Forum For Thought

The Big Secret of Culturally Relevant Teaching

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Zachary Malter, Policy Research Associate

What can after-school programs teach people about more traditional educational settings? Recently AYPF examined how competency based education that takes place after school can inform classes that take place during the regular school day. For me, a former high school English teacher, I learned a great deal about effective, culturally relevant teaching as an advisor for an after-school and summer enrichment program.

Working for these programs exposed me to relevant content and engaging instructional methods that excite students about learning. The program’s curriculum—which was meant to cultivate leadership and foster conversations about diversity—included a session on American history, for instance, that equally valued the experiences of different racial groups and painted an honest portrait of the country’s history of oppression. Students participated in call and response activities, group chants, movement exercises, guided meditations, and structured written and verbal reflections that gave them a chance to unpack their own personal connection to the material being presented. The range of teaching methods allowed students with disparate learning styles and from different cultural backgrounds to come away with something profound. Students’ rich learning and engagement shone through in their responses to nightly surveys.

After leaving the summer program, I made significant adjustments to the teaching practices I had been using in my 9th grade English classroom. Participatory mock trial “debates” became the centerpiece of my class, the culmination of each of my units. I had my students read books and stories with characters who look like them, and introduced deeper historical context in my lessons. Thanks to the teaching tools that I had acquired over the summer, students were more personally invested in my class.

The after-school and summer program for which I worked, like many others, prove that great teaching means being attentive to the cultural needs of students. These programs employ a set of practices known to some educators as culturally relevant teaching.

Culturally relevant teaching (or culturally responsive teaching) was defined in 1994 by Gloria Ladson-Billings as “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” Culturally relevant teaching can refer to both the pedagogical methods and the course content itself. Teachers who adopt this approach utilize active teaching, recognize the importance of cultural sensitivity, and place a strong emphasis on classroom discourse.

A recent study by professors at Stanford Graduate School of Education revealed the positive impacts of culturally relevant teaching. Students in San Francisco’s high schools who took ethnic studies courses, which included material related to students’ diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds that helped build social and political consciousness, were more likely to get higher grades, attend school more often, and obtain more credits compared to similar students who did not take the courses. This research gives an exciting base of evidence to support culturally relevant teaching. One of the researchers, Thomas S. Dee, called it: “the first causally credible evidence on the academic effects of culturally relevant pedagogy.” The study also confirms what many after-school providers would have probably already suspected.

After all, the big secret of culturally relevant teaching is that it has been a cornerstone of many after-school programs for a long time. After-school programs offer many examples of culturally relevant teaching in action.

As instructional leaders re-design curricula, they should look closely at how after-school programs utilize culturally relevant teaching. Teachers should consider visiting an after-school or summer enrichment program to observe how student engagement works outside the strict, outdated confines of a traditional classroom. Teachers in all academic disciplines, not just in the on the rise, but still uncommon ethnic studies, should infuse the principles of culturally relevant teaching into their work.

With the increasing ethnic diversity in public schools that AYPF has previously explored, and students of color outnumbering white students in public schools, culturally relevant teaching will become all the more important. Additionally, since only 50% of public school students report feeling engaged and 28% of students report having fun in school, culturally responsive teaching deserves greater attention in education reform conversations.

Perhaps some of the answers to the elusive question of how great teaching works—whether it be in the form of culturally relevant teaching or other non-traditional methods—can be found in an unlikely place: after school.

Zachary Malter is a Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum.

The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF’s events and policy reports are made possible by the support of a consortium of philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.

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