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This lesson will define culturally relevant teaching and illustrate how this approach to instruction can boost student engagement, increase students’ feeling of belonging within their school, and positively impact student achievement.

What Is Culturally Relevant Teaching?

Gloria Ladson-Billings defines the concept of culturally relevant teaching (CRT) as ‘a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents 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.

Background of CRT

The philosophy of CRT is based in part on the 1993 research by Cornel Pewewardy who sought to find out why so many Native American children were unsuccessful in school.

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He concluded that, instead of honoring and exploring the variety of different cultures that students brought to school with them, educators ignored this in their students and attempted to teach mainstream white, middle class culture to students. Several other researchers in the 1990s then theorized that students suffered from a disconnect between their home and school experiences and that this made them less likely to engage in and excel at school.The term culturally relevant teaching is a term coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1992. Ladson-Billings described this approach as a way that would empower students to excel because the way in which they experience the curriculum makes sense in the context of their lives and helps them to develop confidence as learners.

Ladson-Billings found that students were put more at risk for academic failure if they did not see themselves or their culture represented in the classroom or felt they had to assume another culture (that of their mostly white, middle-class teachers) to be able to fit in and excel in school. From this research, she created a framework which teachers can incorporate to make learning relevant to students, particularly students of color.

Three Elements of CRT

When Ladson-Billings explained her research on culturally relevant teaching (also referred to as culturally relevant pedagogy) in 1992, she broke it down into three essential parts:

  • Academic success: Students who are the most likely to struggle in school (her work looked at African American students in particular) must find a way to excel in spite of the multitude of obstacles they face.

    Ladson-Billings found that teachers who had the highest-achieving African American students had unwaveringly high expectations for these students and helped students build confidence based on their own achievements.

  • Cultural competence: Teachers who can use student interests and culture as a bridge to learning new curriculum create an engaging learning environment and honor students’ cultural backgrounds. This helps students not to feel like they have to reject their own culture in order to succeed at school.

  • Critical consciousness: Ladson-Billings argues that excelling in school and having a sense of one’s own cultural self is important but needs to be taken one step further, moving the success from the individual level to a level that impacts the greater society. Having critical consciousness means that students are able to identify how inequities in society make it more difficult for people of color to succeed and how that larger structure can be changed to make a fairer world for everyone.

CRT in the Classroom

In order for CRT to be effective in a classroom environment, it is important to weave cultural consciousness into as many facets of the student experience as possible.

Instead of the Black History Month focus that comes late in the school year and is over when March arrives, this kind of approach often requires teachers to do quite a bit of research on their own to fill in textbook gaps and to find writing samples by authors of color. Teachers do not deviate from the curriculum in terms of the standards being taught but are very mindful of how students’ culture can be injected into a lesson so it better resonates with them.Let’s look at a few examples that show the contrast between culturally relevant teaching and a more traditional approach:Instead of having a teacher ask students to write a mnemonic device using well-known songs like the ABC song, a teacher could have students write a mnemonic rap. The activity is the same and covers the same material, but it does so in a way that speaks to different cultures.Along those same lines, when providing reading materials for students to read, it is important to include books and poems from people of all different genders and cultures.

Instead of having students read solely 20th century white male authors, teachers should include books written by women and people of color. Depending on the lesson, teachers can even use contemporary songs. This works particularly well when trying to teach students about poetic devices, as students stay more interested and, therefore, learn better.

Lesson Summary

Culturally relevant teaching is a pedagogy that empowers students by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes. Proponents of culturally relevant teaching theorize that many students of color are less successful than white counterparts because they experience a significant disconnect between their home culture and school culture, sometimes to the point that students feel they need to change who they are or disavow their culture in order to succeed in school. Gloria Ladson-Billings proposed CRT as a response to this situation, and she asserts that it should include these three parts: academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness. With these three parts in place within the required curriculum, teachers can engage students from all cultures and help them build self-confidence through their academic success with their culture intact.

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