Education always has a buzz word or phrase of the hour. Differentiation. Rigor. Common Core. State Standards. Restorative Justice. Educational Equity. These buzz words and phrases flit out just as quickly as they flit in. Right now I’m noticing that “Culturally Relevant Pedagogy” is a term floating around the education community. But what does culturally relevant pedagogy even mean?
According to Heather Coffey, culturally relevant teaching is a term created by Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) to describe “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” Participating in culturally relevant teaching essentially means that teachers create a bridge between students’ home and school lives, while still meeting the expectations of the district and state curricular requirements. Culturally relevant teaching utilizes the backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences of the students to inform the teacher’s lessons and methodology.
Culturally relevant teaching is the only way I know how to teach. I know firsthand how much learning about the achievements of women and men who come from the same communities that I do has played a role in empowering me. If students don’t see themselves reflected in what they’re being taught, what impetus is there for them to learn? During my own education, I was fortunate to have teachers who made an effort to infuse opportunities for me to see myself in their curricula. Was what they imparted useful? Yes. Was it enough? No. Even as a child I could see that they had me and the other Black children in the class in mind when they taught us about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Harriet Tubman. But that’s where they and many other teachers get it wrong, too.
In order to use “cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes,” the teacher has to be consciously aware of and sensitive to the culture of his/her students — and not in the usual, stereotypical way — like limiting Black students’ lessons to Dr King or Harriet Tubman like my teachers, albeit well-intentioned, did to me. Teachers can’t teach what they don’t know. I’ve seen too many teachers try to teach from a culturally relevant lens, fall flat on their faces, and do more harm than good because they failed to put in the work required to acquaint oneself with a culture outside of oneself.
So how does a teacher achieve this?
If you are a teacher who is seeking to teach in a way that is more culturally inclusive of the cultures of your students, finding a personalized learning community on Twitter that hosts weekly chats about CRP is a great way to go about doing so. I participated in a #2ndaryELA chat this past Tuesday that I was invited to by my colleague and EduBestie, Lakisha Odlum, that was all about culturally relevant pedagogy. The dialogue and ideas shared in that chat were phenomenal. We discussed barriers to not only teachers teaching from a culturally relevant lens but also students wanting to learn about their culture. We shared mentor texts and hashed out how culturally relevant pedagogy is a piece of the equity in education conversation that is being discussed heavily in education at the moment — all within the course of a half an hour! It invigorated my commitment to teach my students lessons that will make a difference in their lives because, on some level, it is about their lives and they can see themselves reflected in their schoolwork.
Culturally relevant pedagogy is so much more than educational jargon. It is a growth mindset teaching philosophy that, when embraced, stimulates lifelong learning for both the student and the teacher.