Collaborating for culturally responsive education

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In a world where students are more and more ethnically and racially diverse, educators are eager to devise more inclusive, welcoming approaches to teaching and student support. That’s why the AFT’s Center for School Improvement Leadership Institute this year focused on culturally responsive pedagogy (CRP), helping educators develop content, scaffolding and instruction that embrace students’ cultures and experiences.

Randi at CSI conference

The institute brings union members together with their administrators and community members every year to tackle the most pressing issues in their districts. “We have to have a relationship before the work gets done,” said one of the facilitators, summing up the purpose of CSI’s annual institute—to work in teams that include not just AFT leaders, teachers and paraprofessionals but also school administrators, social workers, parents, students and community partners invested in making public schools the safe and welcoming spaces our students and their families need.

This year’s conference, held Jan. 23-25 at the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, focused on CRP, examining biases and policies that disenfranchise certain populations of students, and developing structures and supports to help all students feel important, respected and valued. The approach is particularly helpful for teachers whose students’ communities are different from their own—including the majority white women who teach students of color—but can be applied with great effect by any educator.

Panel at CSI conference

For some who attended the conference, CRP was a new concept; for others, the gathering was an opportunity to strengthen and expand improvements they’d already begun in their home districts.

Collin Thompson, a seventh-grade math teacher and member of the Solvay (N.Y.) Teachers Association says his team has already incorporated what it’s learned from past CSI conferences: more inclusive meeting norms, surveys about what works and what doesn’t work in their schools, and restorative circles for staff—a sharing activity about workplace issues. These tools have helped his union build strong and positive relationships with administrators, and the restorative circle in particular, he says, “helped us remember we are a community, and we need to be here for each other.”

This year, the Solvay team hopes to continue its work by implementing CRP training for administrators in the district. The team from Pawtucket, R.I., plans to create a new CRP strategic plan and expand its community school model. Teachers from North Suburban Illinois plan to collect data on hiring practices, look into which students are enrolled in AP and remedial classes, and consider putting an end to tracking classes.

Why focus on CRP? “We need to figure out how to make people feel like they are really, truly part of the community, regardless of religion or sex or sexual preference or race or ethnicity,” says AFT President Randi Weingarten. “Cultural competency will create the tools we need to do that.”

CSI participants learned examples of CRP at work: One teacher uses dominoes, a familiar game in her students’ communities, to teach addition and subtraction; another, in Alaska, uses fishing racks to teach mathematics. CRP goes beyond celebrating cultural holidays, heroes and food, participants learned; it creates awareness around power relationships, discrimination, misconceptions and racism among different cultures. CSI presenters shared powerful research, citing CRP scholars and practitioners, but many participants seemed to most appreciate the insightful comments from student participants. Stephon Stewart, a senior at Anacostia High School in Washington, D.C., boiled CRP down to this: “It’s how teachers find ways to get a feel for the students. It’s taking time to make that connection.”

Evelyn De Jesus at CSI conference

Those connections are essential, as AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus well knows. She told participants that when she was growing up in New York City, her teachers often “didn’t know what to do” with her and her siblings, who were Puerto Rican in a majority Italian neighborhood. “We grew up being tough to survive,” she said. Now she advocates for others who experience discrimination. “We have to champion diversity and inclusiveness in our school communities. It’s not just about teaching. It’s changing the mindset of everyone in your community.”

Workshops focused on exactly that; topics included shared values and communication, trauma-informed practice, championing diversity and inclusiveness, developing system capacity for CRP, and data-informed decision-making. Participants also learned how to strengthen partnerships so that they are not doing the work alone, but with community partners, spreading the influence of inclusion.

“We found this conference to be really powerful,” says Michael Donaldson, a teacher from the Washington Teachers’ Union. “Our next step is to engage the stakeholders together, provide CRP training for leaders at each school and make sure that there’s a person in every school who can advocate for this process, to make sure everyone’s voice is heard.”

participants at CSI conference

John Kuryla, president of the North Syracuse (N.Y.) Education Association  called the conference “truly transformative.” Because his superintendent was on the CSI team with him, they were able to create actionable steps right away, incorporating CRP into adult interactions as a model for students.

“We have a lot of really exciting next steps,” says Alejandra Lopez,  executive vice president of the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, whose team is planning to offer new professional development modeled after one of the CSI sessions on talking about race in the classroom. “We have an action plan, and there are a lot of dedicated people here who are looking forward to rolling out CRP,” said Kim Barry, president of the Lawrence (Mass.) Teachers Union. “We can’t wait to get back.”

Planning partners for CSI included the Chicago Teachers Union Foundation Quest Center, the Florida Education Association,  the Institute for Educational Leadership, the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility, New York State United Teachers, the Schlechty Center and the United Federation of Teachers Teacher Center.

[Virginia Myers, photos by Vincent Pilato, UFT]