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Cultural Competence Teachings Bring Unity into the Classrooms

Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.
-Stephen R. Covey

Culturally Relevant Teaching 101

The term culturally relevant teaching was created by Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994) who defined the concept as an educational form of instruction that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural references to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. This approach to teaching involves teachers building a bridge from students' experience at home to their experience in the classroom, bringing elements into their daily learning at school, which validate their culture and make lessons 'hit home' because of those connections. Ultimately, it supports and further drives students to uphold their cultural identities. And calls for students to develop critical perspectives that challenge societal inequalities.

Culturally Responsive Teaching 101

Culturally responsive teaching, on the other hand, validates students’ culture and believes that it is worthy of being taught in the formal curriculum by instilling cultural information, resources, and materials in all content and skills taught in school.

In “Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice,” recipient of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education’s (AACTE) 2001 Outstanding Writing Award, Geneva Gay, demonstrates that all students perform better on multiple measures of achievement when teaching is filtered through their own cultural experiences. The bestselling text, now in its third edition, includes examples of culturally diverse curriculum content, programs and techniques that exemplify culturally responsive teaching, and makes an emphasis on positive, action-driven possibilities in student-teacher relationships.

Culturally Relevant Teaching, Culturally Responsive Teaching, and the Practice what you Preach Perspective

As I think about the details of both teachings, what comes to mind is the ‘practice what you preach’ saying you often hear. However, it’s a practice AND preach approach meshed into one within the classroom. The practice is the culturally responsive element that allows students to share their lived experiences with others and offer an in-depth look into what their diverse background looks like outside school walls. The preach aspect is the culturally relevant element that incorporates the cultural knowledge into the actual curriculum. The curriculum ‘comes to life’ in the classrooms and creates a safe space where students can share their backgrounds and experiences living as those who come from diverse backgrounds and communities. This approach is especially important for students of color and diverse students, whose experiences don’t often get the spotlight in the classroom. By embracing culturally responsive teaching, teachers can create learning environments that are multicultural and more supportive of each student’s ability to learn, while empowering them and helping them develop stronger academic skills.

“Teachers have more diverse classrooms today. We don’t have students sitting in front of us with the same background or experience, so instruction has to be different,” says Cherese Childers-McKee, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. “Students can see themselves in some of what they’re reading and not just the white, western world. The learning is more experimental, more hands-on… you’re showing them a worldwide, multicultural community and looking for different interpretations while relating it to what it means for society today.”

Design for Change USA encourages educators to join a movement of educators who are creating a pathway for students to make a difference. Through the virtual platform, students build awareness around social causes, including topics about diversity and racial inequities.

Educators have access to materials, which include:

  • Class activities, lesson plans, and learning paths

  • Social change podcasts that teach empathy and open discussion

  • Articles written by educators and social rights experts

The integration of culturally responsive and relevant strategies creates a powerful connection between classroom lessons and diverse student backgrounds. By building strategies to design and deliver culturally responsive lessons, teachers can better engage diverse learners and promote success for all students.

The Bigger Picture with the Culturally Responsive Curriculum

According to Education Week, culturally responsive (CR) approaches draw from students’ identities and cultures to reshape traditional teaching and learning.

CR aims include:

  • Building academic and social-emotional skills;

  • Affirming students’ social and cultural histories; and

  • Helping students recognize, analyze, and address social inequality and racist policies.

According to School of Online Education, to be successful, culturally responsive teaching strategies must be incorporated at every stage of the learning process, from curriculum development to assessment. Culturally responsive teaching is not a secondary or supplemental approach to education. Instead, every learning opportunity and school activity should take the ancestral and contemporary cultures, beliefs, and traditions of students into account.

Evidence from descriptive studies, often portraits of teacher’s expertise in CR, suggests that students who spend time in high-quality CR classrooms benefit in several ways. They are more engaged and active learners; they build knowledge of their community’s culture and history; they recognize and respond to inequality. Culturally responsive teachers help students of color achieve academically and maintain students’ cultural identity and connections to their community by developing camaraderie and shared responsibility.

A Work Still in Progress

Our classrooms have come a mighty long way with the addition of the CR curriculum in our classrooms. However, there’s still some ways to go. The first key is understanding that cultural proficiency does not happen in a short period of time. It is a process that requires willingness to change attitudes and beliefs.

Teachers must be willing to accept the challenge and equip themselves with new knowledge, tools and practices that are supported by decades of best-practice CR research. Only then can they move the needle to progressive change and begin to use culturally responsive best practices that really work in the classrooms today. Educators, allow Design for Change USA to assist you with achieving that goal by signing up for the virtual platform and using its resources that further support culturally responsive teaching. Is there a difference between the two educational theories – cultural relevance vs culturally responsive? No, not at all. They actually work together to achieve cultural competence both inside and outside classroom walls. It’s essentially a matter of thoughtfully selecting textbooks and educational materials that ‘practice’ diversity; and creating platforms where your students can ‘preach’ and bring those diverse perspectives straight to the eyes and ears of their fellow classmates and peers.


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