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Beyond Flesh-Colored Crayons: The Four Components of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

This is the second in a four part series on culturally responsive pedagogy. The first post looked at the myths around culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP). This one looks at its key components.

I’ve always been an equity-focused, social justice educator since I cut my teeth on teaching as a writing tutor and tutor trainer at UC Berkeley. It was where I first put a name to this thing about cross-cultural teaching.

Most of the tutors at that time were White and most of the tutees were Latino, Asian immigrants, and African American. I was one of only a few African American tutors. Yet a lot of the tutors were not being successful with helping students of color improve their writing. Students would just stop coming.

This was a big problem. But I was very successful with my students. What was I doing that other tutors weren’t? It was about recognizing culture as a key to building tust and scaffolding learning.

I was eventually asked to train other writing tutors,

But it wasn’t until I was a mother and had to send my own kids into the public school system that I began to think about culturally responsive pedagogy in terms of its core elements – what does it look like? What elements is it made up of? And how good were teachers at it?

I remember taking my son to a new school, and we went to visit the classroom he’d been assigned to. The teacher, a young White woman, greeted us. I liked her. As she showed us around, you could tell she was trying to make us feel welcomed and that her was all about honoring diversity. She pointed out the multicultural books on the shelves of the classroom library and a few other things. But she was most proud of their flesh colored crayon collection.

We all paused and stood around it like it was a museum exhibit.

I wanted to say, “Lady, it ain’t about the crayons!” But I maintained my cool. I really did appreciate what she was trying to do, but I know that being culturally responsive and creating a space where my young African American son was going to thrive was about so much more than the crayons .

Unfortunately, as a teacher educator and professional developer, I have come across this narrow view of what culturally responsiveness looks like time and time again.

So as part of this series on culturally responsive pedagogy, I wanted to break it down a bit and lay out the four core components that make up this concept of culturally responsive pedagogy. In future posts, I’ll talk about what each component looks like in operation. And I hope to share stories of educators who are developing their own practice in this areas.

But first things first. Right now I just to help lay out common language and understanding about what components make up culturally responsive pedagogy.

Affirmation: I See You

The first component of culturally responsive is about affirming the child. The way I often hear some teachers talk about this aspect of CRP is “making the student feel good about himself”.

Affirming the student is not about pumping up his ego or self-esteem.

It’s more like the idea of “I see you” like in the movie, Avatar — I recognize and accept you as you are. I understand and nurture your multiple identities – as a learner, person of color, as a boy or a girl. And none of these aspects of you are in conflict to me.

The truth is students of color already feel good about themselves. What makes them feel bad is the lack of affirmation around their cultural identities — the way they talk, dress or interact with others that tie them to their family and communities.

Often students of color learn earlier on that in order to “do school” you can’t “do you”. Instead, they get the message that you’ve got to keep parts of yourself hidden or out and out deny those parts of yourself in order to fit in.

A point to keep in mind. Simply having artifacts from other countries in Africa, Asia or South America doesn’t automatically translate into students feeling affirmed.

Validation: There are Two Americas

Validation is the next part of the equation. Where affirmation celebrates the whole child, validation is all about acknowledging the socio-political context students live in.

What does that mean?

Well, it’s not about giving lip-service to the history of slavery or oppression, but being able to let students know that you know it’s not a level playing field out there. There are disparities in the quality of health care, housing, and employment, experienced by people of color. There are large opportunity gaps. These realities exist in light of the fact that recent Gallup poll reveals that 49% of White Americans think racism isn’t a problem while 78% of African American and Latinos did.

Now imagine if someone is telling you there’s a problem because they have first hand experience with it, but you don’t think there’s a problem. You end up discounting or totally disregarding what they say. This is the experience of many families of color. It is this discounting and disregard that leads to a lack of validation. As a result, students don’t feel heard.

But it’s not enough to acknowledge injustice and inequity in the past. Validation requires we tell the truth about our current society, without blame or judgment. It asks us to tell the whole story, from different perspectives. It also means giving our students a voice, asking about their experiences and opinions.

The process of validation flips the traditional view of classroom instruction and learning as a neutral process removed from the concepts of power, politics, history and context and instead uses these issues tools of instruction and discourse.

Cognition: I Get It

While validation might be the most neglected aspect of the four components, I think this areas is the most misunderstood.

I can’t tell you the number of times teachers and instructional coaches I’ve worked with have pointed out that state standards and district guidelines are telling us to use the student’s culture to guide instruction, but very few of them feel able to really use it to deepen learning, beyond giving a motivational boost to the start of a lesson.

Using CRP as a cognitive aid means using the student’s culture as a reference point for helping them understand concepts. This is where learning theory, neuroscience and culturally responsive teaching all meet up.

I don’t want to geek out too much on that right now. Suffice to say, we only understand new information or concepts in relationship to what we already know and understand. We only know what we know through our own cultural interpretation. It’s what makes up our schema.

Funny word, big idea. Think of it as an individual’s “tree of knowledge” where he hangs his concepts and experiences in a particular order based on his own cultural orientation and associations.

When teachers use students’ cultural knowledge as a point of reference for the comparison or contrast, students grasp concepts and processes at much deeper levels. For example, Bob Moses, creator of the Algebra Project used the New York subway system as a powerful analogy to help urban students in Harlem understand core concepts in Algebra.

Right now, the National Urban Alliance’s Pedagogy of Confidence focuses heavily on the intersection of culture and cognition.

Processing: I Remember

Last but not least is the fourth component – processing information. This is probably the component that is most stereotyped after the first, affirmation.

While the cognitive understanding component helps a student “get it”, information processing is about helping him “hold on to it”. It is about helping the student internalize content to the level of automaticity where he can quickly locate and retrieve information from his memory banks.

Different cultures favor particular ways to process information. The dominant culture right now favors reading and writing as solitary activities. But for some cultural groups, information processing has verve, defined as “vivaciousness; liveliness; animation.” It means processing through movement, recitation, music, and song. And it is highly social and interactive.

“A. Wade Boykin, Professor of Psychology at Howard University identified nine dimensions of African American culture that find their roots in West Africa and showed how these nine dimensions could impact African American students’ achievement. These dimensions are spirituality, harmony, movement, affect, individual expressionism, communalism, social time perspective, oral tradition, and verve. Further, he defined verve as having energy, being intense, and having expressive body language, which also implies a propensity to remain stimulating and lively. He also contended that it denotes a tendency to attend to several concerns at once and to shift focus among them rather than to focus on a single concern or series of concerns in a rigidly sequential fashion.”

–The Academic Task Performance of Afro-American Children, 1983.

Processing information is all about helping students remember, not just for a test or to regurgitate facts back out, but to know something and to remember it. The reality is all new learning must be coupled with old knowledge; we remember more effectively when we do something with the information. All students benefit from active information processing, but understanding the unique ways this shows up for students of color allows students to leverage their home culture’s ways of learning and processing information.

Operationalizing CRP

So these are the four parts of culturally responsive pedagogy. Just knowing them is the first step toward incorporating culturally responsive pedagogy into your teaching practices. The next post will look at the neuroscience behind each one and begin to talk about what it looks like to put them into operation.

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