The following has been adapted from No More Culturally Irrelevant Teaching by Mariana Suoto-Manning
As our schools become increasingly diverse, it’s worth questioning what gets in the way of teachers planning for teaching that is relevant and responsive to the students they have in their classrooms.
The Expectations of Mandated, Standardized Curriculum
With each new initiative, new curriculum and assessments are rolled out by publishing companies, marketed as the silver bullet for addressing the new standards, sold to schools, and expected to be implemented in classrooms. Training sessions are scheduled where “experts” who don’t know our practices, our students, or our communities walk into our professional homes and attempt to sell us on a one-size-fits-all approach. Sound familiar?
Like you, we open those boxes and realize they do not include the children we teach—children with disabilities, emergent bilinguals, children of color—but what do we do? We believe curriculum should be meaningful, engaging, relevant, and relatable to our students. We want all children to be engaged and to learn. But unfortunately, like you, the expectation that we must stick to the assigned curriculum looms large and often feels insurmountable. Against our better judgment, we find ourselves navigating mandated curriculum that is not relevant to the children we teach, failing to engage our students and wasting valuable teaching time.
The Pressure of High-Stakes Testing
The pressure to do well on standardized tests is another obstacle that can get in the way of culturally relevant teaching. In some schools, teachers are constrained by strict testing mandates, and feel obligated to follow pacing charts and assessment calendars that leave little room for student-centered engagement.
For those who teach in the grades where students are tested, the pressure can be intense, and using test prep materials may seem like the responsible thing to do. After all, with these materials everything is carefully planned out and beautifully bound in a test prep book, and students generally work quietly and independently to complete the exercises. Teachers experience a very real tension between getting students ready to take a high-stakes test—which may or may not use culturally relevant material—and preparing them to think critically and engage in meaningful and culturally relevant learning.
The Access to Materials: Our Demographic Reality Versus Our Curriculum
Although the number of students of color in the United States has surpassed the number of White students, publishing companies continue to publish curricula that normalize the White experience. Curriculum guides and materials feature very few children of color, children with disabilities, and children from low- or no-income backgrounds.
The problem of access to culturally relevant materials is also acute in the world of trade books. Not accounting for problematic accounts and stories, in 2015 the Cooperative Children’s Book Center documented that over 70 percent of children’s books published were about White children and families. Sadly, only 7.6 percent were about African Americans, 3.3 percent were about Asians and Asian Americans, 2.4 percent were about Latinx, and 0.9 percent were about indigenous/First Nations people. The remaining 12 percent of books written for children focused on something other than people—such as trucks and animals—roughly the same amount as those portraying people of color.
A Lack of Cultural Understanding
Sometimes a lack of knowledge about other cultures is what gets in the way of culturally relevant teaching. As a construct, culture is complex and, like language, it varies from state to state, city to city, neighborhood to neighborhood, family to family, and individual to individual. Teachers may have good intentions in celebrating the diversity of culture in the classroom, but what they think qualifies as culturally relevant may in fact be perpetuating certain stereotypes.
Realizing how much or how little you know about your students’ cultures can be a first step toward culturally relevant teaching, but it can also lead to other obstacles, as you’ll see next.
A Fear of Engaging in Culturally Relevant Teaching
As teachers, we may be reluctant to engage in culturally relevant practices because we realize we don’t know enough about our students’ cultures to address them meaningfully. We care about our students and we fear perpetuating stereotypes. We fear doing or saying the wrong thing. The answer to this fear, however, is simple. Becoming “culturally competent” takes time and requires us to position ourselves as learners. We don’t have to know everything about every group of people to engage in this work, but we do need to be willing to learn and ready to facilitate learning about cultures in our classrooms.
The Issue of Time
For most teachers, one of the main reasons culturally irrelevant teaching persists is a lack of time to prepare. We all struggle with finding time to plan meaningful and engaging lessons that represent our classroom communities. When we’re handed an anthology with all that work already done for us, it’s hard to put it aside and replace it with something we’ve developed with our students in mind. After all, replacing it means developing new learning experiences with new materials, and there’s only so much time.
Related to the issue of time is the belief that culturally relevant teaching is one more thing to do in an already packed schedule. We already have so much to do with the curriculum we are given; there just isn’t time to add something more. For it to make sense, we have to see culturally relevant teaching as a reframing or as an overlay—not an addition—to the existing curriculum. We must think of the mandated curriculum as a starting place, not an ending place, and find ways to include new perspectives and materials, making curriculum and teaching more inclusive and representative.
It Doesn't Have to Be This Way
We have learned from our own experiences with culturally relevant teaching that although these obstacles are real, they are not impossible to overcome. As a matter of fact, once we began shifting our practices, co-planning with colleagues, and reflecting on what was and wasn’t working, we found so many simple paths to this way of teaching in our day-to-day work. We also learned that students are always ready for culturally relevant teaching—they’re just waiting for their teachers to be ready. Students embrace the dialogue about culture in the classroom, and they are anxiously waiting for teachers to invite them to add
their voices, experiences, and practices to curriculum and teaching.
If we want children to develop as successful learners, we must communicate that they belong in our classrooms. They need to see themselves, their cultures, their families, and their communities reflected in the materials and resources they find there. As culturally relevant teachers, we put the children we teach at the center of our practices.
Mariana Souto-Manning, a former classroom teacher, is Associate Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University and Chair of the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Research Foundation. You can find her on Twitter at @soutomanning.