Opinion
Equity & Diversity Opinion

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and Curriculum

By Amanda Short — December 11, 2018 7 min read
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Editor’s Intro: Sometimes traveling outside of the United States can help educators in their practice. This was the case for Amanda Short, a 4thgrade teacher at Montezuma Elementary School in Albuquerque, N.M., who traveled to New Zealand to learn about culturally responsive teaching as part of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching. Here is what she learned.

What is culturally responsive education? It seems like a simple question. Educators have been researching, studying, and developing this topic for many years, but as an elementary school teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., I have long felt ill-prepared to meet the needs of my diverse student population.

New Mexico is a state full of rich culture and diverse populations. The majority of the students at my school are Hispanic, Mexican American, or indigenous. As a white teacher with a majority of students from a wide range of cultures, I know that I am not aware of all my cultural biases. I also know that cultural differences between teachers and students have an impact on how indigenous students cope with school (Suina, 1985; Snipp, 2013).

After receiving a Fulbright Award in Teaching, I spent five months researching best practices for culturally responsive teaching within the context of New Zealand schools. My objectives were twofold: first, to understand what culturally responsive teaching looks like, and second, how to best implement these ideas for my students. While in New Zealand, I informally observed a variety of schools, met with education analysts at the Ministry of Education, discussed preservice-teaching curriculum with university professors, and did formal interviews with teachers, students, and a principal.

Through my research, three culturally responsive teaching themes emerged: Students and teachers co-construct knowledge, teachers belong to the communities in which they work, and teachers blend local cultural knowledge as they teach the traditional subject areas. Here, I share more on each of these themes as well as ways to incorporate each into your classroom.

Co-Constructing Knowledge

One key to culturally responsive education is to give students opportunities to co-construct knowledge with their teacher. This allows students’ cultural understandings to be brought into the classroom. It naturally gives value to students’ backgrounds and customs by giving them a voice in their learning.

How should you go about this? First, examine your own core values and how they play out in the classroom; think about how these core values are different from your diverse student populations’. For example, teachers may believe that it is important for the teacher to be the authority in the classroom, regarding both behavior and content. This may be very different from the core values of their students. For instance, the idea of co-constructing teaching and learning, or ako, is important to Māori students in New Zealand (Bishop, 2010). The core value of co-constructing learning that these student share is in sharp contrast to an authority figure imparting knowledge onto their students. The one core value that is central to Māori education is a group approach to learning; the collective is responsible for making sure everyone is learning. If you think about traditional teaching styles, this idea of group learning is very different from the traditional idea of individual achievement in the United States.

How can I use this in my classroom? I am working to use the idea of co-constructing teaching and learning through group work. Often, I have students share one piece of paper and one pen to record their ideas. I try to use inclusive language such as, “Show us,” “We want to know,” or “Tell us” when leading a discussion. I emphasize the need for individual responsibility in learning and, at the same time, stress collective responsibility for each other.

Teachers Are Part of the Community

A second key to culturally responsive education is that teachers need to be a part of their students’ community. For example, students need to see their teachers at local events or worship services; they need to know that the teacher genuinely understands their background and world view.

This idea was illustrated clearly during a visit I took to a rural school in New Zealand. This school was in an impoverished area, serving students with high needs. But, unlike any other school visit, here I was greeted with a traditional pōwhiri (a Māori welcome ceremony) followed by coffee and cake. The students were happy and welcoming, wanting to show off the tree they climb at recess and the sand pit they play in.

It became clear that the people of the area did not see themselves as impoverished. As I talked with the teachers and staff at the school, I realized that this school was actually extremely rich, albeit not in the usual sense of the word. For example, the teachers talked about the dads and uncles that were at school helping prepare a traditional meal. They talked about how the families in this community didn’t have big paychecks, but they owned their own land. They talked about how the students and families were working together to raise money for a new playground.

The principal said that social workers from the Ministry of Education would visit and ask what help they could provide. The principal told me that she always said they didn’t need any help, everything was fine. She knew that unlike those that lived in the community, the social workers from outside the community wouldn’t understand the needs of her students.

How does this apply to the classrooms? When we live and participate in the communities where our schools are, we become aware of their needs and learn what quality help would benefit our communities and schools. We know how to best meet the needs of our students and don’t have the mistaken ideas of what help looks like.

Blending Cultural Knowledge With Traditional Subjects

Finally, culturally responsive education takes the local cultural knowledge of a subject area and blends it with traditional curriculum. I saw teachers using this approach in New Zealand, specifically in science education. Teachers were working to build their knowledge of cultural Māori science so that they could incorporate this into their lessons. For example, when doing a biology lesson on plant adaptations, the teacher would also discuss Māori medicinal uses for the plant. Or when giving a lesson on astronomy, the teacher would also bring in Māori use of the constellations. I also saw this used during technology education. A teacher was teaching students to record traditional Māori origin stories using a new stop-motion app. Students not only had to practice good storytelling and literacy skills, but they also had to use technology to tell these stories that were relevant to their culture.

How can I use this in my classroom? I am planning a unit on New Mexico geography. For this unit, I have been collecting stories and knowledge from a variety of local sources about the creation and significance of different local landforms. I plan to blend the traditional curriculum of teaching geography with local stories about how our mountains were created or why we have breathtaking mesas or a desert broken up by the lush Rio Grande.

Apply This to Your Classroom

Now that I’ve returned, do I feel more prepared to meet the needs of my diverse students here in New Mexico? Yes, but I have a lot of learning and growing to do in order to get there.

Through my teacher-research in New Zealand, I realized I need to let go and allow for students to be a part of creating teaching and learning in the classroom; I realized how much I need to get to know my school community; and I realized how much I need to learn about the diverse local cultural knowledge people bring to the table.

Think about your student populations. What do you know about their core values? Do these core values align with your own core values? What do you know about their home contexts and communities? What do you know about their cultural knowledge, needs, and interests? How can you find out? How can you incorporate these ideas and their knowledge into your instruction?

We, as teachers, must give up our traditional views of teaching as an authoritarian sage and permit students to co-construct knowledge through exploration, allowing for students’ cultures to be expressed and incorporated into learning. We need to develop meaningful relationships with our diverse student communities in order to understand home contexts so that community has a part in our classrooms and students’ education. We need to educate ourselves in the cultural knowledge that students bring to school so they know their culture is seen as an asset.

This is a task for all of us.

Connect with Heather and the Center for Global Education on Twitter.

Image of author (center-right) with students in New Zealand, taken by Queenie Peterson and used with permission.

The opinions expressed in Global Learning 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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