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How TFA–Baltimore Teachers Cultivate Students' Strengths With Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

To help develop corps members capable of educating and empowering their students, the Baltimore regional team has been focusing on a critical aspect of their coaching and training.
Wednesday, July 6, 2016
“[Achievement] is not the totality of a student’s personal identity, or the essence of his or her human worth.”
—Geneva Gay, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice

 

Students of color are now the majority in our public schools nationwide, but less than 20 percent of teachers identify as black, Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander, or Native. While research demonstrates that teachers who share the backgrounds of their students can have a substantial additional impact, that fact alone is not enough to bring wide-scale change. Teachers, no matter what their background, must comprehend and value students’ identities and create welcoming, inclusive, and culturally responsive classrooms.

In Baltimore, children of color make up approximately 93 percent of public school students, and 85 percent of the city’s students are eligible for the federal lunch program. TFA–Baltimore is one source for local principals seeking diverse teaching candidates; some 53 percent of Baltimore corps members identify as people of color, 38 percent grew up in a low-income home, and 25 percent are the first in their family to attend college. 

Whether they have firsthand experience with educational inequity or come from a background of privilege, TFA corps members—like all teachers—face a common challenge: they must not only educate their students, but also empower them, as many might feel marginalized, unheard, or unsure of their place in this world.

To help prepare and develop corps members in this essential task, the Baltimore regional team has been focusing on a critical aspect of corps members’ two-year coaching and training: culturally responsive pedagogy. CRP places a student’s cultural and social identity at the center of an educational process that is meant to affirm and develop a student’s academic achievement, cultural competence, and critical consciousness.

“CRP builds interest and esteem for students, ultimately creating a climate where students feel important, valued, and active in their own learning,” says Lindsay Fitzpatrick (Rio Grande Valley ’06), an eighth grade teacher at Afya Baltimore. “They become drivers of their own success, not passive passengers in the process.”

During their two-year commitment, TFA–Baltimore corps members are constantly learning about CRP as they aim to apply the teachings of scholars like Gloria Ladson-Billings, Ana Maria Villegas, and Tamara Lucas.

 

 

“Our commitment to ensuring that students become self-determined leaders who demonstrate academic excellence, disrupt the status quo, and feel love for their communities starts from the moment our corps members are accepted,” says Courtney Cass, TFA–Baltimore’s executive director.

In addition to the ongoing training and support around CRP that corps members nationwide receive throughout their commitment, TFA–Baltimore has launched the CRP Fellowship. Some 20 Baltimore corps members and alumni—including Fitzpatrick, Zaccai Williams (Baltimore ’13), and Victoria Morales O’Connor (Baltimore ’14)—were part of the inaugural cohort, who met monthly during most of the school year.

Successful applicants for the fellowship displayed a willingness to accept peer feedback around lesson plans and instruction, a desire to implement curricular choices and/or changes in their respective classrooms, and enthusiasm for engaging with likeminded people looking to grow their culturally responsive practices.

The fellows dove deeper into the knowledge and principles of CRP that are discussed in whole-corps sessions, often through conversations with experts in the field and supplemental reading. In addition, they designed and implemented lessons, units, and assessments aligned with the tenets of CRP. They also participated in peer observation, feedback, and problem-solving as part of their collaborative work.

 

teacher and student sitting and smiling

 

“Every year,” says executive director Cass, “we seek to more fully align the approach of our regional team, corps, and alumni in education to the dispositions, skills, and knowledge reflected in CRP, learning from local and national experts and building on some of the most promising examples we’re seeing through our fellowship.” 

Corps members and alumni have noted that CRP is invaluable for teachers of any age group or grade level. Williams has a few examples from his second-grade classroom at KIPP Harmony: “I’ve been implementing a ‘Morning Meeting’ portion of my day that allows students to practice their leadership skills and see how various games and activities apply to their real-world lives. I also frequently allow students time to act out our read-alouds and find solutions to a host of issues on their own.”

Developing her knowledge of and skills in CRP has led O’Connor. who teaches Spanish at Academy for College and Career Exploration High School, to a greater understanding of the power of words in her classroom.

“I make sure that the vocabulary I teach my students in Spanish is correlated to the words they would need to describe their communities,” she says. “I changed my physical description unit to include words such as ‘light-skinned’ and ‘braids’ because they were not included in the city curriculum. I also am working on a lesson on colorism in Latino culture and how that relates to colorism in the black community.”

In the coming year, TFA–Baltimore’s leadership development team will be working to provide support across the continuum of corps members’ development—from the moment they join TFA through a lifetime as an alum. “We have the opportunity to provide more experiences and resources for both alumni and corps members, to deepen their understanding and approach to CRP,” Cass says. “It’s exciting to continue to move forward in this, and to think about the positive effects it will have on student learning and empowerment.”

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