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How Culturally Responsive Education Affects Student Engagement and Learning

by Sam E. Anzer

“I’ve found it helpful to think of culture as a tool that doesn't so much anticipate how people will act... rather, it's more about what themes, references, and experiences - individual and shared - inform peoples' perceptions. The key to using culture as a tool in engineering powerful and effective teaching and learning experiences for students is to embrace nuances, explore the breadth of stories within the group, and actively avoid unintentionally restricting the expression of students' identities with our own limiting stereotypes.”

- Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge, Author of Culturally Responsive Education

As a minority in America, I always felt that my public school education wasn’t created with me in mind. And I always knew there had to be a better way. When I became a teacher, I knew I wanted to create engaging, creative, and rigorous learning experiences for my students but it wasn’t until I read Doctor Adeyemi Stembridge’s Culturally Responsive Education that I felt I knew EXACTLY how to do it.

Why should you read this book?

There are too many baby books and thought leaders with their spin on creating more equitable education. Several anti-racist thought leaders suggest replacing curriculum and texts to reflect the student population--and I like that idea because it adds more representation. But how will it keep our students involved in the canonical discussions in colleges and universities? And what happens to our ELL students, differently-abled students, when they are disarmed by an SAT question or an important document that has phrasing that values the dominant culture? Can these practices create a wedge between our students and academics?

Herein lies the answer. In Culturally Responsive Education, Stembridge posits that planning lessons with the ultimate goal of first what you want your students to understand and feel--instead of what standard you’re going to teach– results in a more enduring understanding and engaging learning experience.


Because when you plan with what you want students to understand and feel, you’re planning with the ultimate goal in mind. The enduring emotional understanding--which neuroscience supports, is the way we learn, “emotion is important in education—it drives attention, which in turn drives learning and memory” (Sylwester)

Dr. Stembridge, the author of Culturally Responsive Education, pushes his educator audience to ask themselves, “How does instructional design encourage students to employ high order thinking skills beyond mere recall? In what ways are students led to construct their own meaning and interpretations from content? How does the instruction lead students into stretching their understanding of the content?”

But how is planning what we want students to understand and feel culturally responsive? When you allow students to bring their own understanding, life experiences and worldview to their learning, not only is it more engaging but more rigorous as well. Check out the following examples, and think about which is more rigorous and which your students would enjoy more. 

For example: Write a paragraph explaining what type of character Hamlet is.

OR: Choose a song and act-out how you imagine Hamlet walks around his castle by making a 30-second tik tok video. Write a paragraph supporting your act-out with evidence from the text.

Which sounds more enjoyable, the second one, right? But which is more rigorous?

The second one, right?

That example requires students to synthesize their knowledge of Hamlet’s character through an act-out (which gets them out of their seats and boasts the benefit of a kinesthetic application of their knowledge). In addition, picking a song that fits Hamlet’s character is a trans-disciplinary application of characterization AND is high engagement because the student’s knowledge base of music (their culture) is valued. Finally, students are practicing future-facing skills like video editing and social media engagement AND they get to create something that’s fun for them and they want to share with their friends. 

At this point, you may be wondering where the inclusion of black and brown role-models is in these examples, and how this methodology can make such a big impact on the education model and the way we typically teach (and learn). The elegance of this approach is that by valuing the students' culture you allow for their expression and them to be leaders in expressing their culture and its values. These two classroom exercises are examples of my work introducing Morgridge Academy Students to Culturally Responsive Education.

Elie Wiesel’s Night talks about death. But before finding out how Wiesel makes sense of death, asking what death means to the students and comparing their viewpoint with the author’s allows for cognitive comparison, synthesis and an evolution of thought. All different colored students were able to express how they interpreted and made sense of death.Instead of just learning to draw houses or neighborhoods, elementary students planned, designed and drew their own neighborhood to explain what was important to them.

Dr.Stembridge argues that culturally responsive education is all about meeting students where their culture is and allowing THEM to express it. You can’t possibly be an expert on all the cultures, races, and trends your students are partaking in on social media. BUT, you can offer assignments and displays of learning that allow them to express it. Simultaneously, if you can authentically introduce them to a culture through their work--and design assignments that provoke thought, interest and responsiveness from their cultural identity, you are stacking your learning wins. 

This style of learning allows us to be deliberate in our thinking in how we imagine our students to be capable and creative thinkers.And if you do all this, you don’t need to do something wildly outside of your comfort zone to reach our black and brown students. You just have to value their  experience and plan engaging and challenging displays of learning. Because good teaching is just good teaching. 

How does this blog inform our MSL values? Guide us to meet the demands of education or inspire teachers?

Order CRE here as an investment toward a deeper understanding of your students not just as learners but as humans with their own valuable life experiences and culture, which they should be able to express in school, in order to become more fully engaged and realize their full potential. In turn, you’ll feel inspired by what your students create. It’s always better than what you can imagine. Your classroom will transform from an information repository to a harmonious dialogue among you, your students, and the content. If you’re still on the fence about CRE, consider this closing thought from the author:

“The most effective teachers leverage dynamic social exchanges best by incorporating their relationship-building efforts in the context of teaching and learning - which affirms to their students that they have the right to school, that their school identity can co-exist peacefully with their social, ethnic, racial, and gender identities, and that meaningful relationships with individuals in school can extend to relationships with academic content, as well.”

- Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge, Author of Culturally Responsive Education


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