As I sat down to write this article on culturally responsive instruction for Black History Month, I stared at the blank screen and asked myself, “Where do I begin?” and “How much do I share?” Do I start with a message of love and tolerance for all or do I share of the myriad of Black inventors, artists, writers, athletes and scholars who have contributed to the colorful tapestry that is America?
I then realized, if such a task as writing on culturally responsive instruction brings me to pause, how must our teachers feel with the challenge of actually being culturally responsive in a classroom with students who may not reflect their own cultural heritage or background? I’m sure these educators find themselves asking the same question, “Where do I begin?” [insert puzzled looking emoji face].
And thus, this is where I will begin, with the ever so important ‘critical self-reflection’, a reasoning process to make meaning of one’s experiences. This process allows educators to explore our educational practices and assumptions about the students we work with and how these factors influence what occurs in our classrooms and schools. It is when we engage in deep reflection that we can question and challenge our practices and worldviews to experience a truly transformative and deeply personal shift in mindset and skill set. Critical self-examination and inquiry are vital work to teachers aspiring to be culturally responsive as it allows them to examine the implicit biases that influence our beliefs, attitudes and yes, our instructional practices.
I’ve provided some excellent resources at the end of this article to help you get started on your journey of critical self-reflection and cultural responsiveness. Keep in mind that one does not simply become culturally responsive, as it is not a final destination or act of completion, but instead an ongoing process of personal/professional growth and transformation.
Culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2010; Ladson-Billings, 2009), is an instructional approach that calls for using students’ cultural background and knowledge as an asset to learning in the classroom, setting high expectations and providing opportunities for students to challenge inequities in society and promote critical consciousness. Culturally responsive instruction benefits ALL learners, not just those of color, and should not exist in a vacuum or be regulated to only certain times of the year. Furthermore, teachers should adopt culturally responsive modes of instruction even in educational settings that lack diversity. Otherwise, not only would we pose a disservice to students of color by not capitalizing on their cultural frames of references as assets to their learning, but we would hinder other students from gaining access and awareness to the many rich and beautiful cultures and ethnicities that exist in our society and ill-prepare them to successfully navigate our diverse workforce. This awareness is essential and foundational to the tolerance and compassion needed to peacefully and equitably coexist in our world today. But awareness doesn’t ensure action, and as catalysts of change to address educational disparities, we must be responsive to the learning needs of our most underserved student populations. We must act to ensure educational equity, as “equity is empathy in action.”
In my research on school leadership, I encountered the work of Principal Kafele, educator and author of The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence, who challenged educators with the question, “What if your classroom was a selfie?” Students enter our classrooms daily seeking to see themselves reflected in the “image” but are all too often met without any identifying characteristics or recognition of who they are or where they are from. Culturally responsive instruction allows students to properly see themselves reflected, centered and valued in the curriculum, assessments and physical learning environment.
For this to occur, teachers must be culturally competent and aware of different cultures and how to infuse students’ diverse cultural experiences and backgrounds into their classrooms. This fusion needs to move beyond surface level celebrations of food, song and dance, but instead consist of an inclusion of students’ cultural norms, ideologies, gender, language and religious beliefs. Culturally responsive classrooms create a community of learners who experience less disciplinary infractions, increased student engagement and academic performance, increased critical thinking and civic engagement as students are empowered to make sense of and challenge the world around them.
As you near the end of this article, I challenge you with the question, “Does your classroom selfie solely reflect your culture and worldview or that of your students? In other words, what if your classroom was your students’ selfie? Does it reflect them or you? Why or why not?”
What better month than Black History Month to learn more about developing a culturally responsive approach to teaching? As there is no growth in the comfort zone, let’s challenge one another to stretch beyond the walls of our comfort zone to learn more about culturally inclusive instructional practices that help diverse students learn in ways that are most meaningful to them.
You can get started by reviewing the resources below!
Milner, H. R. (2010). Start where you are, but don’t stay there. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Steele, Claude. (2010). Whistling Vivaldi : and other clues to how stereotypes affect us. New York :W.W. Norton & Company.
Ladson-Billings, G (2009). The Dream Keepers: Successful teacher for African American children. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Gay, G. (2010). Culturally responsive teaching (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
Raymond, J.(2018) Equity is Empathy in Action. (n.d.). Retrieved February 19, 2019, fromhttps://www.wholechildchallenge.org/community/2018/8/27/jonathan-raymond-equity-is-empathy-in-action
Kafele, B. (2018). The Principal 50: Critical Leadership Questions for Inspiring Schoolwide Excellence. Alexandria, Virginia: ASCD