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Culturally responsive teaching: 'It's something you do -- every day'

Sarah Skahan
Sarah Skahan is putting culturally responsive teaching to work in her classroom.

A month or so ago, Sarah Skahan let herself get knocked off her game by a 10-year-old boy.

The boy, who is African-American, spends time with Skahan, the speech language pathologist at Westview Elementary in Apple Valley, to get support for his learning disability.

On this particular day he was shading in parts of a map, finishing a geography assignment. When he was done, they were going to work on synonyms and antonyms.

“Man, I’m never going there,” he snorted as he started coloring Florida.

Skahan stopped what she was doing and asked him what he knew about Trayvon Martin. Quite a lot, as it turned out; the shooting was a topic of frequent conversation in the boy’s home.

The two spent time every day for the rest of the week working on a letter to Florida’s attorney general, urging him to prosecute Martin’s killer. When George Zimmerman was taken into custody, the student came to tell Skahan.

Same skills, new way of learning them

“Three years ago I would have said, ‘We don’t talk about guns in school,’ ” she said. Skahan would have redirected him, trying to impart the same skills using far less effective tools like flash cards.  

“This time we were able to work on his language skills within a context that mattered to him,” she added. “That relationship-building moment changed our work in coming days.”

Right about this point in this story you’re probably thinking that Skahan’s old reaction might have had something to do with skirting controversial issues. Or maybe with a young white woman’s discomfort addressing race in a suburban elementary school.

And there were elements of that, Skahan is quick to note. But the biggest fear she would have had in the past was of diverging from her plan. Like many teachers, she was taught to fear loss of control above almost anything else.

A year ago, Skahan became one of the first Minnesota teachers to receive a graduate certificate in culturally responsive teaching from St. Mary’s University of Minnesota. Her experience as a member of the program’s inaugural cohort, she said, has revolutionized her work with special-ed students.

'I feel excited to be at work'

“It’s transformed my practice,” she said. “My kids are meeting their IEP [Individual Education Program] objectives. They are staying in class longer. I have some kids with explosive behavior and they’re so engaged they are staying on task.

“The kids are excited to be at school,” she added. “I feel excited to be at work.”

And her colleagues have begun asking what she’s doing to reach kids they struggle with.

The first of its kind in Minnesota, the St. Mary’s program was born of a short conversation four years ago about a big problem. Like others involved in teacher preparation, Rebecca Hopkins, dean of the university’s Graduate School of Education, she was well aware that school districts throughout the state were in dire need of teachers who had achievement-gap-closing skills.

Indeed, many leaders of the handful of gap-closing charter schools opened in recent years in the Twin Cities have begun recruiting in other states. Licensing these “alternative” teachers was one of the most hotly fought battles at the Legislature last year.

Hot conversation

Conducted mostly in private and often in code, the conversation about gaps in traditional teacher training is, if anything, hotter than the headline-making debates over teacher effectiveness. Many teacher colleges nationwide are struggling to begin teaching relatively simple techniques, such as the relentless use of formative assessments in the classroom.

And some of those who do acknowledge a gap in preparation frame the issue as one of equipping some teachers to apply special skills in “urban” schools. The implication being that children of color require a different type of instruction.

Hopkins was of the opinion that this view was, to say the least, very narrow. And so was Scott Thomas, at the time a St. Mary’s adjunct who also happened to be the integration and educational equity coordinator for Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan Public Schools. The two got to talking.

They knew they needed to be working on two levels simultaneously: Expanding the pool of qualified teacher candidates who can engage in culturally responsive teaching right out of the gate and additional training for experienced teachers who want to change their practice.

'We're talking about culture'

Fast-forward a few years and Alissa Case, a teacher working in Apple Valley High School’s AVID program, which puts underserved kids on track for college, is the brand-new director of St. Mary’s brand-new culturally responsive teaching program.

“At the core of culturally responsive teaching is that relationship with and knowledge of your student,” said Case. “Yes, we’re talking about race, but we’re talking about culture, and culture isn’t just race.”

This spring a second cohort of experienced teachers will be awarded the same credential as Skahan, a 15-credit graduate certificate. As Case and St. Mary’s gain capacity, culturally responsive teaching will appear throughout the university’s education programs, which run from bachelor’s degrees to doctor of education degrees.

Unlike a workshop on diversity or other traditional cultural sensitivity trainings for teachers, culturally responsive teaching is aimed at enabling teachers to connect with all kids in a way that accelerates and amplifies those sacrosanct lesson plans.

“Drawing on prior knowledge and prior experience, that’s how we construct new knowledge in the brain,” said Thomas. “We know more than we’ve ever known about how we learn and how to teach.”

“It’s really a paradigm shift,” said Hopkins. “It begins with who that child sitting in front of you is and how to reach them.”

District support

St. Mary’s goal is to recruit and train teacher cohorts in partnership with districts that commit to providing space, access to advertising to potential students and support as those teachers try their new skills. This year, as an additional show of commitment, Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan paid for textbooks for participants.

Unlike the cultural competency training of yore, it’s important that teachers opt in because they want to be more effective and are prepared to consider that their best intentions may not be enough.

“It’s empowering when you as an educator can look next door and see success and see the gains,” said Thomas. “People show up to their classrooms wanting to be effective. ... I think people will seek it out even if they don’t necessarily know what they are seeking.”

After three years on the job, Skahan felt she wasn’t reaching her special-ed students on a profound enough level. She sought out the pilot program.

'What are adults doing to change?'

“I felt like it was something huge that my practice was lacking,” she said. “I hear a lot of sentiment from my colleagues about how we have a changing clientele. I always say, the kids are changing, what are the adults doing to change?”

As she’s made changes in her own work, her colleagues have begun stopping by to ask how she accomplished this or that, or for suggestions on establishing better rapport with particular students.

“Every minute of every day I use elements of culturally responsive teaching,” Skahan said. “It’s not something you teach, it’s something you do — every day.”

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Comments (3)

Sadly this is the only place we care about it

When cultural responsiveness only happens in the classroom, people notice. There was a study out the other day stating that 10% of all new marriages are interracial. Yet when the MDH collects statistics, they have no place for "other", or "multiracial", and the Hispanic choice means you can't also choose either white or black as well. I asked an official about that and was informed archly that "our" Latinos are only from Guatemala and they don't intermarry (the sheer hubris and ridiculousness of this stement is imho beyond the pale). Besides, I was further told, we should never talk about race, it's all socioeconomic status now. Well, socioeconomic status (SES) is highly correlated with race, and race is additive and affects SES as well. The two variables are not proxies for each other, nor can they be easily untangled, statistically.

The hypocrisy, mixed messages, and inability to talk about, much less do research on, race in MN reflects a widespread uneasiness in the older generations about race in general. Other states don't do it that way. I have a document on my desk from the California Endowment called "Why Place and Race Matter". There's no beating around the bush, or trying to make it "nice", it just acknowledges that place and race do matter, and goes on to document how.

Moving toward a positive future for all Minnesotans means acknowledging that not all Minnesotans are going to be white, and that "those" people have a place here, too. Count them.

Indeed…

…it's something you do – or ought to do – every day, every hour, with every kid.

Part of me applauds this idea, part of me is dismayed that such a program is even necessary. I don't see how anyone can be very effective in the classroom without knowing the kids they're supposed to be teaching. It's one of the great, yawning, unmentioned gaps in undergraduate college "education." Lecture halls with 300 students, with the professor, if s/he deigns to even teach an introductory course, knowing the name of perhaps a literal handful, while the graduate assistants are the ones doing the grading, reading the papers, and otherwise gaining a far better handle on what those in the audience are learning – or not – than the professor.

I can't speak for elementary schools, having had no experience in that environment, but everyone with whom I worked at my high school who was thought to be a "successful" teacher practiced this sort of thing more or less without thinking about it. If you want to connect with your students – and if you want to be effective, of COURSE you want to connect with your students – you have to get to know them, at least enough to find out what piques their curiosity or otherwise will engage them. Once they're engaged, half the battle has been won, so engagement is crucial.

If this is as widespread a hole in instructional technique in Minnesota schools as Beth's article implies, there's a LOT of work to be done at every level.

This is fundamental

I've been an educator for over 35 years. When I was hiring instructors, I would begin the interview by asking this question: "What attribute do you as an instructor bring to the classroom that contributes most to the students' success?"

Most would say "knowledge of the subject matter," or "credibility with the students based on my experience." Although both are important and contribute some measure of their success, the answer I was looking for was "empathy for the learner."

And the reason is simple. People learn new information by tying it to information they already have. So the best way to teach them is by using analogies and examples. And how would you know which analogies and examples to use if you didn't know enough about the learners to identify which ones they would relate to?

I used to teach design and systems engineering. In my early years, the students were mostly young men. My analogies and examples were sports-related because I figured most young men would relate to sports. But I also had two or three backup analogies and examples in case someone didn't relate to the first one. In later years, as young women began filling the seats, I had to find new analogies and examples to use because I couldn't make the same assumptions about my audience.

But this "learner-centered" approach isn't limited to adults, although it works best with people who have plenty of life experiences they can rely on to tie to new information, you can also use it with kids. If I asked you to describe the shape of Italy, most would say it was "shaped like a boot" because at some point in our young lives, someone told us that. Even a child knows what a boot looks like and so that analogy works well with them.

When my six year-old asked me how big the space shuttle was, I didn't say "roughly the size of a 737," I said "about the size of our house."

The point is, empathy for the learner and using a learner-centered approach in the classroom isn't new. It's just new to many educators who have traditionally used the "instructor-centered" approach, which you find in most college classrooms where the professor is the fount of all knowledge and your job as a learner is the absorb as much of his ramblings as you can, being careful not to interrupt the lecture with a stupid question. In the worst-case situations he doesn't know you and doesn't care to know you because that's not his job, as he sees it. His job is to spew his vast knowledge using the same lecture he's used for years and it's up to you to learn from it.

The second most common classroom model is the "subject-oriented" model, which isn't as reliant on the infallability of the professor as the previous model, but it still focuses on the topic as the most important element of the lesson. The problem with this model is that it assumes you can simply open up the top of the students' heads and pour the contents of the lesson plan into it. This is the model you see most often in high school. The instructor sees his job as "presenting the material" insteading of teaching kids.

So you see, this new idea of "culturally responsive teaching" is not new and it's not even about culture. If teachers enter the classroom with empathy for the learner and are prepared to use analogies and examples that they can relate to, it really doesn't matter what race or culture they come from, how old they are or what you're trying to teach them.