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Response: Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy 'Increases Student Engagement & Learning'

(This is the last post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

This week's question is:

What does culturally sustaining pedagogy look like in the classroom?


This question, and the columns providing responses, comprise a special project being guest-hosted by Django Paris (Michigan State University) , PhD & Travis J. Bristol, PhD  (Stanford Center For Opportunity Policy in Education). You can listen to a ten-minute conversation I had with Django on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Part One in this series including an introduction by Django and contributions from Charlene Mendoza, Lorena German, David Flores, Matt Knielling and Gabriella Corales.

Today's post consists of a short introduction by Travis, and commentaries from Linda Bauld, Brian Pew, Lakisha Odlum, and Cyrene Crooms.

Introduction From Travis J. Bristol

Travis J. Bristol, a former high school English teacher in New York City public schools and teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program, is a research and policy fellow at the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE). His research interests focus on the practices that support teacher and student learning and the policies that enable and constrain teacher workplace experiences and retention. The Washington Post, Education Week, NPR, and NBC News have highlighted findings from Travis's recent study that examined how Black male teachers' school-based experiences affected their job satisfaction and decisions to stay or leave the teaching profession. In the fall, he will join the faculty of the Boston University School of Education as an assistant professor. Follow him on Twitter @tjacksonbristol:

In this second series, we continue to share reflections from teachers on how they have organized their classrooms to enact culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). CSP is an essential mindset and tool for increasing student engagement and learning. As Django Paris noted in his introduction, teachers must begin to create and to enact content that responds to the growing racial/ethnic and linguistic diversity among our students. Examples of how educators redesign the conditions for learning around CSP can serve as a useful tool for teachers, particularly novices, looking to grow their professional capacity. Future work on teachers' use of CSP should include "images of practice (see here)" that capture in the moment teaching. These images will provide yet another tool to assist teachers with developing strategies for redesigning the conditions to sustain students' cultural and linguistic diversity.  

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Response From Linda Bauld

Linda Bauld is the director of the National Board Resource Center, which provides support for teachers pursuing National Board certification and promotes accomplished teaching. She taught in elementary school for 23 years in high-needs schools. Bauld received her Board certification in 2006, and since that time has been supporting candidates while also teaching. She received her M.A. in Education and Reading Specialist credential from San Francisco State University, with a focus on language acquisition and literacy. She also spent 7 years as a teacher researcher using lesson study to research effective lesson design in math and language arts. 

Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy through National Board Certification

For me, culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) starts with being curious about and respectful of the cultures of the students we teach. As a White teacher teaching primarily students of color, that seemed at first glance to be simply good teaching. As a National Board Certified teacher with over twenty years experience, I came to realize it is much more complicated.

The more I learned about the events that were seminal in my students' lives like First Communion, Quinseñera, weekly church activities, and various family activities, the more I realized how different my culture was from my students. That got me asking questions.

Soon I was building units of study and lessons around my students' lives. One unit was an inquiry around our various traditions. Parents were asked to share artifacts, realia, ceremonies, and food. Students compared and contrasted different traditions in the world and in our class with the idea that we all have important traditions and learning about them helps us grow in understanding and respect.

In the past few years, I have learned that CSP requires me to be aware of my own cultural lens and biases. My cultural ignorance can cause unintended harm. For me it was lowering my expectations for two Latino students who recently transitioned into English-only instruction. With the help of my colleagues, I learned that I could maintain rigor if I used resources within their family and created scaffolds that supported learning. 

Now I am the Director of the National Board Resource Center at Stanford University, and I support teachers as they move through the certification process. National Board Certification is fundamentally about CSP. Teachers must show their knowledge of students, and how they use that knowledge to create an equitable, rigorous learning environment. All 25 Certificate areas have a Knowledge of Student and Equity standard.

These standards were written by teachers and are revisited every few years. It's an affirmation to the wisdom of accomplished educators that these standards are vibrantly relevant today. The Architecture of Accomplished Teaching is National Board's instructional sequence tool, which begins with knowledge of students and aligning that knowledge with high-level, relevant goals.

Another powerful part of the National Board Certification process is the deep reflection and analysis teachers undertake. It was during my analysis that I had a chance to expand my cultural lens and grow in my cultural competence.

Imagine what could happen if states and districts used the National Board Standards and Architecture so all teachers could become more culturally competent and effective in reaching all students?

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Response From Brian Pew

Brian Pew is a graduate of Sarah Lawrence College and the City College of New York, Brian Pew has been working in New York City Public Schools since 2010. Mr. Pew is passionate about finding ways to make the humanities exciting and relevant for urban youth of color in 6th through 12th grades. As a student of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and Hip Hop Education, Mr. Pew uses technology, youth culture and hands-on activities to collaborate with his students in shared learning experiences. He has also taught writing on the collegiate level at Mercy College and to incarcerated men in the New York State Department of Corrections:

Making Connections: A Message in the Music

In a recent unit on Marjane Satrapi's "Persepolis" with my New York City 10th graders, my students and I infused contemporary culture with the experiences of a young Middle Eastern girl during the Iranian revolution. The summative assessment required students to react to the protagonist's, Marji, choice of music throughout the novel. I also charged students with creating a playlist of contemporary music that one could smuggle to someone in a similar situation of oppression today.

Throughout the unit my students boldly reacted to oppressive forces brought down upon the Iranian people. "Ah, hell no!" was a common refrain heard throughout my room. My students' vernacular generated lists gathered on chart paper throughout the room where we gathered "Ah hell no!" moments. As we progressed though our reading, we developed a resource, in the form of a shared list, which helped us generate song ideas for playlists.

Throughout the text, Marji mentions Michael Jackson, Kim Wilde, and Iron Maiden. I exposed my students to this music as we read and analyzed how some of the songs helped Marji in her struggle to deal with the oppressive government that was making her life difficult.. The decades old music was met with jeers and a couple more "hell no" moments, but eventually we all experienced the cathartic relief of stress through music. Then, as my students worked on their own playlists, they introduced me to Drake, Nas, Kanye West, Iggy Azalea, The Weekend, Kendrick Lamar, Jamila Woods and Ghostface Killah. One learner, Brandon, who had to this point been reluctant to participate in my class, was one of the students who asked if he could share a few tracks from his playlist. He then proceeded to play Run DMCs "Tricky" explaining that if he wanted to help people who were oppressed today with music he would need to teach them about Hip Hop's roots. He wanted to show everyone his running-man too, which he did in class as kids chanted: "It's Tricky to rock a rhyme, to rock a rhyme that's right on time."

In their written reflections at the end of the unit, my students expressed an understanding of Marji's connection with music. Students had to provide a justification for each of their selected songs. Allowing students to bring their own music into our literature unit was a culturally sustaining practice as it helped to both increase student performance and center their identities: my students became personally invested in Marji's struggle. Students' engagement and comprehension increased more than I have seen before.

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Response From Lakisha Odlum

Lakisha Odlum is a native New Yorker, and received her education from St. John's University and Teachers College, Columbia University. She has taught Literature and Composition for twelve years on the elementary, secondary, and collegiate levels. She currently teaches middle school English Language Arts at the Eagle Academy for Young Men of Southeast Queens--an all boys public school in New York City  that caters to the needs of students of color. She is also an Instructor in the department of English Education at Teachers College, where she teaches courses to pre-service teachers.  Follow her @MzUrbanEducator:

Enacting Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy Through Multicultural Literature

The Common Core Learning Standards (CCLS) provides teachers with a list of recommended rigorous texts that can be incorporated into their curriculum. Although the texts recommended for middle school students represent a somewhat diverse group of authors, the eras in which the texts were written are not contemporary.  As a middle school English Language Arts teacher of African American boys in New York City, it is important for me to introduce my students to a range of texts that reflect multiple experiences. Teaching Frederick Douglass's "Narrative" (A text recommended for middle school in the CCLS) is relevant and responsive to my students' experiences as Black boys in America, but I must also include texts that will show them how to apply Douglass's message about resilience, advocacy, and education to their lives in the 21st century. For me, culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) is the inclusion of diverse texts in my classroom that honor the unique experiences of today's children of color. To achieve this goal, I incorporate some of the following texts in my curriculum:

Coe Booth's "Kinda Like Brothers": My students love this text because it addresses the experiences of adolescent African American boys in the 21st century. Coe Booth discusses police brutality in the African community in a way that is honest and heartfelt, and she creates a character that is proud of every aspect of his Caribbean-American heritage.

Judith Ortiz Cofer's "Call Me Maria": The beauty of "Call Me Maria" is the weaving of Spanish, Dominant American English, and Spanglish within the story. Maria comes to understand herself as a Puerto Rican and an American through the multiplicity of the languages she possesses.

Sherman Alexie's "The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian" & Gene Luen Yang's "American Born Chinese": Both novels do a great job depicting the complexity of the experiences of Native and second-generation Americans. The authors demonstrate the damaging effects of stereotypes on the psyches of Native American and Chinese youth. Ultimately, the main characters understand and embrace the myriad parts of their identities.

Varian Johnson's "The Great Greene Heist": Johnson's action-packed, middle school novel includes a cast of racially and ethnically diverse, well-rounded characters, whose intelligence and success are not dependent upon their race. The novel touches on issues of racism and stereotyping, but does so in a subtle, yet empowering way.

Although I teach African American students, the texts I discuss will resonate with all middle school students, regardless of their race/ethnicity or gender. That is the beauty of incorporating diverse literature in the classroom, and that's what makes it CSP--it enables all students to recognize the similarities and differences between their experiences as Americans, can instill empathy, and develop allies in the fight for justice in our country.

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Response From Cyrene Crooms

Cyrene Crooms is a special educator with over eleven years of teaching experience in New York City and Newark Public Schools. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Teacher Education and Teacher Education Development at Montclair State University.  Cyrene is a committed teacher for social justice and looks forward to making a contribution to the field of Teacher Education.

The Power of Language in the Classroom

"You let us speak Spanish here." These were the words that my fourth grade student shared with me in our reading group. This statement caught me off guard.  What did she mean that I let her and her group members speak Spanish, their primary language?  I slowly began to realize that my small office that was transformed into a classroom for upper-elementary labeled "at-risk" readers was a safe space for my students to be themselves. I would soon discover that my classroom was one of the few locations in our school, which enrolled 35% of an English Language Learner (ELLs) student population, where students' home languages were welcomed. In reality, most of our students spoke at least one other language and/or dialect as soon as they saw their loved ones in the schoolyard.  They were all multilingual and multicultural learners.

During another small group session with my readers, a child encouraged her classmate to explain his ideas in Spanish.  We were discussing the unfortunate circumstances of the protagonist in Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli.  The narrator described how the myth of Maniac Magee had come about.  I decided to ask the inquisitive learners if they could add their own interpretation to how myths emerge and proliferate.  A male student, who was often very outspoken in non-academic content areas but less so in class, decided to participate.  As he struggled to make a connection to a popular myth in Mexican culture, one of my female students assuredly said to him, "Say it in Spanish!"  The young man continued to try to express his ideas by saying, " Como se..." Unfortunately, this student was unable to retrieve the memory that he wanted to convey.  Despite his inability to articulate his connection, the often-reticent readers and speakers in class became engaged and confident learners. 

Our book talks about Maniac Magee debunked myths about my so-called "at-risk" English Language Learners.  We had complex and difficult conversations about race, class, immigration, homelessness, being orphaned, and other sensitive issues.  The same students who were deemed "below proficient" and "in need of remediation" became deep thinkers and multilingual communicators.  In my small office-turned-classroom, my students and I developed a safe space to learn and be ourselves.  I became more than just the "reading teacher" and they became more than just "struggling readers."  We WERE readers, thinkers, and communicators.  These two vignettes from my experiences as a literacy interventionist, encapsulates one of many ways I cultivate culturally sustaining pedagogy in my practice with my students.  The most fascinating part of these events was that it all started with my students' belief that I would let them speak Spanish in our classroom.


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Thanks to Django and Travis for guest-hosting this series, and to Linda, Brian, Lakisha and Cyrene for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment  with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Look for the next "question-of-the-week" in a few days.

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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