Honoring Student Cultures: Creating Inclusive Classrooms for All

Parents and communities rely on teachers to show up for every single child, every single day. There is science and art to this work, and equity focused teachers and leaders are increasingly focused on the whole child in each classroom. When teachers and leaders begin with the science of the whole child, we have a much better chance of increasing equity and decreasing obstacles for all students.

By definition, educational equity means that each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential. This is much easier said than done. At our company, we are deeply committed to expanding educational equity for all learners, and measure progress in three domains: instructional equity, digital equity and cultural equity. Evidence demonstrates that students who are engaged and motivated have a much higher chance of graduating high school and pursuing college or a career.

Culturally-relevant pedagogy (CRP) is a critical component of educational equity; CRP includes the cultural backgrounds and strengths of students, and intentionally involves crafting classroom environments where differences are visible and valued. This approach to teaching involves careful reflection, honest critique, and close evaluation.

Helping Teachers Embrace Student Cultures

Reading classrooms are the perfect backdrop for increased equity and cultural inclusivity in the K-12 environment. When students “see” their own reflection in reading materials—both curriculum and assessments—they can better connect with the learning, absorb the newfound knowledge, and relate it back to their own lives.

Children benefit when their literacy development includes working with relevant materials, including curriculum and texts. The close attention leaders and teachers pay to their own biases and perspectives can also be applied to materials. Teachers can ask themselves questions like:

• Does this material help my students feel they belong?
• Do my students see themselves and their experiences in this curriculum?
• Does the material provide opportunities for students to experience agency and autonomy?

Considering the needs of each individual student is a vital step in educational equity, and being culturally responsive begins with knowing students and the experiences they represent. It’s also about recognizing the beauty in a student’s experiences.

4 Reasons to Honor Student Cultures

Here are four reasons schools should prioritize culturally-relevant pedagogy:

1. Ways of seeing the world can be related to a range of experiences and defining oneself. This can include the languages a child speaks at home and at school; it can be related to the cultural values and beliefs held in a child’s home; it can even be related to the structure of the family itself. The information children find in the materials they use at school should challenge their thinking, acknowledge truths, and honor cultures and families.

2. Paying close attention to biases is part of navigating the multiple perspectives of our world. Centering on what students have in common and how we can learn from each other and with each other is part of this valuable work. Culturally responsive pedagogy first entails getting to know students by making time and space to hear student voices. Additionally, students should feel comfortable freely sharing perspectives and experiences as a natural outcome of an inclusive environment.

3. Feeling welcomed and comfortable at school is a crucial component of learning success. There are basic human needs which must be in place for successful instruction. One of these needs is a sense of belonging. In culturally responsive classrooms, teachers do all they can to help students know they belong. This begins with the desires and needs that are essential to each of us as human beings. We all want to be safe, invited, comfortable, and loved, and we all want to belong.

4. Representation matters to young learners. Students need more autonomy in their learning, and they need to see the relevance of learning and take an active part in it. When you invite a variety of different student backgrounds and voices, young learners feel like they’re part of the learning process, and not simply passive consumers. Intentional instruction should reflect the students who are part of the classroom and be an opportunity to learn about new experiences and ways of seeing the world.

Overcoming the Hurdles

Equity-focused work is complex and best described as a journey. Teachers are mastering the science and art of teaching, while building relationships with and among their students. They need quality materials that can help them be equity-focused and inclusive in their teaching. Inclusivity and equity evolve when teachers are trained to understand their own biases, and when they use culturally-relevant materials to sustain their students’ rich, diverse lives.

Knowing this, teacher professional learning must focus on the roots of language, including the awareness of heritage languages students who are emergent bilingual and multilingual bring with them.

Additionally, strategic knowledge of letters and sounds is critical. Decoding text (translating letters and words into spoken language) helps students engage in the process of learning more about the words and concepts in their world, and developing the ability to recognize sounds and sound out words in a language is essential to reading comprehension.

Equity-focused teaching and leading requires evidence of effectiveness, sustained professional learning and candid self-reflection. When teachers and leaders commit to honoring the whole child, leveraging student strengths and backgrounds, and bringing student communities into the classroom, we create life-long learners. Selecting and curating instructional materials that increase equity and access is one critical step in the literacy journey.

Kerri Larkin is a former educator and administrator for DC Public Schools. She currently serves as a Senior Education Advisor for Education Partnerships for Lexia.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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