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?   

The Importance of Student Voices

by Sreenidhi Viswanathan

“Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment.” -Brene Brown


We all know connection is important. In what ways does connection matter to our students?  I had a unique opportunity to learn more about the importance of connection this past summer.

THE PROJECT

I worked as an intern coordinator for a program which was a collaboration between NorthStar Education Partners, a consultant firm, and Purpose Built Schools Atlanta, a local charter. Over a six-week internship, six students from a high school in Atlanta, Georgia, worked together on a school design team project. The project was modified from the Transcend Fundamentals of School Design BluePrint to fit the limited time frame and the student perspective. 

I began this internship by conducting interviews with several students, to get to know them, their passions, aspirations, and gather the skills they want to improve on. After conducting the interviews, a common theme emerged. Many of the students had a desire to be better communicators and, particularly, better at making connections. They wanted to be heard or understood by those around them. 

CONNECTING WITH RELATED CONCEPTS

The students’ responses could be brushed aside as the quintessential teenage angst of “no one understands me”, but this theme of a longing for connection and communication came up time and time again as we embarked on our School Design team project. 

Safety

In our first team project meeting, we discussed what the students found to be the strengths and challenges in their school community in order to land on a case for change. A challenge students came up with was feeling as though they didn’t have people, particularly adults, to go to. The interns decided in order to create an environment where students are thriving, students needed to feel safe and have someone they could trust, someone they feel they can talk to.

Trust

Communities are considered safe when there is a strong foundation of trust and a web of connections all based in that trust. As educators, Are we allowing space for students and faculty to be building authentic relationships where students feel safe? 

Mental Health

The need for connection came up again when the interns discussed mental health. When discussing what they hope students who graduate from their school leave knowing, interns identified the skill “Mental Stability”. They defined it as “having the mental capacity to persevere through the mentally challenging parts of life… [and students] are educated on mental health and aware of resources.” 

They wanted to gain a better understanding of those dealing with mental illnesses to be able to put words to what they themselves may be going through but also to recognize peers who may be facing mental health issues. These students identified what seemed to be a barrier for them in connecting with others. They see a problem they care about, but they don’t see a path to meet the problem and do something about it. The knowledge of mental health and its resources was another way for students to address negative emotions and address them in a productive way. 

NEXT STEPS

One of the solutions the students offered was a class on mental health along with holding weekly meetings with peers where they can openly discuss issues they may be facing regarding mental health. Students want to be able to better communicate their own challenges with mental health as well as connect with their peers on this issue to create spaces for understanding to happen. 

When students are given the space to share their ideas and to be heard, they have a lot to say. They’re just waiting for people to listen. 

How are you incorporating student voices in your work? How are you creating space for students to feel heard?

Recharging in 2022

Written by Maureen Connolly

This past weekend, I took a roadtrip with my 8-year-old daughter, Anna. When her iPad hit 20%, she asked for a charger. It was important. She didn’t want to lose where she was in her game. Hitting 20% meant she needed to get on this recharging thing! If she let the iPad get to zero, she might lose the progress she had made. This would be frustrating. This would mean she had wasted time. This simply would not be acceptable when there was a perfectly good charger within reach.

Anna’s logic for and sense of urgency around making sure to recharge that battery got me thinking about teachers and our need to recharge. These days, most teachers are trying to push forward even though their battery indicators have turned red. This doesn’t make sense!  It takes way more time and effort to power up again when we allow our batteries to die out. We lose progress. We lose momentum. We get frustrated.

What if, rather than pushing through, we commit to recharging?

The following list starts with ways to recharge alongside our students and moves to ways to recharge with colleagues/friends and individually. The suggested moves are relatively small but make a big impact on our battery charge.

10 Ways to Recharge!

Recommit to good habits 

Remember at the start of the year when you committed to greeting students at the door each day?  Today is the day to recommit to that!  Maybe you wanted to start each day with a song. Play that funky music friend! Think back to the start of the year and any fresh idea that you wanted to implement regularly. Today is the day to restart that commitment. You can do it! Enjoy the positive energy this yields for you and your students.

Reserve time for grounding

Remember, you aren’t the only one struggling who needs to recharge! Students are rushing from one class to another, thinking about their after-school activities, balancing family and friends, and just trying to squeeze in some time for fun! To recharge together, try some grounding exercises. Take a deep breathe together; ask students to take a moment to think about what they are going to do next; connect with a quote that gets students (and you) feeling centered and ready to learn.

Revisit class agreements

Likely, at the start of the year, you and your students created class agreements. Nothing sucks the life out of our batteries like the time and emotional effort that goes into reactionary classroom management. Revisit your class agreements with students. Ask them to consider whether they are working for all of you. Just the reminder of these agreements may help students (and you) “live” what you agreed. You may want to revisit these with a focus on increasing energy or stamina. Ask your students: What is draining us? What is energizing us?  How can we modify our agreements or the ways we “live” our agreements to increase our energy?

Refresh your classroom setup

Your classroom is your home for so much of the day. How is the space working for you and your students? Ask students to help you think about desk arrangement, classroom library organization, supplies and displays. How can the setup of the classroom be more efficient, more exciting, more charged? Remember, many students are creative and strong, and they like  being helpful. Engage them in this process. Take a bit of time to plan and assign “Mission Classroom Makeover” roles before diving into action. This will make the work more efficient and more likely to result in recharging.

Reinvent the wheel

Typically, when thinking about how to increase energy, I would advise teachers not to reinvent the wheel. That said, when we get into a habit of falling back on what we know, sometimes we can get into an energy slump, so for this recharge tip, I am suggesting you choose one lesson or unit that you want to change up. Keep the stuff that works (don’t reinvent the entire wheel!), and add some new materials or strategies. As you consider what to revamp and what to add, please note that the increase in technology skills thanks to virtual learning is great, but tech has become so prevalent in the in-person classroom that you may want to focus on ways to incorporate more face-to-face, kinesthetic, and interpersonal learning.

Reconnect with colleagues and friends

Talk anything but school with a colleague or friend. (Bonus if your colleagues are your friends!) OK. If talking anything but school doesn’t seem realistic, vent and then talk anything but school. Venting lets you “get it out and move on.” Sometimes the moving on takes more time than others, but without the venting, it would take even longer! Once you get that out, enjoy a chat that doesn’t focus on work. Remember, you are more than this role! Think you don’t have time? C’mon! This is important! Make time.  You can commit to one lunch a week with a colleague or making one call a week to a friend during your commute. 

Reread a favorite book, article, or blog post

Consider creating a teacher reading group where each member leads a conversation on an article that has had meaning for them. Note, these readings don’t have to be new. They can be rereads of things that had meaning for you in the past and deserve revisiting. Focus on sources that provide you with active next steps that you can take in your classrooms.

Rethink your To Do list

A paper To Do list can feel great!  Many of us enjoy that feeling of accomplishment when we get to cross something off our lists. (If you could see my swirling cross-outs that put a dent in the page, you’d know the intensity of joy this brings me!) However, along with that joy we get the guilt of the things left on the list, or worse having to transfer tasks to a new list when we run out of space on the page (ugh!). To be more efficient, try rethinking how you keep track of what needs doing. Rather than keeping a physical To Do list on paper, try scheduling tasks in your calendar, so you have a set time for getting them done. If you are like me and like the joy of crossing things off that To Do list, keep a paper list too. Just be sure that you have a set plan for when you will accomplish the tasks you add.

Retreat!

Retreat from your classroom. Commit to stepping away (for real!) and not thinking about school at least one day over the weekend and at least an hour each night. Teachers’ minds are always “on.”  We are constantly thinking about new ideas or ways to adapt things for our students. Take the time to slow down and treat yourself to some time away. And then re-treat yourself to some more time!

Remind yourself that you are awesome!

You chose this profession because you knew you could make a difference! You knew you’d be good at this! Remind yourself of the great things you’ve done with your students. And Click HERE to share those great moves with colleagues by becoming a Toolbox Book contributor. (BONUS! All survey completers will be entered into a drawing to win a $50 Amazon gift card!) Note that each of the moves above start with “re” because this is about recharging our batteries.  Most of us come into each school year energized, excited about what is ahead, batteries fully charged. It’s around the mid-year point when we need to get back to those early-year feelings and energy levels. We need to return to what energizes us by “plugging-in” to our values and positive professional and personal choices. Here’s hoping you make time to recharge!