SEEN Community Update – Culturally Responsive Teaching

Dear SEEN Community,

Our November 30 panel brought the discussion of critical race theory from the hallowed halls of law schools and social impact in education to think about how the theory informs what happens in classrooms. Not all educators know critical race theory, and none of them teach it in P-12 settings, but nevertheless the central tenets of the theory – that systemic inequities persist and that outcomes in education are driven by systemic issues – inform higher ed, teacher education, and actual P-12 classrooms. That brought us to an in-depth discussion of culturally-responsive teaching – the “other” CRT. With a panel of educators from throughout the Northeast and down the Atlantic coast covering the gamut of ages and subjects – art, science, multi-language learners, preschool, elementary, and high school – our second panel in the Critical Conversations series focused on culturally-responsive teaching, and how it looks in practice. 

Most importantly, we took two key things from our panelists:

  1. Culturally-responsive teaching is just good teaching.
  2. Issues of identity come up regularly, and the goal is to talk about these issues in developmentally-appropriate ways and at that moment.

Culturally-responsive teaching is not new, of course. As we just concluded our Ralph Ellison reading and discussion group with C.R.E.A.T.E. Community Studios this week, we’re reminded of his view. Forty years ago, at a conference at Bank Street School of Education, Ellison argued for culturally-responsive teaching. He recalled how as a young child in Tuskegee, he’d heard all too often that he wasn’t good and that his culture was deficient. It was only as an adult and a renowned author that Ellison began traveling broadly, and learning that his experiences both paralleled and incorporated other cultures that were celebrated (for example: in Paris, he learned that chitterlings are part of high-end French cuisine), and realized his experiences were diminished in school. His question in 1963 was “What These Children Are Like,” and why it is that the “troublesome 30 percent” were still failing school, unable to read and write. He argued that the problem is not the children, but schools that devalue children’s experiences and identify them as “culturally deprived.” The best teacher then, according to Ellison, “is the teacher who can convey to them an awareness that they do indeed come from somewhere, some place of human value, and that what they’ve learned there does count in the larger society.” Instead of insisting upon a single hypothetical student, culturally-responsive teaching drives teachers to “build bridges,” making connections between home, school, culture, and society.

That “troubling 30” continues to remain contentious today. People opposed to diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives often repeat stats about the number of students at grade level. In recent school board meetings, for example, public comments have included reference to only 68% of students reading at grade level, immediately followed by a call to focus on reading, writing, and math before addressing diversity, equity, and inclusion. But culturally-responsive education and DEI initiatives are imperative to addressing these issues. Our panelists kept returning to the need to be student-centered in everything from classroom expectations to curricular choices, as well as demonstrating that each and every student can succeed in everything from the physical setting of the classroom to the curriculum to the school policies.

Our panelists shared a number of interventions, including decorating classrooms with photos of former students or identifying successful professionals in your subject area (math, biology, chemistry, history, literature) who come from diverse backgrounds, and sharing their stories. Another example discussed in the forum was using diverse picture books, not to talk about diversity, but to incorporate it into the curriculum – using books like The Proudest Blue (2019) to discuss punctuation and capitalization with elementary students. We also heard about having students develop word problems that engage with their experiences, contacting home when students succeed (and not just when they are struggling), and involving students in planning and expectation setting.

One other key takeaway was how we can support teachers doing good work – by going to Board of Education meetings and advocating for diversity, equity, and inclusion policies, and expressing support for teachers. Please consider attending any of the upcoming school board meetings.

This program was the second in the “Critical Conversations: A Community Forum on Critical Race Theory” series, a collaboration between Saratoga Educational Equity Network (SEEN), MLK Saratoga, Skidmore College’s Black Studies Program, and SUNY Empire State College’s Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Save the date for our third session, scheduled as part of MLK Weekend on Saturday, January 15, 2022.

~ The SEEN Team

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