (1) developing knowledge about cultural diversities, (2) including ethnic and cultural diversity in the curriculum, (3) building learning communities, (4) communicating with diverse students, and (5) addressing ethnic diversity in teaching.

Culturally responsive teaching is a filter which affords better learning outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and students of color. As Geneva Gay (2002) wrote: “Culturally responsive teaching is defined as using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively” (p. 106). Culturally responsive teaching focuses on adding diversity to the existing curriculum, on expanding the teaching in place, instead of rethinking and fundamentally transforming the curriculum to center the lives, voices, legacies, images, practices, values, families, and communities of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) in curriculum and teaching. As such, it does not fully afford liberation, freedom, and justice in and through education.

Whether intentionally or not, culturally responsive teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy (also referred to as culturally relevant teaching) have been misread by educators in the U.S. and throughout the world. That is, culturally relevant does not mean relevant to the immediate context and students who comprise a class. It encodes three key tenets. Likewise, culturally responsive does not mean that one is responding to the culture of students in a classroom of a school. Instead, both concepts demand a proactive positioning of teachers--so that they plan to teach for justice instead of taking reactive approaches to address issues of harm and injustice after the fact, after they take place.

Seeking to counter such misreadings, which served as tools to protect whiteness in curriculum and teaching, Django Paris and H. Samy Alim developed culturally sustaining pedagogy to reclaim the key commitments forwarded by culturally relevant teaching, deepening some commitments while expanding its scope. In fact, Ladson-Billings has explained that culturally sustaining pedagogy is the remix of culturally relevant pedagogy, or culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0. The concept of culturally sustaining pedagogy is firmly anchored on culturally relevant pedagogy.

Importantly, Django Paris (2012) explained that culturally sustaining pedagogy orients and commits to valuing and maintaining the rich languages, literacies, and cultural practices of children and youths in “our increasingly multiethnic and multilingual society” (p. 94). Culturally sustaining pedagogy demands moving away from the performance of “White middle-class norms” in favor of exploring, critically problematizing, honoring, and extending the histories, legacies, and practices of BIPOC. In particular, it commits to a participatory and emancipatory approach whereby students and communities are positioned as agents who can and do offer input to (re)design teaching and learning expansively.

All three are assets-based pedagogies that seek to right wrongs inflicted onto BIPOC communities in and through education, but their scope and aims--albeit related--are distinct. Because we believe that BIPOC children do not need remediation--they are not broken! Rather, curriculum, teaching, schooling, and society do need remediation, and we regard culturally relevant teaching, culturally responsive teaching, and culturally sustaining pedagogies as antidotes or counterstories to culturally irrelevant teaching. In our book No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching, we actually draw on all three frameworks.


LF: You write about R. S. Bishop’s research on the importance of “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors.” Could you talk about what you think it means, and what it can look like in the classroom?

Mariana Souto-Manning:

Back in 1990, Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop developed the concept of mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors to press on the importance of having books that reflect children’s lived realities (mirrors where children can see themselves represented), that offer windows into other realities and experiences (allowing children to reflect on their cultural location), and that allow children to enter new worlds, thereby developing important and expansive learnings.

In our book No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching, we employ this framework to curriculum and teaching--attending to how the formal curriculum (lesson plans anchored in standards), symbolic curriculum (images, bulletin boards, symbols, artifacts used for teaching), and societal curriculum (stories, myths, ideas, beliefs about people and groups of people propagated in society--via social media, mainstream media, etc.). This is important regardless of the racial and ethnic composition of the class. It’s not only children who are Black, Indigenous, and of Color who benefit from a curriculum that centers their ways of knowing; so do white children who have the opportunity to interrupt the exaggerated sense of themselves and their importance in the world, a building block of white supremacy (the belief that whiteness reigns supreme).

It is important to understand that having a handful of “multicultural” or “diverse” books is not enough. As Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop suggested, classrooms need to have books that serve as mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Often, teachers have the idea that they have diverse books, but it is important to engage in a thorough assessment--not only of the books you have in your classroom library, that you read aloud, and that are featured in the curriculum.

As you seek to assess the books, depending on the age of the students you teach, you can engage them in research, reading the books in the classroom--in terms of who is featured in them, who authored the book, what story they tell (ensuring that stories about BIPOC characters don’t simply reify stereotypes and portray trauma and oppression but are about humanity and joy as well), and more. The data collected can inform the teaching and learning of mathematics, for example.


You may be wondering .. .what exactly does this mean? Can you give an example? Sure! So, instead of solely or primarily having books about Black characters amidst the struggle for civil rights and the Jim Crow era--e.g., Goin’ Someplace Special by Patricia McKissack and Freedom on the Menu: The Greensboro Sit-Ins by Carole Boston Weatherford, and The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson--ensure that you have books and other texts about Black joy and Black childhoods--e.g., I Am Every Good Thing, Crown: An Ode to the Fresh Cut, The King of Kindergarten by Derrick Barnes, and the short Hair Love by Matthew A. Cherry. The #WeNeedDiverseBooks and #OwnVoices campaigns as well as #buildyourstack and #disrupttexts can orient you toward valuable resources.

It is also important that we acknowledge that we teach within a societal context that reifies microaggressions each and every day (what’s this?)--that societal curriculum needs to be taken into consideration in our classrooms. This is visible, for example, in how microaggressions are pervasive in our daily lives via interactions, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. These tend to be reproduced in classrooms. As such, teachers can invite students through sliding glass doors by teaching against the societal curriculum permeated by microaggressions. Two examples follow.

Your name is too hard to say

Ensuring that your classroom community communicates belonging to all of your students is imperative. This means that we cannot sort students’ names into “normal” or “easy” names and “strange” or “difficult.” Taking a proactive stance to interrupt such microaggression, which is pervasive in society, may mean reading a book such as My Name is a Song (Thompkins-Bigelow, 2020), then watching its author pronounce the names used in the book. Or reading a book such as Alma and How She Got Her Name (here’s an interview with the author, Juana Martinez-Neal). After reading books addressing names, invite students to interview family and/or community members about the story of their name.

In addition to engaging students in primary-source research, you will be educating your students and yourself about the importance of pronouncing community members’ names, understanding their beauty and uniqueness. This is because the story of one’s name is also a story of identity, personhood, and origins--of where we come from. In Part III of No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching, kindergarten teacher Carmen Lugo Llerena shares how she engaged her kindergartners in primary-source research and authoring a book about the story of their names while also communicating the importance of getting to know each community member’s name, its history and pronunciation. If you want to know more about the importance of names or about how mispronouncing someone’s name is a microaggression, read this piece.

Where are you from? But--where are you really from? Where are you really, really from?

These are questions that stand for “you don’t belong here.” To teach against societal discourses that communicate that some children belong and others do not you may want to read Where Are You From? by Yamile Saied Méndez, illustrated by Jaime Kim, and invite students to author I Am From poems, turning these oft-voiced microaggressions masked as questions into sites for learning and building community; these can be done individually or collectively. Here’s an example: Poet Kwame Alexander reads his own I Am From poem crafted from over 1,400 submissions inspired by Where I’m From by Appalachian poet George Ella Lyon. There are also I Am From poems amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, located within the context of quarantines here. Also, if you want to learn more about being asked “Where are you from?,” click here.

Ultimately, we believe that ensuring that there are “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors” in our curriculum and teaching entails suspending the harm enacted by the overwhelming whiteness of curriculum, teaching, and schooling in the U.S. and designing educational spaces where BIPOC students feel, see, and experience belonging.

Look for Part Two of this interview in a few days!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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