The new question of the week is:
What are your suggestions for how to make English classes culturally responsive?
In Part One, Jacquleyn Fabian, Marina Rodriguez, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., and Jennifer Yoo-Brannon shared their responses.
In Part Two, Margaret Thornton, Denita Harris, Ph.D., Chandra Shaw, and David Seelow offered their ideas.
Gholdy Muhammad and Marie Moreno, Ed.D., wrap up this three-part series today.
‘We Must Create an Environment Where Writing Incites Knowledge and Joy’
Gholdy Muhammad is an associate professor of literacy, language and culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Her scholarship has appeared in leading educational journals and books. Muhammad was named one of the top 2022 RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influencer of Educational Practice and Policy. She is the author of the best-selling book, Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy (Scholastic):
“Writing is one of the ways I participate in struggle—. Through writing I attempt to celebrate the tradition of resistance. …Writing is one of the ways I participate in the transformation. … Writing is one of the ways I do my work in the world.”
–Toni Cade Bambara
Years ago, as an English/language arts educator, I stopped referring to myself as a writing teacher; instead, I was just simply a writer—an English/language artist. Like Toni Cade Bambara and other genius authors, writing was my work in the world—my contribution to art and social transformation. And as a writer and an artist-educator, I had one simple goal in the classroom—to create a space where we would become a community of writers—teaching and learning from one another. Our goal was to WRITE! (Writing to Respond to our Identities, our Times, and our Excellence).
Traditionally, I have observed English/language arts and writing classrooms give empty prompts to students, neglecting to teach writing using intellectually grounded literature or culturally responsive approaches. Students would consequently disengage or adopt a disdain for writing.
From the work of Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994), we learned that a culturally relevant English classroom has three central pillars in the learning experience of children:
1. Opportunities to Advance Academics, Skills, Standards in English/Language Arts
2. Opportunities to Advance Self and Other Cultural Identities in the World
3. Opportunities to Advance Sociopolitical Consciousness, Problem Solving, and Humanizing Thinking
While many classrooms across the U.S. center just the first of these, the three pillars collectively can create rigorous and invigorating learning experiences. Culturally responsive education (CRE) is more than just writing prompts related to cultural topics. Nor is CRE merely having students read multicultural text. In addition to representation of cultural topics and texts, CRE must be explicit in the learning objectives, strategies/pedagogical practices, and assessments. Often, educators believe, the mere presence of something cultural or identity-centered is enough.
In my own work, I have built upon these three pillars for a practical model of culturally and historically responsive education (CHRE), diving deep into the practices of Black ancestors who have given us five pursuits for teaching and learning that can be used in the English/language classroom. They offered the importance of identity (writing to understand who students are and exploring the lives of diverse humans); skills (writing to learn ELA skills needed across life); intellect (writing to research and explore new knowledge); criticality, (writing to name, understand, question, and disrupt injustices and inequities); and joy (writing to understand and experience beauty in humanity).
CHRE calls for both responsiveness and responsibility to the needs of our world and the needs of our students. To write, our students need to read—not just print and multimodal text but also to read the self and the world—the joys, genius, and injustices. CHRE centers youth voices and perspectives, allowing them to see their positionalities, making sense of who they are and whose they are. Before teaching the five pursuits, there are key elements of a CHRE English classroom which include:
- We must center love—love for humanity and writing.
- We must write—we cannot teach and learn writing if we are not writers ourselves as educators.
- We must decenter our role as a “teacher” and simply be a writer or co-author with our children.
- We must engage in authentic purposes for writing, moving beyond only writing for test prep. Historically, Black ancestors wrote across the five pursuits of CHRE.
- We must have quality text selection to mentor our writings—reading enables writing.
- We must co-construct lessons and units with students.
- We must revise and have opportunities to advance writing, rather than have students submit one draft.
- We must create an environment where writing incites knowledge and joy—not just an assignment.
- We must connect writing to a participation of celebration and transformation.
This work calls for self-reflection and then practice. Below are CHRE questions that writers (students and teachers) can ask together.
Writing Pursuits for Student and Teacher Self-Reflection
- Identity: Who am I as a writer? What have I written in the past? What do I enjoy writing about? What aspects are needed in my environment to help me to write?
- Skills: How do I cultivate my writing skills, mechanics, and writing proficiencies? Which skills do I excel in and which need polishing?
- Intellectualism: What genres of writing have I learned (examples—short stories, letters, protest poetry, journaling, social media posts)? What do I know about these genres? What are the histories of these genres? What topics do I want to write about?
- Criticality: How can my pen be used to advance humanity and give voice to injustices? What is the purpose and power of my pen? What requires the urgency of my pen?
- Joy: How can my pen be used to share happiness, beauty, truth, aesthetics, and social change to humanity?
These questions are a productive starting place to begin to develop CHRE thinking and practice in the English classroom. The pursuits become motion and action, moving toward Toni Cade Bambara’s example of using writing to resist and recast a better future—to do the work and to participate in transforming the world to be a better dwelling for all of us.
Ladson-Billings, G.J. (1997). The Dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African-American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Marie Moreno, Ed.D., has over 20 years of experience, specializing in newcomer and second-language acquisition. She is passionate about refugee and immigrant education by focusing on social and emotional needs and newcomer programming:
Newcomer classrooms/schools can be the most diverse, with many cultures and languages represented. Transforming your classroom to be culturally responsive is not a “one thing” or “one event.” It’s a process that will take time with consistent implementation. Starting at the beginning of the year, develop a classroom flag, a classroom poster, or a tangible object that the class (collectively) will contribute their heritage to this object or product. For example, in my classroom, I had students representing nine countries, and the students were very different, but they all had one thing in common: No one had any English skills. The first thing you must establish is a place of trust. I start with myself.
Who is your teacher? Does she have children? What are my hobbies? Students need to see that teachers are humans, too. Make this a lesson at the beginning of the year and build literacy using sentence stems. The goal is to make the students understand who their teacher is as a person and lower any barriers or reservations they may have—especially if they had a bad experience with adults in their home country. The next day, you have the same experience with “self.” Each student will complete an activity describing their background. What “gifts” do they bring to the classroom? What are their beliefs and cultures? Have students share using sentence stems. This activity (usually the second day of school) serves three purposes: (1) The teacher is learning each student’s background; (2) the students are learning each student’s contribution to the classroom; and (3) a product will be created representing the collective responses of everyone in the room. That product is then displayed in the classroom throughout the year. The teacher has collected information to use for the rest of the year from this one activity.
Independent reading practice is essential to building literacy. With the information I gathered from students, I would ensure I had books and articles to read for students to complete their assignments. Don’t also forget to include choice. For example, I had books about Guatemala traditions, Arabic food, pyramids in Egypt, or African art. During independent reading practice, a student can complete one of three assignments. A student can (1) create a trifold or flyer of the information they learned, (2) complete a T-Chart with what I knew/what I did not know, or (3) write a book review. I have done this activity many times throughout the year. Change the books, provide additional resources, or have other materials that will generate conversations. The goal is for students to learn from each other and appreciate cultures in the classroom.
This activity builds a classroom of mutual respect and is culturally responsive to all students in the school. I have found that students will appreciate one another and even report bullying from others because they have a sense of responsibility and accountability to each other. When a new student enrolls in our classrooms, I love to hear students ask questions about their backgrounds because they feel they are experts now.
Thanks to Gholdy and Marie for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.
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