Culturally Responsive Teaching: The CRT We Need to Talk About

By: Joely Torres

A few weeks ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones came to The College of New Jersey for a moderated discussion. My first exposure to her work was Hannah-Jones’ original 1619 article, which spoke a truth I had not seen in many mainstream publications. Reading The 1619 Project informed my understanding of why we’re witnessing a war on education and books. Listening to Nikole Hannah-Jones speak to the matter directly during her visit to TCNJ further affirmed my thinking on this topic. 

As part of her discussion, Hannah-Jones spoke about the recent surge of book banning in schools across the country, asserting how it reflects the fear of the truth. She expressed that once the masses are aware of the historic and pervasive injustices in the United States, people will want to take action to create change. In limiting the national scope of understanding about the true history of the United States, our society is more susceptible to finding satisfaction in the status quo, which continuously disenfranchises marginalized communities. People in power know the importance of education and its role in shaping generations of thought. Hannah-Jones spoke to this, stating that we would not be seeing a war waged on content and curriculum in schools if those in positions of power did not believe that schools have the potential to shift the way power is held.

When questioned about the Critical Race Theory (CRT) hysteria at the end of the moderated discussion, Hannah-Jones’ response seemed simple enough. However, the power in her answer was undeniable. Hannah-Jones asserted that the term CRT, a framework almost explicitly taught in graduate-level law classes, has been co-opted by those who fear the truth of our nation’s history being taught in schools. When we, as educators, feed into the frenzy by referencing the term, we play into the hands of those who seek to stoke fear in schools. Hannah-Jones argued that those who believe in the integrity of schooling should move away from using this term. She asserted the extreme responses surrounding CRT are given more power when we engage in conversations that entertain the validity of this fear. 

So how do we reframe the conversation? What do we choose to give energy and power to in lieu of Critical Race Theory? My argument? CRT. Not Critical Race Theory, but Culturally Responsive Teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching is a pedagogical approach that places importance on incorporating cultural competence within the classroom. Teachers demonstrate Culturally Responsive Teaching by relating class materials and content to the cultural context of the students’ lives. Through this approach, students of historically marginalized backgrounds can begin to see themselves reflected in their classrooms. While how we educate students is currently contentious, prioritizing cultural responsiveness is a way that educators can take back their power. Amidst the repression of knowledge unfolding across the country, this approach affirms and validates lived experiences of students who do not see themselves reflected in their course curricula.

While circumnavigating the current Critical Race Theory hysteria can seem like a massive undertaking, Culturally Responsive Teaching can provide a helpful means of traversing the tumultuous terrain many teachers face. One means of incorporating Culturally Responsive Teaching into your curriculum is by getting to know your students and building connections with them. In understanding your students’ interests and experiences, we are better able to tailor our instruction to engage them more effectively. Students are more likely to be interested in their learning materials if they are able to see themselves reflected in their curricula. Aside from engagement, framing coursework within their cultural context can also aid in students’ comprehension of materials. By tapping into their cultural capital, teachers can provide students the opportunity to apply their prior knowledge to their studies. The utilization of Culturally Responsive Teaching proves advantageous not only to supplement student learning but also to affirm students’ identities during a time when they may not feel empowered in their classrooms.

Like Hannah-Jones, I believe that schools can impact what stories get told and how power is held. I want to see more of us talking about the CRT that matters most in schools – Culturally Responsive Teaching. How are you committing to Culturally Responsive Teaching in your classroom?   

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