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How a School Puts Culturally Responsive Teaching Into Practice

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Educators at the dual-language Amigos School are creating an authentically immersive, academically challenging school experience.By Sarah GonserOctober 30, 2020

When Cambridge Public Schools, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided three years ago to prioritize culturally responsive teaching, one of its longstanding institutions, the Amigos School, suddenly found itself ahead of the curve.

The small K–8 dual-language immersion public school has practiced culturally responsive teaching for years. It’s a philosophy that informs everything from its pedagogy to the school’s philosophy about Spanish-English immersion. “There are no blank slates walking into the classroom,” says Amigos’s principal, Sarah Bartels-Marrero. “Culturally responsive teaching is capitalizing on all that students bring with them from their personal lives and their home lives. And it’s really knowing that student, knowing where he or she is from, and using that to craft the most meaningful and rigorous learning opportunities.”

Culturally responsive teaching gets a lot of air time, especially lately as the nation grapples with its history of racial injustice, but it’s frequently misunderstood and oversimplified.

“Google ‘culturally responsive teaching’ and you can find a dozen videos of well-meaning teachers leading some call-and-response chant about exponents, or rapping about the Boston Tea Party while students sit back and giggle,” writes veteran educator Zaretta Hammond, author of the influential 2015 book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. “We usually talk about culturally responsive teaching only as an engagement strategy designed to motivate at-risk students to take learning seriously. Or we try to find a race-based connection to the content to make it ‘relevant’ to minority students.”

Instead, she contends, it’s about engaging the brain’s memory systems and information processing structures so we’re creating lessons that lean into students’ cultural traditions and values, allowing them to learn in ways that are uniquely suited to them—for example, in ways that are “oral and active,” Hammond suggests.

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