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How to Practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is a pedagogical framework that grounds and informs every aspect of a teacher's practice.

Corps member in the classroom.

By Bárbara Escudero

January 6, 2019

More than 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.  

As a girl growing up in the Bronx, I was fortunate to be consistently a part of my schools’ “gifted and talented” programs, learning “advanced” content, and often excelling at standardized tests. Having access to these learning opportunities and being able to develop these skills was undeniably important. However, I was missing another category of knowledge and skills that was just as critical for my learning and development.

Where was I in the curriculum? Where was my history and culture? Where was the connection between my background and experiences and what I was learning? What room was there for my peers and myself to identify, celebrate and leverage our knowledge, our cultures, our interests, our inherent brilliance? What space did we have to learn and talk about equity and inequity; both inside our communities and in the world? What room was there to develop the skills and agency to critique our social contexts, to understand the histories and policies that were contributing to those realities? In other words, how was I developing and strengthening my roots?

Looking back, my "success" as a student was largely defined by my test scores and had very little to do with building my own cultural competence and critical consciousness. I was a proof point—yes. 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.”

Dr. Jeff Duncan-Andrade

So, what is Culturally Relevant Pedagogy?

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy (CRP) is a philosophical outlook towards one’s approach to teaching that informs the what, the how, and the why. CRP focuses on the academic and personal success of students as individuals and as a collective. It ensures students engage in academically rigorous curriculum and learning, feel affirmed in their identities and experiences, and develop the knowledge and skills to engage the world and others critically.  

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—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)

Academic achievement, the first pillar, acknowledges that the primary function of a teacher’s role is 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, and how they are going to teach it based on who their students are as people and as learners.

Cultural Competence

Cultural competence requires that teachers understand culture and its role in education, that they take responsibility for learning about their students’ culture and community and that they interrogate their own identity, culture, biases, and privilege to critically assess and strengthen their instructional practice. 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 have opportunities to learn more about and see into the lived experiences of others (windows). The teacher uses their students’ culture as the basis for learning, helps students recognize and honor their own cultural beliefs and practices while accessing and learning about the wider world.

Sociopolitical Consciousness

Sociopolitical consciousness requires that teachers actively educate themselves and their students on the personal and sociopolitical issues that impact their students, their students’ communities, and the world—and, that they 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 encourage students to see themselves as 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. Therefore, 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 and informed by a teacher’s specific set of students- who they are as people and as learners, their communities, their history, and their context.

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy equips us as teachers to provide our students with the type of education they not only deserve but are entitled to.  An education that recognizes and celebrates their identities, lived experiences and culture. An education that nurtures their inherent brilliance and infinite potential.  An education that doesn’t set them up to “fit into,” accept or replicate an inequitable system, but one that equips them with the tools to transform it. An education that cultivates strong trunks, beautiful branches, colorful leaves, and deep roots.

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
  •  “This is How We Do It: Helping teachers understand culturally relevant pedagogy in diverse classrooms,” by Adrienne D. Dixson and Kenneth J. Fasching-Varner
  • Reading Between the Lines and the Pages: A Culturally Relevant Approach to Literacy Teaching by Gloria Ladson-Billings
  • Self-guided professional development for anti-bias education:
  • Being Culturally Responsive:
  • Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors by Rudine Sims Bishop

About the Author 

Bárbara Escudero currently serves on Teach For America’s Teacher Leadership Development team and leads the national work TFA does around Culturally Relevant Pedagogy and supporting Linguistically Diverse students. She is a proud first-generation Latina, born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx. Bárbara completed her undergraduate degree at 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.