As a teacher in an urban school, it is imperative that I understand my own social identity and how it relates to the students that I am teaching. As a special education teacher, I also need to think critically about the way my students learn best. It is a common misconception that students with special needs cannot achieve at the same level as their peers. For some students, this may be true to some extent, but for most of the students I work with, showing mastery of content is an attainable goal for all of them.
As a special education teacher in an urban school district, creating culturally relevant curriculum and being a critical and reflective practioner are key components to my success in the classroom. I began reading more about the culturally relevant pedagogy after our seminar discussion of critical race theory and the concept of white fragility. Students with disabilities are often marginalized, and adopting a culturally relevant approach to teaching and learning embraces each student’s difference and forces students to question society’s status quo.
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy
Ladson-Billing’s (1995) work builds on the ideas of critical race theory and the development of a culturally relevant pedagogy is explored. Working under the assumption that the purpose of schools is to reproduce inequality in the greater society, the author focuses on teaching and culture to better understand why certain groups of students, in particular African Americans, are not succeeding in schools. Through her work with successful teachers in urban schools, Ladson-Billings discovered that the common thread among these culturally relevant teachers was “that (the) teachers themselves recognize social inequities and their causes” (p. 477). This recognition and focus on reaching these students led these teachers to understand their students better and in turn, teach them more effectively.
Understanding the students that sit before you is one of the biggest challenges when teaching. Once this is done, teachers can begin to understand what culturally relevant teaching is. Ladson-Billings states, “culturally relevant pedagogy must provide ways for students to maintain their cultural integrity while succeeding academically” (p. 476). This can be done through encouraging academic success and cultural competence as well as teaching students to identify, understand, and think critically about injustices within their society.
Through research and observation, Ladson-Billing is able to better define what diverse student populations need from their teachers. At one point in the article, she poses the question, “Isn’t what you describe just ‘good teaching’?” (p. 484) This question was particularly important to me. In order to teach diverse students, teachers must know their students. The word ‘know’ has a very broad definition but I believe that many of the struggles with classroom management, curriculum, and special education all stem from teachers and administration not truly understanding their students’ culture, ethnicity, language, and disabilities.
This is a very loaded statement but my own experience teaching in an under-performing, urban school located in an area stricken with poverty has opened my eyes to the importance of understanding your students and the greater society that they are a part of. In eight years of teaching, I have worked closely with seven different teachers across three grade levels in a special education inclusion setting. There were some bad teachers, some good teachers, and some excellent teachers. The teachers that struggled lacked a connection with their students and their families. Their students’ culture was not relevant to their teaching. I see this as an obstacle for many teachers, both first year and veteran.
I think that teachers stumble into urban education with the notion that school will be similar to their experiences growing up. This is usually not the case. A culturally relevant pedagogy forces the teacher to look outside of what is comfortable and really get to ‘know’ their students’ culture, language, families, traditions, differences, and histories. If this is not done then the achievement gap will widen and marginalized students will continue to fail; school as a tool for reproduction as opposed to change will continue to be the norm.
Ladson-Billing uses the concept of culturally relevant pedagogy “to problematize teaching and encourage teachers to ask about the nature of the student-teacher relationship, the curriculum, schooling, and society” (p. 483). Through reflection, action research, and collaboration, teachers will be better able to bridge the gap between their culture and that of their students. Students come into school with many different experiences and prior knowledge. It is our job as educators to use this to reach each and every student that we teach; the child’s entire life world must be taken into account.
Reading about culturally relevant pedagogy helped me better understand my own practice and in turn better understand the ideas that helped form it. I am not an expert in the area of curriculum theory but I am a teacher. Ultimately, my students will benefit from awareness and critical perspective about the many curricular decisions.
When I hear the word reflect, the image of a mirror comes to mind. It is through our own reflection that we truly see ourselves. A mirror doesn’t lie or distort reality. Reflective teaching is no different. Zeichner (1996) describes reflective teaching as an act that engages the teacher’s head and heart, fears and passions, and is fair and honest (pg. 10). Teachers need to view their own practice through an honest lens and constantly reflect upon what takes place inside and outside the classroom.
In the course of a school day, teachers are confronted with countless situations that involve making split second decisions. Each of these decisions, big or small, will have some impact. A reflective teacher needs to step back and examine his or her own practice constantly. Schon (1983) states that reflection needs to occur before, during, and after class. He calls this “reflection-on-action” and “reflection-in-action.” Teachers need to examine the gap between where the lesson intended to go and where the lesson ended up. This not only informs next steps but it also can be used to improve instruction in the future.
Every teacher has crafted a lesson that seems flawless. Every misconception and question have been anticipated and it seems as though every student will achieve the lesson’s objective. Unfortunately, it doesn’t go as smoothly as originally planned. Part of being a reflective practitioner involves looking in the mirror and being honest. There are three attitudes that Dewey highlights when referring to the reflective practitioner: open-mindedness, responsibility, and whole-heartedness (Zeichner, pg. 10). In order to truly be a reflective teacher, one must strive to embody all of these qualities.
Each of these attitudes comes from the idea that teachers need to look at their profession from a critical perspective. Hinchey (2004) urges teachers to be honest about their assumptions, race, gender, culture, and routines when reflecting about their teaching. The critical perspective requires teachers to give students a valid voice, to treat them with respect, and to teach a curriculum that is relevant to them (p. 128). Through critical reflection, a teacher must look at who, how, why, and what they are teaching.
Crocetti et al. (2007) conducted research on the development and definition of identity in high school-aged students. Building on the work of previous studies, they focused on a three-faceted model of identity in which:
…commitment, in-depth exploration, and reconsideration of commitment are comsidered to be pivotal identity processes. Specifically, commitment refers to the choice made in areas relevant to identity…In depth exploration represents the extent to which adolescents actively deal with current commitments, reflect on their choices, and look for new information and talk with others about these commitments. Reconsideration of commitments refers to the comparison between current commitments and other possible alternatives. (pg. 985)
Although methods and data analysis within this study are not necessarily applicable to the general practioner within the classroom, the ideas around the process in which identity is formed in adolescents is relevant to the overarching goal and enduring understanding of the unit as a whole.
Giving students the opportunity to commit, explore, and then recommit to different facets of their identity will be a useful tool for teachers to frame their learning experiences around. It is important to understand that teenagers are beginning to form an understanding of who they are; it is not a concrete arrival at knowing how they fit into the world around them but rather a process that is fluid and changing.