Recently I attended a workshop on Culturally Responsive Teaching. In a country with so many different cultures represented, this is a particularly pertinent pedagogy.  Especially in our current environment of suspicion and fear being cast on various groups due to their race or religion.

Now, participating in a workshop for 2 hours does not make me an expert by any means.  We participants just barely scratched the surface to be sure, but the experience did leave me with many thoughts and many questions.

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Arts, Education Closet

After much reflection, I came to this conclusion – every person in a school needs to feel safe.  In order for people to feel safe, they need to feel welcome, seen, heard and loved.  They need to know they can trust the others in the community.  And when I say “every person,” I mean administrators, teachers, all staff members, families, and students.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

The Education Alliance at Brown University shares that “Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning (Ladson-Billings,1994).”

Ultimately, Culturally Responsive Teaching requires us to actively listen, inquire and engage our students with an understanding of their cultural learning styles and tools.  This is much more than one-off strategies like call-and-response or visual thinking.  While these strategies are engaging and can be included, they alone do not act as culturally responsive teaching.

Instead, these strategies can be embedded within lessons that use students’ own cultural references as a means to engage with instructional material. That’s a much broader scope and requires for more intentional lesson design and delivery.

Connecting in and through the Arts

Given that the arts are inherently part of a culture, it seems to me that a school that teaches with, through and about the arts would be a place where culturally responsive teaching could flourish.  There are definite crossovers between the two.

Culturally responsive teaching favors student-centered instruction.  If a school is encouraging its students to make artistic choices and engage in art-making as an individual and as a group, the students should be at the center of that learning.  Culturally responsive teaching also embraces the role of a teacher as facilitator.  If arts education is done well, the teacher should be a facilitator allowing the students to direct the learning and receive guidance as needed from the teacher.

Because art is part of culture, if a school is mindful of the cultural richness of its student body and if it offers art that reflects the culture of those students then the students and their families will feel more welcome and seen.  If students are given the opportunity to share their work and have it be received and honored by others, they feel heard.

Strategies for Culturally Responsive Arts Integration

Arts integration is a natural pathway into culturally responsive teaching.  There are so many teaching strategies that we use in arts integration which can be applied in a culturally responsive classroom.

For example, many African, Asian and Pacific Islander communities have strong storytelling and oral traditions. Middle eastern cultures value the collective over the individual. And students from the Caribbean often use movement and dance as a way of communication.  These can all be access points for learning in and through the arts.

1. Connect through Story

Each art form has an ability to be used as a way into narrative writing and reading comprehension. Students can create song lyrics, develop choreography to tell a sequence of events, and design collages which highlight the collective rather than the individual. Each of these examples serves as a process for students to connect your content in and through their own cultural fabric.

2. Highlight Artists and Artwork from Various Cultures

Students need to see artists and artwork from people who look like them. So while it’s easy – and necessary – to show works of art by “old white guys” like Michelangelo and Beethoven, it’s important to also offer examples from cultures outside of the European tradition.

This also needs to happen beyond just Black History Month. Students do not celebrate their heritage one month of year – they live it every day.  In creating a culturally responsive classroom, it’s our responsibility to provide inspiration and challenge assumptions of all students.  We can do that through the rich fabric of artists and artistic works from all over the world.

3. Ask Questions

You can’t make assumptions about the cultural backgrounds of your students. Want to know more about them – their likes, interests, and values?  Ask! You can submit a student survey to get a baseline at the beginning of the year.

Or, try the “Ask Me, Ask You” strategy.  Invite students to ask 1 thing about you and in return, you get to ask 1 thing about them.  This piques their curiosity about you as their teacher and allows you an opportunity to get to know them better.

Remember: part of culturally responsive teaching is listening more deeply and with the intention of connecting with our students.  Inquiry is something we model, not just teach.

Create to Learn

Students who are given the opportunity to create art will create something that in some way reflects their own culture.  If students see their culture reflected in the environment, and are given the space to express themselves through their art making, that will help to create that safe environment.  If teachers are skillful facilitators of art making and sharing, a safe and supportive environment can be a by-product.

So, in a society that desperately needs to be inclusive and supportive of the many diverse cultures that exist within it, education needs to be mindful of cultural responsiveness.

Schools need to be safe places of learning and self-expression where all are welcome, seen, heard and loved.  Schools that embrace the arts and the culture of their students can do much to help create that inclusive and supportive society that will raise all of us up and allow us to move forward in a positive direction “with liberty and justice for all.”