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Culturally responsive teaching: ‘It’s something you do — every day’

“The kids are excited to be at school,” says Sarah Skahan, and her colleagues have begun asking what she’s doing to reach kids they struggle with.

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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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“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.”