The Perkins Perspective | Features | Spring 2013
The Benefits of Culturally Responsive Classrooms
By Lisa Daniels, Executive Director, Unsung Heroes Living History Project
Gram, Rita Hernandez (far right), gathers with author Lisa Daniels (center back), Daniels' brother, Nick (center) and son, Logan (front).
My sage grandmother once told me that everyone is a teacher, and that every life experiences important events that lead to “teachable moments.” Gram’s ability to use “culturally relevant pedagogy” to communicate her practical knowledge and sage teachings sparked my passion for lifelong learning. When I began grade school, I experienced a different approach to schooling.
As an elementary student in the post-civil rights 1970s, I saw educators avoid conversations about race and cultural differences. We were living in a nation seeking to fulfill Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream. A nation that “judged [children] not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." As a consequence, our teachers taught a “color-blind” curriculum, devoid of people of color. In this egalitarian context, my classmates whose native language was not English suffered greatly.
Our teachers lacked the ability to communicate with them and the skills needed to effectively interact with these students and their families. Those students were relegated to a corner of the classroom, where they attempted to keep themselves busy until the final bell. My grandmother entered my elementary school to bring her culturally sensitive ethos to bear on our learning.
Helping Students See Themselves in the Lessons
Gram, a first-generation American whose native language was Spanish, took it upon herself to volunteer in the classroom five days a week, helping Spanish-speaking and low-achieving students learn to read. She developed her own lesson plans that included culturally responsive literature and poster boards with magazine clippings of people representative of the classroom community. Her students saw themselves in the lessons, were encouraged to learn, and improved their reading skills in one term.
I was fortunate enough to have Gram at home, constantly providing supplemental lessons and multicultural learning tools so that I might learn about how people of color contributed to our world. This omission of multicultural history in the classroom did not faze me, but it seems that many of my classmates were being cheated out of critical information. Like most small children from marginalized communities, we believed our teacher’s word as gospel.
Because our teachers took the color-blind approach to instruction, most of us weren’t taught to think critically. Instead, we were taught that being good students meant listening to and obeying our teachers.
As an adult with a background in education, I understand why some communities view teachers as walking encyclopedias who dispense knowledge and set the bounds of knowledge.
But I also see that many of my elementary school teachers had deficits in their content knowledge; they didn’t see us students as partners in the learning enterprise. As a result, my 1970s' classmates and I were not encouraged to visit the library or seek out knowledge on our own. As I continue my education as a graduate student, and reflect on my elementary school experiences, I am disturbed by their “dispensing knowledge” approach to education.
Looking Back to Look Ahead
During university and graduate school, I continued to reflect on what I learned and how I was taught. I found the implications of my experience deeply troubling: The color-blind approach limits students from cultivating a love of learning and developing a strong identity grounded in the history, experiences, and struggles of their communities of origin.
Many of my minority classmates haven’t been provided the opportunity to pursue higher education. Over the years, I’ve wondered how the color-blind approach has impacted their life chances.
Because not all students have a Gram at home or at school, a change needs to be made in the traditional curriculum, which typically contains culturally hegemonic tendencies, excluding important information about non-dominant cultures. Traditional practice is teacher-centered and possesses a one-way focus. This curriculum fails to provide a solid foundation for the university setting and real-life scenarios encountered after high school.
In contrast, culturally relevant instruction provides students with a critical approach to learning, helping them improve society with acquired knowledge and experience, according to progressive educator John Dewey. Culturally responsive education draws on student and teacher knowledge, experiences, values, and viewpoints. This enhances student-centered learning and allows the child to feel safe, experience equity and fair treatment, possess a sense of identity, while freeing them from oppression, according to Paolo Freire.
Students of culturally responsive education acquire self-identity in the curriculum, which boosts self-esteem and enhances the desire to learn. In addition, this curriculum provides educators and students an open forum to confront societal issues. Thus, the approach has positive consequences for undermining biases in the classroom and curriculum. Such pedagogy delivers a richer, more complex, and more effective experience for educators, parents, peers, and the community.
If public education is to benefit everyone and make productive citizens, our teaching practices should seek to level the playing field. How does this happen?
Both teachers and students need to be equal partners in the learning endeavor in order to discover the potential residing within them and for the children to perceive themselves as co-participants in building the future. Parents should actively participate in their children’s education, to question what subjects are taught and the teaching methods. Caring teachers, community building, and engaging students were traits that students considered essential in the classroom. Culturally responsive education provides those positive attributes to students, teachers, parents, and community, as well as a voice for marginalized students absent from the mainstream discourse. Through this method, every life experience truly becomes a teaching moment, as Gram taught me.
Lisa Daniels is pursuing her EdD in reading education at Nova Southeastern University. She received her BA in radio-television from San Francisco State and received her MA in bilingual/multicultural education from CSU Sacramento. She is also executive director of the Unsung Heroes Living History Project, a nonprofit oral history project that collects and preserves the legacies of African-Americans in the military.
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