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Curriculum Opinion

Author Interview: ‘Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies’

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 06, 2017 10 min read
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Cover Art by Favianna Rodriguez

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim agreed to answer a few questions about their new book, Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World.

Django Paris is Associate Professor of Language and Literacy and Core Faculty in the African American and African Studies Program at Michigan State University. In January 2018, he will join the faculty at the University of Washington, Seattle, as the Director of the Banks Center for Educational Justice.

H. Samy Alim is Professor of Anthropology and African American Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles.

LF: You make a distinction between culturally relevant pedagogy and culturally sustaining pedagogy. Can you say more about those differences?

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim:

This is an important question, one we have of course thought deeply about. In order to explore this question we’ll need to first define culturally sustaining pedagogy: CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustainlinguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation and revitalization. CSP positions dynamic cultural dexterity as a necessary good, and sees the outcome of learning as additive, rather than subtractive, as remaining whole rather than framed as broken, as critically enriching strengths rather than replacing deficits. Culturally sustaining pedagogy exists wherever education sustains the lifeways of communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling. As such, CSP explicitly calls for schooling to be a site for sustainingrather than eradicatingthe cultural ways of being of communities of color.

CSP builds on decades of crucial asset-based pedagogical research that has countered pervasive deficit approaches to prove that our practices and ways of being as students and communities of color are legitimate and should be included meaningfully in classroom learning. Whether explicitly stated or not, this tradition of asset-based pedagogical research has fought against persistent, ongoing beliefs in White superiority and the systemic racism they engender.

In the past 25 years, this research has importantly included work on the funds of knowledge (Luis Moll, Norma Gonzalez and their collaborators), the third space (Kris Gutiérrez and her collaborators), cultural modeling (Carol Lee), and, to your question, Gloria Ladson-Billings’ seminal conception of culturally relevant pedagogy. Indeed, Ladson-Billings (2014) wrote in her recent article in the “Harvard Educational Review” that “culturally sustaining pedagogy uses culturally relevant pedagogy as the place where the ‘beat drops’"; it does “not imply that the original was deficient” but rather speaks “to the changing and evolving needs of dynamic systems " (p. 76). It is these changing and evolving demographic, cultural, and social needs coupled with the persistence and even increase of deficit-framed policies and practices that make a more explicit commitment to sustaining the valued practices and ways of being of students and communities of color so necessary in the current moment.

For us, then, it is not so much about distinctions between CSP and CRP, but rather about the ways CSP can contribute to the ongoing work of educational justice that CRP and other asset pedagogies have forwarded. CRP continues to guide our work, even as we continue to develop needed pedagogical theory and practice.

It’s also worth noting that across our own careers as classroom teachers and now as university educators, we have both been deeply informed by CRP and the other asset pedagogies CSP builds from. And we are deeply grateful that the founders of these frameworks are members of our CSP collective and have chapters in the book! So while you can take our word for it, it’s really important to read what Ladson-Billings, Gutiérrez, Lee, Gonzalez and others have to say about CSP. Within our new book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies is the kind of intergenerational “building” that we hope can produce a strong educational justice movement going forward.

LF: What would you say to teachers who claim to “not see color” and teach all students the “same”?

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim:

No matter how well-intentioned, when a teacher (often a White teacher but as we mention in the book, teachers of color, too, can be invested in “Whiteness”) claims that they “don’t see color” they are engaging in “colorblind” rhetoric that is harmful to communities of color for at least three obvious reasons: (1) They are denying their own “Whiteness” (and/or their investment in “Whiteness”) and all of the social privileges and power that they gain from that, and (2) They are denying other folks’ “Blackness,” “Brownness,” or “Asianness” (as examples) and all of the social discrimination that flows from that, and most importantly, (3) They are constructing racism as individual and intentional, rather than institutional. Racism is structural; it is historical and enduring. The U.S.unfortunately for People of Coloris structured from top-to-bottom by race (including infant mortality rates, quality of educational opportunities, housing and employment discrimination, and so on and so on; all social science research confirms this).

As we write in the introduction to the book, our work on CSP has been informed by justice movements like the Standing Rock #NoDAPL movement for Indigenous sovereignty, land, and clean water for all people and by #BlackLivesMatter. We’ll leave readers with this #BlackLivesMatter meme that went viral and, we believe, has direct relevance to this question:


If the message still isn’t clear, then consider this. Saying that you “don’t see color” whenever People of Color are vocal about racism and discrimination is akin to saying you “don’t see gender” (or more accurately, gender expression) whenever women (of any gender) raise their voices about sexism and harassment. It is dishonest. And frankly, we have no time for it. What we do have time for, though, is genuine, open, honest, courageous conversations about racism and how education can disrupt racism.

This book brings all of us together in a collective effort to address racism and all other forms of discrimination in our educational policies, practices, and pedagogies. We hope you will join us in that effort.

LF: Your book shares lots of teaching strategies. This may be an unfair question, but could you share two or three of your favorites and explain why you like them?

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim:

This is an unfair question! You’ll note that the book is called, “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies” (CSPs)plural! In the book we join a collective of educational justice workers (teachers, youth, families, researchers) to forward examples of CSPs across Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and immigrant communities in the U.S. and also in South Africa. Several of the chapters focus on classroom level examples, while others look at entire schools or communities enacting CSPs. Across these long-term, community-engaged studies the book, community accountability and local affordances and constraints mean CSP takes on necessarily different forms across different contexts (hence, the plural). This is to say that what we are seeking to sustain through our teaching, how we seek to sustain it, and why we do so all depend on who the students are, where the school is, who the teachers and school leaders are. Even within this necessary and expected variation, key features across culturally sustaining educational settings include:

  • A critical centering on dynamic community languages, valued practices, and knowledges

This means that educators don’t see students’ languages (e.g., Navajo, African-American Language, Spanish, “standard” English), literacies (e.g., Hip Hop, poetry, social media, street art) or ways of being (e.g., spiritual beliefs, ways of relating to adults and elders) as somehow marginal or to simply be added to the existing curriculum. Rather, these facets of students’ selves and communities must be centered meaningfully in classroom learning, across units and projects. Even as this may be in tension with some of the expectations of many school settings, it is also true that such centering has proven to increase student outcomes on dominant measures of school achievement. Chapters 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 show how teachers center students’ cultural communities in classrooms serving Black, Latinx, Native, and Pacific Islander students specifically.

  • Student and community agency and input (community accountability)

As educators, we know all too well about the many systems of accountability we are subjected to. Unfortunately, being accountable to the communitiesthe students and familieswe serve is generally not something we are required to do. Culturally sustaining educators and schools are in conversation with young people and families about what they desire, what they want to sustain through schooling. Chapters 4, 6, 7, and 13 (among others) give examples of how teachers and administrators reach out to communities and remain accountable to their needs.

  • Historicized content and instruction

Culturally sustaining educators connect present learning to the histories of racial, ethnic, and linguistic communities, to the histories of neighborhoods and cities, and the histories of the larger states and nation-states that they are part of. It is crucial when we are seeking to sustain valuable practices that we link those practices up with the past and present of communities.

  • A capacity to contend with internalized oppressions

Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Díaz recently told a group of students of color at one of our college campuses that the whole purpose of our educational system was to “make us misunderstand ourselves.” He was speaking about the role of educational institutions in colonial and neocolonial contexts. This, of course, can have a deep impact on our communities. When an educational system and larger society continually tells us that we are a “problem,” that we lack rich languages, beautiful cultures, and storied historiesthat we are deficient in all of these wayswe can internalize false understandings of ourselves, our practices, our communities, and our futures. Across the chapters in the book, educators work to show the value of communities and their practices beyond the dominant narratives of White, middle class, “standard” English monolingual/monocultural superiority which schools largely uphold. These educators are working to refuse, reject, and in some cases, return what Toni Morrison calls the White gaze. Chapters 7 and 9 on the U.S. and South Africa are great examples of this.

  • An ability to curricularize these four features in learning settings

As teachers we create and adapt curriculumthe stuff of teaching and learningand we plan how it is we will teach it. Culturally sustaining educators are no different; it’s just what and who we value and include in the process that shifts. We work to curricularizeto make into curriculumthe previous four elements as we choose (together with students and community members) what we are seeking to sustain. What will we read, write, perform, research? In what classroom and community settings? Who are the sources of knowledge we must be in critical conversation with? Being and becoming a culturally sustaining educator is dynamic; it’s about critically learning with community; it’s about, together, sustaining who youth and communities are and want to be; and it’s about doing all of that with respect and love.

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

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim:

Thanks for this opportunity to share our work on CSP with the “Ed Week Teacher” audience. We hope the book can be of use to educators committed to equity and justice in a time of continuing inequity and injustice in our schools and in society.

For us, it is always important to keep the goals of our teaching front and center. CSPs are about more than just resistance. This book, in fact, is about building the kind of world that we want to see for our children (that’s the symbolism of Favianna Rodriguez’s brilliant cover design). As we continue to think through the promises and challenges of culturally sustaining pedagogy, we are hopeful that this work can join young people, educators, communities, and scholars in producing a collective vision of an educational systemand a future worldthat sustains us.

LF: Thanks, Django and Samy!




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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.