Almost two decades ago, I walked across a stage to accept my high school diploma and became a “proof point” of what is possible for children of color growing up in low-income communities. I worked hard, beat the odds, graduated at the top of my high school class, was the first in my family to go to college, and was on my way to an Ivy League university.
I had “made it,” but it came at a cost.
During my college years, I came to realize that this cost equated to being the product of what Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade describes as a national obsession with “above the ground development”—children that have strong trunks, beautiful branches, and colorful leaves, but no roots. I was fortunate to be consistently a part of each of my school’s “top” classes, learning “advanced” content and was always a part of the “highest performing” class according to my test scores. Undoubtedly, these were all good and important skills. However, there were knowledge and skills that were just as important that were also missing. I wasn’t encouraged to develop curiosity or learn to critique my social contexts. I didn’t learn about my culture or history (or that of my classmates). I wasn’t prompted to understand and share my lived experiences. I didn’t learn about the cultural wealth and funds of knowledge I already had inside of me. I was seen as an “empty vessel” that needed to be filled but the reality was that I wasn’t an empty vessel and, I wasn’t truly being filled.
So, I was a proof point. But I was a proof point of successful schooling—not successful education. And, there is a fundamental difference between the two.
“Schooling is the process by which you institutionalize people to accept their place in a society… Education is the process through which you teach them to transform it.”
So, what is Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is a teacher’s guide for ensuring their students’ “above and below ground” development. It focuses on the academic and personal success of students as individuals and as a collective by ensuring students engage in academically rigorous curriculum and learning, that they more fully understand and feel affirmed in their identities and experiences and, that they are equipped and empowered to identify and dismantle structural inequities—positioning them to transform society.
CRP, a pedagogical framework coined by Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings in the early ’90s, rests on three fundamental pillars—academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. These three pillars work in tandem with one another—teachers cannot be academically rigorous unless they are also grounding their practice in cultural competence and sociopolitical consciousness. In other words, a culturally relevant teacher cannot focus on one pillar without also inherently focusing on the others.
Academic achievement (student learning and academic rigor) is the primary function of a teacher’s role—to cultivate the minds of their students. Culturally relevant teachers hold high and transparent academic expectations and meet students where they are. They know the content, they know the learner, and they know how to teach the content to the learner. They think deeply about what they teach, why they are teaching it, what resources they are using to teach it, and how they are going to teach it based on who their students are as people and as learners. Students are actively creating knowledge influenced by their own lived experiences. Students are able to articulate what they are learning and why they are learning what they are learning.
Cultural competence requires that teachers understand their own cultural background and actively learn about those of their students. In doing so, teachers not only affirm their students’ lived experiences but also empower their students by using their students’ culture as the basis for learning. When cultural competence is playing out as it should, the classroom can be described as full of mirrors and windows. Students see themselves reflected in the classroom (mirrors) and also have opportunities to learn more and see into the lived experiences of others (windows). Students feel respected and affirmed in their multiple identities, and in return, respect and affirm the multiple identities of others.
Sociopolitical consciousness requires teachers to educate themselves and their students on the personal and sociopolitical issues that impact their students, their students’ communities, and the world—and incorporate this into their teaching. This also inherently means that teachers encourage students to think about and consistently question why things are the way they are and help strengthen their students' mindset and belief that they can be agents of social change and transformation. Students are therefore empowered to think and act in ways that challenge the inequitable status quo among people, within communities, and in society at large.
So, How Do I Do it?
As Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings states, a common misconception when engaging with CRP is believing that successful teaching is primarily about what to do. The truth is that successful teaching is primarily about how we think—about our students, their communities and broader social contexts and about our curriculum, our instruction, and our role as teachers.
In life, our beliefs drive our actions, and the same is true in teaching. Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is more of a way of being or way of thinking that then manifests into ways of doing. CRP is not something that we incorporate or add-on to our teaching—it is the foundation that grounds and informs every aspect of our instructional practice; it is the lens through which we approach our work.
CRP cannot be boiled down to a set of specific strategies, a checklist for lesson planning, or specific curriculum because all of these must be directly connected to a teacher’s specific set of students, their needs, their communities, and their context. However, as long as we are grounded and guided by these three pillars—academic achievement, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness—we will, I believe, successfully create a different paradigm for our students. An education that nurtures our students’ spirit and their infinite potential, moving from messages that label them as “disadvantaged” and “problematized,” to inherently brilliant, empowered and self-actualized. We’ll nurture students who have all of the above-the-ground fruits that we want for them—students with strong trunks, beautiful branches, and colorful leaves; but students who also stand deeply rooted in the totality of who they are and all that they can be, primed and ready to transform society.
Culturally Relevant Pedagogy Texts & Sources
Interested in learning more? Please check out the following articles and sources we’ve used throughout this article.
- From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt by Gloria Ladson-Billings
- The Dream Keepers: Successful Teachers of African American Children" by Gloria Ladson-Billings
- Yes, But How Do We Do It? Practicing Culturally Relevant Pedagogy" by Gloria Ladson-Billings
- Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice by Geneva Gay
- The Art of Critical Pedagogy by Jeff Duncan-Andrade
- Note to Educators: Hope Required When Growing Roses in Concrete by Jeff Duncan-Andrade
- All together now: Academic Rigor and Culturally Responsive Pedagogy by Jeff Duncan-Andrade
- Educating Culturally Responsive Teachers by Ana Maria Villegas and Tamara Lucas
- Reality Pedagogy by Christopher Emdin
- Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies by Django Paris and H. Samy Alim
- Whose Culture Has Capital? by Tara J. Yosso
- Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms by Norma Gonzalez, Luis C. Moll, and Cathy Amanti
About the Author
Bárbara Escudero currently serves on Teach For America’s Teacher Leadership Development team and leads the national work TFA does around supporting Culturally and Linguistically Diverse students. She is a first-generation Bronx-native and was raised by her mother who immigrated to the United States from Honduras. Bárbara graduated from Cornell University and received her Master’s degree in Bilingual/Bicultural Education from Teachers College, Columbia University. She proudly served as a classroom teacher for 12 years.