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Teaching Opinion

Culturally Responsive Instruction Is ‘Not Just About Adding a Hip Hop Song to Your Lesson Hook’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 03, 2020 19 min read
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(This is the second post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are specific ways to make lessons more culturally responsive and culturally sustaining?

In Part One, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Lisa Stringfellow, Valentina Gonzalez, Maurice McDavid, and Cathery Yeh share their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rocio, Lisa, Valentina, and Maurice on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Nadine Sanchez, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, Jessica Torres, Michelle Knight-Manuel, Joanne Marciano, Paula J. Mellom, Rebecca K. Hixon, Jodi P. Weber, Shawn Wooton, and Dawn Mitchell contribute their commentaries.

“Knowing your mindset”

Nadine Sanchez is a current elementary school principal with over 10 years of teaching experience. She has worked as a Teach For America corps member and in multiple school districts as an educator and reading specialist. Nadine approaches education as a lifelong learner, more importantly unlearning in support of students:

It comes down to two conditions—knowing your students and knowing your mindset. Often, culturally responsive pedagogy is thought of as a gimmick or a specific strategy one can add to a lesson, but it’s not. To be culturally responsive, lessons must be engaging, challenging, and scaffolded using what students know and their deep cultural representations, not surface culture. It’s not just about adding a hip hop song to your lesson hook, and that’s a huge misconception.

What mindset do we have when approaching our students—is it a mindset of poverty or a mindset of potential? Are we aware of the identities of our students and do we select content that connects with them? It’s like that clip from the movie Do the Right Thing (Boycott Sal’s) when owner Sal is questioned on his choice to only display Italian Americans in a pizza shop located in a black community. A strategy that Christopher Emdin shares is using student “cogens,” or having students give you feedback on your lessons and even model the strategies that are most engaging for them. This is powerful in that it shifts the teacher to the learner, and we must be willing to do this if we are to be more culturally responsive educators.

“Guiding principles” for culturally responsive instruction

Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona is a teacher at Roybal High School in the Los Angeles Unified school district. She is a member of the Instructional Leadership Corps, a collaboration among the California Teachers Association, the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education, and the National Board Resource Center at Stanford. She supports access to culturally relevant curriculum for all students pre-k through higher education, including as a member of LAUSD’s Ethnic Studies Curriculum Committee:

To ensure that your classroom curriculum is culturally responsive and culturally sustaining, you can use the 7 Guiding Values and Principles of Ethnic Studies that comes from the scholarship of Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales and Edward Curammeng.[1] This body of work was used as part of the introduction to the California Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum because it informs on how to facilitate learning that ensures humanization and critical consciousness.

Let’s look specifically at Guiding Principle #1: “Cultivate empathy, community actualization, cultural perpetuity, self-worth, self-determination, and the holistic well-being of all participants, especially Native People/s and people of color ...” If you begin with this principle alone, there are many ways you can ensure that “all participants” in your class feel validated as individuals and as members of the many intersections of their identity groups.

Learn about your students’ identities by giving them multiple opportunities to share who they are with you and their peers. You can create lessons that allow them to reflect on their identity and to make connections to the class content. At first, you can create exit tickets, facilitate “tlahtokans” or talking circles, and add reflection questions to building background assignments.

You must simultaneously build a classroom environment that is safe for all to share who they are because they know their peers are going to embrace all intersectional identities. Great ways to build a classroom of love and great rapport is to incorporate course philosophies such as the Nguni Bantu (Zulu) philosophy of “Ubuntu,” or “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Many culturally responsive educators incorporate “In Lak’ech” (Maya), Nahui Ollin (Mexica), or Isang Baksak (Tagalog) into their curriculum right as the year begins to set the tone of interconnectedness between students. We must all feel safe in a classroom, or no one is safe, and this must be clear as a classroom imperative. There are many cultures globally that have similar philosophies, and if you have students from diverse backgrounds, you should seek out those “ways of being” to incorporate into your classroom philosophy.

Allow students the opportunity to share their expertise. In an English class, students can interview family members or elders of their community in order to write narratives on im(migration) and/or connections to major historical events, such as those whose families have experienced civil war, been deployed to Vietnam and other wars, and countless other known or lesser-known world occurrences. Students can be given opportunities in all subject areas to speak to their family and community; a math teacher can have students interview family members about useful mathematical applications in their lives and how they learned such. The possibilities are endless for any educator who wants to ensure students feel as if their lived experiences are valid.

Once students have conducted ethnographical research on their familial and community’s lived experiences, they can research the historical and socio-cultural economic circumstances that had an impact on the outcome of their lives. This is how critical consciousness starts to form, or as Paulo Freire describes as the ability to “intervene in reality in order to change it.” Once students can name why certain things have happened or are happening, they are equipped with the first step to transform those circumstances.

Students who are learning to transform their family’s/community’s realities need opportunities to share their new learning and understandings with others. This can be done by allowing time for “pair, share” so students have an opportunity to publicly announce their stories. This is also important because it ensures that empathy is cultivated within the classroom. Educators can extend this opportunity to share by organizing schoolwide presentations with parents and community members or by hosting events in the community outside of school.

Overall, ensure students’ voices are heard and that their identities and interests inform the planning of the curriculum throughout the year. If you genuinely care about the students and their cultural backgrounds, it will ensure authentic relationship building. If you believe in their ability to transform the world for the better, your curriculum should facilitate how to do so.

[1] Allyson Tintiangco-Cubales and Edward Curammeng, “Pedagogies of Resistance: Filipina/o Gestures of Rebellion Against the Inheritance of American Schooling,” in Tracy Buenavista and Arshad Ali, eds., Education At War: The Fight for Students of Color in America(New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2018), 233-238.

“Mirrors and windows”

Shawn Wooton serves as chief academic officer in Spartanburg School District 6 in South Carolina, where she cultivates a commitment among all district staff to enable all students to achieve high standards through direct academic services and instructional supports.

Dawn Mitchell serves in instructional services in in the same district, where she leads the induction and mentoring program as well as provides professional development in literacy and in project- based learning. Dawn is also an adjunct instructor at Furman University, where she currently serves as a university supervisor and teacher mentor. Connect with Dawn on twitter @dawnjmitchell:

To be a culturally responsive educator means to quickly and positively respond with interest and enthusiasm to the cultures of our students.

It means that when academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learned more easily and thoroughly (Gay, 2000).

Intentionally reviewing our instructional materials and resources to ensure that we are providing students with both “mirrors and windows” is an essential practice for effective culturally responsive instruction. Rudine Sims Bishop is known for her work explaining this terminology. Basically, a mirror is a text or resource that reflects your own culture and is helpful because it serves to affirm who you are and what you know. A window, on the other hand, is a text or resource that helps expand your perspective into a different culture’s experience and identity. It is important to understand that all students need both mirrors and windows to affirm and expand their understanding of self and others.

A Diversity Self-Assessment by Winifred Montgomery provides a list of questions for teachers to consider as they begin their journey of culturally responsive teaching.

For educators, a multicultural approach to teaching means going beyond the awareness of, respect for, and general recognition of the fact that ethnic groups have different values and ideas or express themselves differently. Part of understanding cultural contributions and cultural characteristics means ... (Gay, 2000):

    1. Knowing which groups give priority to communal living and cooperative problem solving
    2. Knowing how different protocols for how children are expected to interact with adults in instructional settings
    3. Knowing the implications of gender role socialization in different ethnic groups for implementing initiatives in classroom instruction

One of the easiest things for teachers to remember is that a culturally inclusive classroom is built on RESPECT of one another!

Access to diverse books

Jessica Torres serves as an educational specialist for ESC Region 12 in the heart of Texas. Formerly an assistant principal and Montessori teacher, Mrs. Torres is passionate about developing educators to provide innovative approaches and experiences for all learners as they pursue their unique interests and learning passions:

Providing students the opportunity to relate to someone of a different race, age, or gender increases their ability to value the contributions of others and helps keep their perspectives and cultural humility in check. One of the most valuable tools that we can use with children of all ages to help with this process is to read aloud quality multicultural, diverse picture books.

Diverse literature varies depending on the reader. What is considered diverse (varied) for one is not the same for another student. It’s important to have an extremely wide selection of books that represent many cultures, groups, lives that allow all students to have access to mirrors of themselves and windows to other perspectives. Mirror books allow students to know that they are not alone ... there is someone somewhere who understands their life in some aspect and has written a book about it. When we look through the “window,” we see the world. It doesn’t always look like us, live like us, love like us ... but we don’t need to hate it, we can learn from it, show kindness, show understanding.

Diversifying literature in the classroom has long-term, life-impacting goals, including developing cultural pluralism, increasing educational equity, and empowering students to tell their story and know that their story matters just as much as anyone else’s. Finding culturally diverse literature is becoming easier as equity has been brought to the forefront of many authors and publishers. One of my go-to resources has become Scholastic’s collaborative with We Need Diverse Books. Organizations such as We Need Diverse Books, Lee and Low Books, and Magination Press are working diligently to “advocate for essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people”.

Their sites provide curated book lists, blogs with helpful information for parents and educators, and resources to help further educational equity through diverse literature.

Access to diverse books is the first hurdle. Once you have a powerful picture book in hand, it is important to use it in a way that students understand that they are being provided either a perspective or representation. Picture books read aloud are most effective when preplanned, including time to read the book before you read to the students so you’ll know stopping points for discussion and can anticipate questions that the students may have. Prepare a few open-ended questions that allow for student discussion and debate. Opportunities to discuss what they have learned, how it relates or differs from their life are extremely important to help students develop empathy and tolerance toward others. Stories become more than just lovely endings to the day or a way to induce sleep; they are also a safe way to experience and discuss all sorts of feelings and situations. Affirm cultural identity and allow children to know that they exist and matter in this large world.

Math and English examples

Michelle Knight-Manuel and Joanne Marciano are co-authors of the books Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth (Teachers College Press, 2019) and College Ready: Preparing Black and Latino Youth for Higher Education (Teachers College Press, 2013).

Michelle is an associate dean and professor in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. Her research is grounded in the intersections of teaching and learning in varied educational contexts (e.g., schools, community-based organizations, and after-school clubs), with an emphasis on equity.

Joanne is an assistant professor of English education in the Department of Teacher Education at Michigan State University. She previously taught secondary English for 13 years in a N.Y.C. public high school:

In our book, Classroom Cultures: Equitable Schooling for Racially Diverse Youth, we share insights gained from our work with more than 500 educators across 28 New York City public high schools that participated in the Culturally Relevant Education Professional Development initiative (CRE-PD) we designed and facilitated during a three-year period. We draw from those insights in our response to the question above, making visible the successes, challenges, and actual classroom practices of educators implementing Gloria Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant pedagogy in their work with culturally and linguistically diverse youths.

We offer two examples: :

First, we realized that questioning the underlying beliefs and assumptions surrounding “who can do math and science” is essential to understanding and supporting the development of dispositions toward and enactments of culturally relevant pedagogical practices. For example, in supporting students of color to see themselves as mathematicians, one of the teachers in our study had a bulletin board which highlighted famous black and Latinx mathematicians. The teacher also assigned students to write about why it is important to study mathematicians of color. In so doing, students see themselves in the curriculum, become aware of the important contributions of people of color, and can imagine themselves as mathematicians.

Another example of creating lessons that are more culturally relevant occurred with Mr. Parsons, a teacher at the High School for Reform and Innovation. He modified a previous lesson he taught to include poems written by or focused on people of color and invited students to bring in poems they were interested in analyzing. As a result, students read poems written by Langston Hughes, Juan Felipe Herrera, and Tupac Shakur, recognizing the literary achievements of people of color who had previously been absent from the curriculum. He provided opportunities for students to learn from one another’s lived experiences by asking them to circle and then share five words or phrases in their poem connected to their interests or cultural backgrounds. Asking youths to share how the poems connected to their lives prevented Mr. Parsons and others from making assumptions or relying on stereotypes about how and why youths saw themselves reflected in the poems they chose. Mr. Parsons was able to extend the lesson to include students’ analysis of poems sanctioned in the school curriculum at a level of rigor supportive of student learning and achievement, and their cultural backgrounds, identities, and interests.

“Clapping into the silence”

Paula J. Mellom is the associate director of the Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education (CLASE). Rebecca K. Hixon is a postdoctoral research and teaching associate for CLASE. Jodi P. Weber is the assistant director of professional development for CLASE. CLASE is a research and development center housed within the University of Georgia’s College of Education. Together, they are the authors of With a Little Help from My Friends: Conversation-Based Instruction for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CLD) Classrooms:

The term “culturally responsive” in education is often associated with recognizing and embracing the cultural differences among our students. And while this is vitally important, in order to be culturally responsive, we must begin with the recognition that our own understanding of how the world works—and consequently what and how we teach—is bound by cultural frames that our students might not share. Therefore, in order to be culturally responsive, we must first be culturally reflective.

From the time we are young, we are learning how to frame our experiences through language, and by activating our frames of experience, we are able to interpret the world around us. We use language to categorize our world and experiences, question our assumptions, and construct understanding so that we can interact as full participants in our family, culture, and society. The frames we learn and construct are the warp and weft of the social tapestry of values and judgments about “right and wrong,” “polite and impolite,” “true and untrue.” Frames are a context of use.

Howeve, because cultural frames vary and can sometimes be in direct opposition to one another, it is critical that we reflect on what we think of as “normal” and be explicit about that in our teaching, as we try to understand and be responsive to our students. When I began teaching composition to English-language-learning students, I did not initially realize all that I would have to teach. While I knew that I would be teaching “English,” which for me at the time, meant grammar and vocabulary, I also had a vague notion that it was important to offer my take on “English” culture. However, I did not (and still don’t entirely!) have a full grasp of what that entailed. I did not realize how deeply ingrained some cultural frames are, that is, how much we take for granted as just “the way things are done.” The ways of framing information are sometimes completely different from culture to culture and language to language, and this can cause conflict for us and for our students. For example, I didn’t realize that I would have to explicitly teach that if you are writing for an American audience, it is not only OK but expected that you state your claim at the beginning of a rhetorical argument, and that doing so is not insulting to your reader. I did not know that for some of my students, this would go against their understanding of a “good” argument, because they had learned through their cultural lens that stating your claim too clearly and too soon implies that you think your reader is incapable of figuring it out. Therefore, my asking them to state a clear claim at the beginning of their essays was not just a new concept but actually went against their understanding of what was “right.”

When thinking of how cultural frames clash, I am reminded of how it felt the first time I went to see the symphony and the orchestra finished the first movement of the piece they were performing. I was among a scattered few who began clapping in the ensuing silence and then sat in shame knowing I had done something wrong but not knowing what or why. I had known that you were supposed to clap after a performance but didn’t know that symphonic movements were framed differently from individual pieces. I believe the same thing happens to culturally and linguistically diverse learners (CLDs) when they try to negotiate the frames of a new language/culture. They are forever clapping into the silence, only to find that what they thought was a sign of respect was, in this new culture, considered “boorish.” This leaves them forever feeling out of step and that their cultural understanding is “wrong.”

The role of the teacher should be to strive to recognize his or her own frames and step away from them enough to be able to teach those frames, without valuing them above those of their students, which may be and often are, quite different. In this way, rather than imposing our frames on our students, we build bridges for them to cross over when they choose, so that they might participate more fully in their new language as a cultural discourse.

Thanks to Guadalupe, Shawn, Dawn, Jessica, Michelle, Joanne, Paula, Rebecca, Jodi, and Nadine for their contributions!

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