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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Culturally Relevant Teaching’

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 04, 2017 7 min read
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Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Kate Zimmer agreed to answer a few questions about their book, Culturally Relevant Teaching: Preparing Teachers To Include All Learners.

Dr. Megan Adams is currently codirector of the Academy for Language and Literacy in the Bagwell College of Education and Assistant Professor of Reading Education in the Department of Secondary and Middle Grades Education at Kennesaw State University.

Dr. Sanjuana Rodriguez is Assistant Professor of Literacy Education at Kennesaw State University and codirector of the Academy for Language and Literacy.

Dr. Kate Zimmer is Assistant Professor of Special Education in the Department of Inclusive Education at Kennesaw State University.

LF: Can you start off by sharing a explanation/definition of what you mean by “culturally relevant teaching” and why you think it’s important?

Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Kate Zimmer:

Throughout our book, we based our definition of culturally relevant teaching on the research that has taken place for over a quarter of a century (e.g., Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 1992, 1994, 1995; Nieto, 1999, 2004). We specifically focused on Ladson-Billings’ (1994) seminal definition of CRP as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (p. 17-18). The key to culturally relevant teaching is teachers creating meaningful and engaging connections between students’ home and school lives. Teachers who learn about students’ culture are able to make purposeful connections to the curriculum. The importance of this work is to position students who may be marginalized as capable of high achievement. We believe what is most important is for teachers to establish positive, individual relationships with their students to increase the likelihood that students will engage and succeed in school.

LF: Two of your chapters emphasize language—both Emergent Bilingual Learners (who many would describe as English Language Learners) and students who speak African American Vernacular English. What advice would you offer to teachers—both in “beliefs” and in “practices"—about how to look at language through a culturally relevant “lens”?

Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Kate Zimmer:

In this book, we were strategic to use terms from an asset based perspective. Too often we see educators and administrators use a deficit model when addressing students who are marginalized. This approach highlights what students cannot do, rather than focusing on their assets, unique strengths, and interests. For example, throughout our book we use the term “emergent bilingual” because it validates and shows the language that students bring to school as a strength (García, 2009, 2010; García, Kleifgen, & Falchi, 2008). This group of students is not just learning to speak English, but they are becoming bilingual students by learning an additional language, something that is seen as an asset in the real-world.

Our advice for teachers working with emergent bilinguals and students who speak African American vernacular English would be to see the value in using students’ home language in the classroom. Some of us have worked in classrooms where students are not allowed to use their first or natural language and therefore are not able to make use of such an important resource. We would encourage educators to find ways to use students’ home language, much like their home lives, as a support. We are also encouraged to see that an interest in bilingual education, particularly in the state of Georgia where we live, is growing. This addresses how teachers might approach students using a culturally relevant lens and also requires a shift in teachers’ beliefs.

To address the “how": As noted above, the first step is getting to know your students. Additionally, we believe that shifting teachers’ beliefs begins with changing teacher education; we work in our undergraduate and graduate courses on providing teachers with culturally relevant tools they can use immediately in their classrooms. Websites like EdWeek and Teaching Tolerance are great resources to support culturally relevant teaching. Additionally, in the chapter on emergent bilingual students in our book, several resources are provided to assist teachers in using a more culturally relevant lens.

Your book talks about culturally relevant teaching in the context of students with special needs, which I haven’t seen discussed other places. Can you give some examples of what that can look like?

Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Kate Zimmer:

We (Sanjuana and Megan) had not read widely about disability studies. We were well versed in culturally relevant pedagogy, but not well versed in how that might be applied to students with exceptionalities. A piece that framed our conversations with Kate, an expert in Special Education, was Sleeter’s (2010) piece for Disability Studies Quarterly. In that piece, Sleeter states, “I moved away from understanding disability as a way of categorizing people based on presumed conditions, and toward understanding it as a standpoint from which to view schools and society” (n.p.).

Oftentimes, like their marginalized counterparts, students with exceptionalities are viewed through the lens of a deficit based approach. Complicating matters, we continue to see the disproportionate placement of marginalized students in special education. Culturally relevant teaching shifts away from seeing students as numbers, demographic descriptions, reading level, etc. into seeing each child as part of a community of school and various communities outside of school. This shift requires accepting, in part, that structures are in place that keep some groups from succeeding while advancing the success of others (Delpit, 2013; Paris, 2012; Sleeter, 2001).

It is imperative to note that often students from low socioeconomic status, students from marginalized populations, students with disabilities, become pieces of a pie chart on school data. It is important for teachers to understand structures are in place that “normalize” the behavior of referring students for services based upon where they fit in the pie chart. This is a systemic flaw within our education system. When teachers view their students through a culturally relevant lens, no matter where they are in “the pie” they set high expectations for all of their students and create an inclusive environment in which all students succeed.

In addition to reading your book, what are other ways you’d suggest teachers learn to apply culturally relevant teaching in their classroom?

Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez, and Kate Zimmer:

The first thing that teachers can do to apply culturally relevant teaching in their classroom is to get to know their students—their families, interests, communities. Culture is complex and dynamic. Therefore, teachers must get to know students as individuals and respect the students’ home and culture. This respect can be shown by:

  • Setting high expectations
  • Observing how students interact and integrating how they prefer to engage within lessons
  • Building relationships with families and caregivers by communicating regularly with families (e.g., newsletters, classroom blogs, positive notes home, home visits). Ask parents about their interests and strengths and embed those assets throughout your curriculum.
  • Get to know your students! Ask questions about their lives outside of school and build their interest into your lessons. This motivates students and shows that you have a vested interested in who they are.

This book is a unique compilation of stories by teachers (now teacher educators) who integrated their beliefs in cultural relevant teaching in a variety of ways. Some of these stories took place in our own classrooms and others were based on studies were that implemented in teacher preparation programs. In all cases, the common thread throughout this book was our desire to unpack our own biases in order to provide an environment in which all students felt valued, respected, and successful. Teachers must reflect and be aware of their own biases in order to embrace their students cultural difference. This is a key starting point for teachers wanting to shift their instruction to become more culturally relevant.

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

Megan Adams, Sanjuana Rodriguez and Kate Zimmer:

We have found since editing and contributing to this text that a handbook of resources to support culturally relevant teaching would be useful for teachers. We would love to work with any teachers interested in contributing to such a volume. Please contact us at:


LF: Thanks, Megan, Sanjuana and Kate!



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