Methods incorporate students’ experiences, heritage into the classroom
By Carol J.G. Ward
When Valenté Gibson became a teacher, he wanted to make all his students feel like they belong and can do well in his classroom.
“My entire life as a teacher from college to now has been to make sure that every child has a liberating education. I know we use ‘equity’ a lot, but I prefer ‘liberating,’” says Gibson, who is in his fourth year of teaching fifth grade at Jackson Creek Elementary School in Richland District 2.
An alumnus of the University of South Carolina’s College of Education now seeking a Masters of Education degree, Gibson credits the elementary education program’s emphasis on culturally relevant teaching for his classroom approach that embraces his students’ community and culture while also helping them develop a critical consciousness to question the status quo. Because of his ability to ensure academic and cultural excellence, Gibson was selected as a model teacher for the college’s Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students.
“I loved that culturally relevant teaching was embedded in every course,” Gibson says. “It was wonderful, for example, to learn how I could use literature to introduce issues of racism, sexual identity, gender roles or nontraditional families.”
Culturally relevant teaching methods are an instructional approach developed by University of Wisconsin professor emeritus, author and researcher, Gloria Ladson-Billings. It focuses on three tenets: cultural competence, critical consciousness and academic excellence.
“Although there is no formalized college-wide focus on culturally relevant teaching, it is a core pillar in the College of Education,” says Michelle Bryan, chief equity officer and associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion. “Faculty are committed to the work and invested in the production of teachers and citizens who are racially literate. It is up to us to make sure the next generation is more prepared to engage in or facilitate difficult conversations.”
Several initiatives in the college are dedicated to these principles, including Early Childhood Education’s Urban Cohort, the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students and the Apple Core Initiative. Professors Gloria Boutte, Eliza Braden, Susi Long, Meir Muller and Kamania Wynter-Hoyte work alongside teachers across the state to engage in culturally relevant teaching methods.
Kayla Hostetler, an English teacher at Aiken High School, also was introduced to these methods in her courses at UofSC and became invested in implementing them in her classroom.
“I realized that I had to do a lot of self-reflection to understand my privilege and then to realize how that privilege and power plays out in a classroom,” says Hostetler, who is seeking a doctorate in language and literacy. She is also a model teacher for the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students.
Enacting culturally relevant instructional principles will look different in different classrooms. For example, teachers may approach history from a perspective that highlights the contributions of African, Latinx and other cultures; choose books that allow children to see the contributions from their own and other peoples’ heritages; or anchor their classroom communities in African or other Indigenous cultural principles.
Both Gibson and Hostetler say that building community is important in how they incorporate culturally relevant teaching. One way to do that is encouraging students to share, listen and ask questions. Gibson employs Socratic seminars in which students help choose a topic – anything from immigration to Colin Kaepernick – read about it and then analyze and discuss it. Hostetler uses story circles to help her students connect.
“The story circles are very powerful,” Hostetler says. “For example, when we read The Hate U Give, we may discuss police brutality. I have students whose parents are police officers, and I have students who have been pulled over and searched in public. It's important for students to hear that someone else may have a completely different experience than they have.”
Gibson adds that these conversations can be difficult, so he also incorporates topics that show the “brilliance and joy” of all races and people.
In recognition of the work he is doing in the classroom, Gibson received a 2020 Early Career Educator of Color Leadership Award this year from the National Council of Teachers of English that comes with a mentoring component for a research project and for strengthening his teaching. He also worked in partnership with Braden as nationally selected participants in the council’s professional dyads project focused on culturally relevant teaching.
While incorporating culturally relevant methods in the classroom, teachers also must adhere to curriculum standards that target specific skills. Gibson, Hostetler and faculty in the College of Education say academic excellence is a core tenet of culturally relevant teaching and incorporating standards can be easily accomplished.
Wynter-Hoyte, an assistant professor in instruction and teacher education, gives the example of name stories in which students explore the origins of their names and their cultural backgrounds.
“Those stories are grounded in our reading instruction by conducting read alouds that scaffold students to comprehend, summarize and connect to text. Then, they are instructed to interview and record family members to learn about their own names. We infuse multimedia in our writer’s workshop by students using the interviews to work through the process of writing, she says. “Practically any activity can be culturally relevant and connect with the standards.”
Sabina Mosso-Taylor, principal at Jackson Creek Elementary where Gibson teaches, argues that “students can do even better addressing the standards when we incorporate culturally relevant activities because children find meaning in the work.”
Mosso-Taylor has partnered her school with UofSC’s College of Education to offer ongoing professional development in culturally relevant teaching for teachers and support staff.
“I cannot say enough about our partnership with the university. It is how we can sustain what we're doing,” she says. “This cannot be a one-time workshop. I've been doing this work for about 15 years, and I'm on the cusp of understanding what I need to learn. This is a lifelong commitment to learn how to engage in ways that make the educational system a better place for children of color and to honor their rich histories and brilliant abilities.”
Jackson Creek also participates in USofC’s Early Childhood Education Urban Education Collective through which schools dedicate to professional development with USofC professors. Urban Cohort interns, also learning about culturally relevant teaching, are placed in their classes. The collective was initiated to create spaces where Urban Cohort students could be supported by teachers exploring the same methods of teaching.
When Urban Cohort students become teachers, their training gives them the knowledge and confidence to speak out in the workplace to create more equitable classrooms. Braden gives the example of an early childhood graduate, now teaching at an elementary school, who became a pro-Black advocate when a new policy was introduced that would negatively impact Black students and families.
“She’s on the ground in the classroom now, and she is able to offer perspective for her colleagues who don’t have experience in culturally relevant teaching,” Braden says.
Boutte, a Carolina Distinguished professor in instruction and teacher education and executive director of the Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students, says UofSC has been ahead of the curve in its work on culturally relevant teaching to transform schools.
“Susi (Long) and I have been doing this work for several decades. and you see we're still smiling and loving it because the work is joyful for us even though it goes against the status quo,” Boutte says. “We understand the status quo is not helping Black children, and we have decades of evidence to show that Black children are not faring well in school. This is courageous and ethical work, and it’s doing what's right.”
Having that foundation has made classroom discussions about anti-racist protests and social unrest easier to tackle. Fifth-grade teacher Gibson says it’s important to allow children to have a platform to talk about current events by asking questions and not inserting opinions.
“The impact is making students of color feel seen and heard in the classroom – making them feel validated. They can share their concerns openly and ensure their voice is heard,” he says.
The Center for the Education and Equity of African American Students will hold its fourth annual Equity in Education Conference Jan. 14-15, 2021. The conference, which has grown from a statewide to a national event, will be virtual. The center offers multiple resources for educators including videotaped lessons, a collaboration with SCETV, monthly roundtable sessions and continuing education credits. For more information, contact Gloria Boutte, firstname.lastname@example.org.