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Equity & Diversity Opinion

Eight Strategies for Engaging in Culturally Relevant Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 15, 2020 9 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

In this second 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: What do you say to teachers who say that they feel pressured by administrators now to “cover” the required standards and wonder how they can “fit in” culturally relevant teaching?

Mariana Souto-Manning:

First, let’s be real. It’s really hard to work in a school where instead of being supported and nurtured by administrators, we feel pressured and constrained. Lack of administrative support does not make this work impossible, but it’s much easier when you are supported. Having said this, there are three actions that you may want to consider to avoid administrative pressures as you seek to engage in culturally relevant teaching:

  • Author the narrative of your class. When we don’t tell our own stories, we leave it up to others who often have incomplete understandings to make sense of our teaching, of our classroom community, and of our work. While it is not something we often think about as the work of a teacher, we believe that it is essential to attend to the purposeful, intentional, and systematic narration of our class. For this to happen, you may consider writing emails to families chronicling some of the important questions and everyday happenings in your classroom and/or engage students in doing so via podcasts or newsletters. When we keep everyone informed, families and the school community are more likely to understand not only the importance but also the learning that is going on interdisciplinarily--bringing oral language, reading, writing, social studies, and visual arts together.

    An example is offered by 3rd grade teacher Alicia Arce-Boardman in Part III of No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching, where she explains the creation of a museum of artifacts that had important stories behind them and how she addressed multiple learning objectives while enhancing student investment in their learning. So, the first action must happen prior to any pushbacks. We have found that it is not worth closing our classroom doors and doing the work but believe that instead it is essential to communicate what is happening in our classrooms to families, colleagues, and administrators. This also allows for families to feel engaged and invested in the learning that’s going on in our classrooms. We have found that many will then become strong advocates for us, for our teaching, and for our classroom communities. Finally, insofar as possible and helpful, align your teaching narrative and its focus with the aims of the school--for example, if the school treasures or wants to enhance parent engagement, explaining how your teaching approach is boosting the engagement of families may help ease or dissipate administrative pressures.

  • Learn the standards and use them strategically to justify your teaching. While we may think of standards as constraining our teaching, we believe that it is important to really get to know, to study the standards not only for our grade level but for two or three grades above. This allows us to strategically link the rich learning that is taking place in our classroom to the standards for our grade level and beyond. Instead of starting from standards, we have found it helpful to start with the children--their stories, identities, interests, communities, and questions. Instead of focusing on covering the curriculum and standards, focus on teaching children; center their humanity. Instead of focusing on covering them, feeling constrained by them, reposition standards as the floor--and expand from there. If we see standards as the ceiling, they suffocate us. This bottom-up approach to standards has led us to not only meet grade-level standards but to significantly exceed them in ways that are child-centered, authentic, and meaningful.

    For example, when Jessica Martell and Abigail Salas Maguire collaborated--see Part III of No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching--Jessica Martell was not only meeting 2nd grade standards but 4th grade standards in ELA and social studies as well. Abigail Salas Maguire was able to address a number of 5th and 6th grade standards with her 4th grade students. Identifying the standards met in culturally relevant teaching--especially those above grade level--can help you make the case that simply addressing the standards for the grade level you teach hinders student learning. This can also help you communicate to school personnel the promise, the brilliance, the genius of the children you teach. While some of us have included these in the communication to families--discussed above--others have posted standards outside of our classroom doors as context for the work we are doing.

  • Build or join a learning community where you feel supported and heard. One of the biggest obstacles and pressures felt by teachers who commit not to engage in culturally irrelevant teaching is isolation and uncertainty. We have found community to be essential but not always available within the context of our school buildings. As such, we urge you to build or join community where your full humanity is honored and where collective self-care, learning, growing, and healing are norms rather than exceptions.

LF: What are several specific actions teachers can take to make their teaching more culturally relevant?

Mariana Souto-Manning:

While I will certainly offer specific actions in addition to the examples offered earlier, it is important for teachers to understand that their formal curriculum (in their classroom) must take into account the societal curriculum (the images, myths, stereotypes, and discourses in media and society). So, the first thing is to recognize that you are not teaching in a vacuum, but that your teaching takes place within the macro-context of societal discourses, which have historically sponsored racism and entangled forms of bigotry.

This necessitates reckoning with how teaching is always a political endeavor--what we teach and what we don’t, what we cover, the perspectives we center, the materials we have, and who they represent are all political choices. As such, we must commit to teaching against macro and microaggressions that take place in society each and every day, reifying systems of inequity. As such, it is our responsibility to suspend harm, abuse, and violence enacted in and through schooling and teach in the pursuit of justice. To do so, as teachers, we must break through the boundary that separates teachers and learners.

All actions suggested here start with the verb “learn.” This is because we educators must understand that there is more expertise distributed in a community than in any one person and position ourselves and our students as teachers and learners. As Paulo Freire (2005) proposed, we must enact humility, “the understanding that no one knows it all, no one is ignorant of everything” (p. 72). Here are three actions that teachers can take as they commit to suspending harm in and through teaching.

1. Learn to pronounce each and every one of your students’ names as they and their loved ones pronounce it. If we are not able to honor our students’ names and identities, if we are not willing to make the effort to learn about them, how can we expect them to accept our invitation to take risks and learn? This also communicates to students that we are learners, too.

2. Learn from and about your students. Not only is it important to organize teaching and learning to center students’ histories, practices, and values, but it offers you sites to get to know them better and for them to (re)value their families and communities. This is important because the societal curriculum has already communicated to BIPOC students that their families and communities do not know anything (Jessica Martell and I wrote more specifically about this in our book Reading, Writing, and Talk), that their ways of communicating are wrong, and that they do not belong. Our teaching must first heal some of the harm inflicted by the societal curriculum way before children enter preschools and schools. This harm continues to be inflicted by the societal curriculum, so this is ongoing work.

3. Learn untold histories. Many of us attended schools that miseducated and traumatized us, that diminished our families, or at least that failed to teach us a fuller history of these United States and the world. As such, it is incumbent upon us to engage in unlearning some of the myths we learned during our own schooling journeys--including our teacher-preparation programs (examples can be found here and here)--and learn about “histories that make us uncomfortable and force us to look critically at the group-level power dynamics that characterize our schools and communities” (Winn, 2018, p. 33).

For example, in my teacher education class, we engage with books such as An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States for Young People by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, adapted by Jean Mendoza and Debbie Reese, and Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi (educator’s guide by Sonya Cherry-Paul), which offer not only an opportunity to (re)assess how these histories continue to impact present-day realities--including our racialized beliefs about students, achievement, and success--but also offer us stronger rationales and a more expansive understanding of why and how we might right wrongs in and through our practices. An inherent part of this work is “to learn so that we can unlearn” (p. 35). An example of this is the need to learn about the racism of concepts such as “academic language” and “phonics"--which position white ways of communicating as superior and consequently build BIPOC children, families, and communities as lesser than, as filled with deficits, and/or as broken (learn more by clicking here and here).

All in all, these invitations for learning are meant to invite you to reconsider the geography of your teaching and to engage in redesigning your teaching in ways that center and sustain BIPOC children, families, and communities’ legacies, voices, values, and priorities.


LF: Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d like to share?

Mariana Souto-Manning:

Yes, two things.

1. Amidst the violations of human rights which mark our current reality--including caged children at the Southern border, young children being poisoned in Flint, Michigan, and the war on Black lives--we must communicate to the children we teach that they do matter, that we see them, that we listen to them. We must honor their humanity. It is now time--if not past time--to engage in interrupting injustice in classrooms, schools, and society writ large. Teachers have an important role in interrupting injustice; they can start by deciding that they will no longer engage in and be complicit with culturally irrelevant curriculum and teaching.

2. At the same time, it is important for teachers to find community and to have spaces for healing, growing, and developing. Teacher learning does not--or should not--stop at the initial preparation. Although spaces that honor teachers’ humanities and center commitments to collective care and growth may be rare, they are extremely important to sustain teachers who engage in this work. Do not isolate yourself. Reach out. Build authentic communities where your humanity is centered--and not some new program or content. Ask critical and hard questions. Form collectives where you can learn, grow, develop, and heal together! The book No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching is the result of such a collective.


LF: Thanks, Mariana!

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