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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom’

By Larry Ferlazzo — January 06, 2020 8 min read
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Adeyemi Stembridge agreed to answer a few questions about his new book, Culturally Responsive Education In The Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy.

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., is an equity-focused, technical-assistance and professional-development provider working with schools to identify root causes and classroom-based practices for closing gaps in school achievement.

LF: In this book, you discuss what equity is and what it is not. Can you talk about that here?

Adeyemi Stembridge:

Simply stated, Equity is not equality. Equality says, Give everybody the same thing, and that’s a fair opportunity for success ... while equity says, Give everybody what they need to be successful, and that’s a fair opportunity. Though both ideas have the goal of fairness, they are fundamentally different. Equality is an input-focused measure meaning opportunities are determined to be fair based on everyone having the same resources at the starting line. Equity, however, is output-focused meaning fairness is determined by patterns of performance at the finish line. We will know we’ve accomplished equity when students’ backgrounds are no longer reliably predictive of school achievement. Equity is about providing resources that allow all students to best take advantage of the opportunities that school may provide.

But more than that, I think of equity as a belief. It’s the belief that if our practices are informed by the commitment to be responsive to the assets and needs of our students, we’ll facilitate more rigorous and engaging learning opportunities.

Needless to say, equity is easier said than done. I think the fact that equity requires difference in how we treat and teach kiddos in order to achieve a fairer representation of achievement in outputs is inherently challenging and frankly terrifying to a lot of educators. We shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. It would be easier to pursue equality rather than equity—though it must be stated that we have never provided equal educational opportunities in the United States. But while the goals of equality are beautiful, in terms of education in the 21st century, equality isn’t enough. All of this is what makes equity an honorable goal of education and also an absolutely frightening prospect.

LF: Culturally Responsive Education is a major focus of the book. Can you share some examples of what this looks like in practice?

Adeyemi Stembridge:

I think of Culturally Responsive Education (CRE) as a practice-based approach to pedagogy that is effective in closing opportunity gaps. Put another way, CRE is what we can do in classroom instruction in order to advance the cause of equity. CRE is instruction that centers students—their voices, questions, experiences, their full humanity—in the effort to create meaningful learning opportunities. Most importantly, I think CRE looks like students being able to bridge their in- and out-of-school identities in the interest of school success. Examples of the practice of CRE appear throughout the book, and I begin and end chapters one through five with a fairly detailed description of classroom-based learning experiences that I think exemplify the goals of CRE. In this way, I’m trying to bring readers into the discussions I have with teachers as we plan, teach, and reflect on what best supports our kiddos’ learning.

This is a fine line I walk in both the book and my work. There’s a constant tension between theory and practice. When teachers ask me for examples, I sometimes worry they might be thinking at the DOK 1 level--recall and reproduction. A major point in the focus on Culturally Responsive Education is that responsiveness requires us to give careful consideration to context ... as in What are my students’ assets and needs? and How can what I want my students to learn be bridged with what they already know? In my view, examples of CRE in practice are defined less by the lessons than the planning. The effective replication of a culturally responsive learning experience is a complex task that requires one to approach the practice with an understanding of the thinking that inspired the success. It’s not like following a step-by-step recipe to make a pound cake. It involves messy work like talking about race and culture (ours and our students’) and reimagining our practices so that they are a better fit for our 21st-century learners. Instead of trying to grow our practices in more responsive ways, we have tried to contain the mess. This is not possible, though.

So while I provide practical examples throughout the book, I am modeling how practices might be discussed with a culturally responsive lens. I am careful to not be too legislative in talking about culturally responsive practices because I think they can look differently in a range of spaces and yet still hold the integrity of what I think of as CRE. I am hoping to recreate the energy and conversations I have with teachers when we are designing learning experiences meant to be both rigorous and engaging for all students, and I am encouraging teachers to look for ways to stretch themselves and their practice. I know that may seem like I’m skirting the question, but I devote an entire chapter to examples in the book, and yet, any of those may or may not be the best illustration of CRE for any particular classroom teacher. I don’t mean that to dismiss the asking, but the clarification is necessary; otherwise the answers will be misapplied.

LF: You also discuss Culturally Responsive Education as a “mental model.” What do you mean by that?

Adeyemi Stembridge:

Teaching is certainly one-part technical work, but I see cultural responsiveness as largely adaptive in nature. In addition to teaching people how to do what culturally responsive teachers do, our focus should also be on developing teachers’ capacities to think in the ways that culturally responsive teachers think. A mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world. It’s a tool to better understand how to solve novel problems in changing circumstances. Mental models can help shape behaviors and set an approach to our practice and the challenges therein. Rather than a simple checklist for CRE, it’s more like an algorithm that leverages beliefs, values, and skills into a culturally responsive mindset.

If I use “love” as an example... mindset is the difference between analyzing the actions of persons in love with the study of lyrics of the world’s greatest love songs. The unique circumstances of any particular situation go a long way toward governing specifically what it is that “love” does... but it’s remarkable how universal love-song lyrics can be in describing how lovers think. The lover’s mindset is a more reliable mechanism for generating actions that will be perceived as loving than merely the replication of other loving acts.

The mental model I use is comprised of six themes which define touchstones and references for our thinking and five planning questions to chart the course for designing culturally responsive learning experiences. I tell teachers that if we are thinking about these themes in the right ways, then our students will more likely perceive our instruction as culturally responsive. Though the premises of CRE are supported by scholarship from a range of fields in the social sciences and cognitive sciences, the work of cultural responsiveness also requires an artistic sensibility. I often make art metaphors because I think of culturally responsive teaching as a creative expression. In effect, a CRE mental model can help us to be more artful in our practices.

And I’m reminded often that teachers already have enough “to do.” The focus on practices alone can add to what may already feel to some like an overwhelming to-do list. A mental model helps us to see the opportunities to bring our practices into alignment with our beliefs about fairness and opportunity.

LF: What do you think you learned from writing this book?

Adeyemi Stembridge:

I composed most of the book in the summer of 2018 while I had the great fortune of traveling in Spain and France spending time with some of the most brilliant masterpieces in the Western European tradition of canvas painting. As an art enthusiast and an admirer of artists, I was able to deepen my understanding of the artistic forms of brilliant teaching. The writing of this book was an exercise in reflection of what I’ve come to understand about brilliant teaching through my own study, research, and practice. Being duly immersed in my own writing and also the close study of masterpiece paintings revealed myriad parallels between the work of teachers and artists. I’ve always thought of teaching as an art genre, but I’m clearer now about what that means and further, what that requires of teachers. Every brilliant masterpiece on the walls of the Prado or the Louvre began when a blank canvas met the artist’s skill, imagination, and commitment to be fearless; in my observations, I’ve found the same to be true about brilliant teaching.

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

Adeyemi Stembridge:

Maybe a question about my audience for the book. ... As a former high school English/language arts teacher, I know how important it is to be aware of the audience for one’s writing. So if you ask me, for whom did you write this book?, I would answer that this is a book written for teachers who want to be great for all of their students. We shouldn’t assume that to mean the book is written for all teachers ... because there are teachers who prioritize their own comfort and convenience over what’s good for their students. This book is written for teachers willing to do the hard work of looking deeply into themselves and their practice. I used to believe that it was all-important that teachers developed beliefs first before thinking about strategies, but now I understand that’s just how I like to learn. I now have a more nuanced appreciation for how profound learning can be for teachers when the insight originates from an experience in the classroom and not a passage on a page. I no longer care how teachers learn to be more responsive to their students, I just want us to get better.

LF: Thanks, Adeyemi!

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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.