"Culturally relevant teachers see their connection to the community as integral to their identity." (Hyland, 2005; Ladson-Billings, 1994)
Cultural relevance considers a student's culture as integral to learning. Educators serve students best when they can see the world through their students' eyes or worldview (Hardy, 2005). How can you teach students unless you know them? Another component of cultural relevancy centers on the need for teachers to recognize and acknowledge their own culture in regards to how they perceive students different from themselves. Cultural relevancy extends beyond skin color. For example, when White female teachers ignore racial identity—even though they may not realize it--they represent and express a hidden racial position in the eyes of their Black students (Mazzei, 2008). Cultural relevance takes student and teacher identity into consideration.
Academic rigor advocates for student learning that demonstrates thorough, in-depth mastery of reflective thought, analysis and problem solving in any grade and in any subject (Daggett, 2012).
So which is more important in regards to teaching African American males: cultural responsiveness or academic rigor?
The good news is that, as teachers, we do not have to separate the two. The Rigor/Relevance Framework, created by the International Center for Leadership in Education, was developed to ensure that both rigor and relevance are included in instruction (Paulson, 2008). The framework features six components: 1) remember, 2) understand, 3) apply, 4) analyze, 5) evaluate, and 6) synthesize. The best way to assist students with rigor is to help them use these six steps in ways that help them to apply what they are learning in a meaningful way. Academic rigor, coupled with culturally relevant pedagogy, supports teachers to consider the racial identities of their students as well as their own racial identities; ultimately, this helps better prepare students by connecting their education into frameworks they can use in real-world situations—their professional futures. This approach is supported by Daggett (2005), who maintains "students understand and retain knowledge best when they have applied it in a practical, relevant setting" (p. 2).
Culturally relevant pedagogy has three components. Students must 1) experience academic success, 2) develop and/or maintain cultural competence, and 3) achieve a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order (Ladson-Billings, 1995).
Critical consciousness, not only of race but of how perceptions of race influence education, is an influential part of culturally relevant pedagogy. Du Bois suggested that Afro Americans have a double consciousness (Du Bois, 1994/1903). This idea is rooted in the belief that Blacks may be able to look at their experiences in America with a "divided self" and see the world through multicultural eyes—an intuitiveness that enabled them to perceive society from two cultural perspectives. With an eye towards critical consciousness, Paulo Freire (1970) begs education to be viewed as a complex relationship between student, school and society. Whereas Du Bois' perspective is an external perspective, Freire's lens is internal, not side by side but as a transparent prism of inclusiveness (Ransaw, 2013).
How does all of this theoretical information help teachers in the classroom?
Looking at everything in the classroom in terms of culturally relevant pedagogy creates many opportunities for student engagement because of a direct connection to relevancy (Ladson-Billings, 1995). For example, one study where teachers, instead of accepting the out-of-date textbooks that lacked culturally appropriate material as a fact of life, had students examine the reasons behind inequitable funding in regards to textbooks and then critiqued their textbooks in terms of culturally relevant content (Ladson-Billings, 1995). By the end of the study, students had written letters to the editor of their local newspaper outlining their concerns. Culturally relevant pedagogy goes beyond teaching styles and strategies and has to do with how teachers think both about themselves and their students (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 162).
In regards to rigor, educators must look at instructional level as well as grade level in regards to reading instruction. Teaching really begins when students become frustrated at the gap between their individual learning level and their grade level. Mediation of this gap is the missing component of closing the space between student ability and teacher expectations (Shanahan, 2012). Giving students reading material slightly above their learning level usually results in higher reading gains. This is achieved because students are more likely to ask questions from a teacher they trust rather than disengaging from a teacher who babies them by giving them reading material that is below their intelligence level. Neither is a case of "throwing a student in at the deep end of the pool." Instead, the teacher guides them through a text with support that increases both learning and student engagement (Shanahan, 2014).
Rigor and relevance are two critical and compatible components of teaching students of color. Instructional rigor, not just more homework or more test questions, is a powerful aid in increasing not only learning levels, but reading test scores as well. Cultural relevance engages students fully, and engaged students learn better. Which component you emphasize will depend on your student data. If attendance is high and suspensions are low, while test scores and grade level bench marks are lower than desired, then more rigor might be in order. If data about core grade-level instruction is on track, but bench level marks are off-track, then more rigorous instruction that connects students' cultural frames of reference and grade-level material might be the solution. Either way, looking at data is a great tool to increase positive interactions with students.
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Du Bois, William E.B. (1994/1903). The Soul of Black Folks. New York: Dover Publications.
Chambers, S. M., & Hardy, J. C. (2005), "Length of time in Student Teaching: Effects on Classroom Control Orientation and Self-Efficacy Beliefs." Educational Research Quarterly, 28(3), 3-9.
Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum.
Mazzei, L.A. (2008). "Silence Speaks: Whiteness Revealed In the Absence of Voice," Teaching and Teacher Education, 24(5), 1125-1136.
Daggett,W. (2012). Rigor/Relevance Framework™. International Center for Leadership in Education. Retrieved from www.daggett.com/pdf/R&Rframework.pdf.
Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). "But That's Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy." Theory Into Practice 34(3), 159-165.
Paulson, M. (2008). Best Teaching Practices for Rigor in Learning. Retrieved from https://suite101.com/a/rigor-in-the-classroom-a82689
Ransaw, T. (2013). The Art of Being Cool: The Pursuit of Black Masculinity. African American Images: Chicago.
Shanahan, T. & Shanahan, C. (2012), "What is Disciplinary Literacy and Why Does it Matter?" Topics in Language Disorders, 32(1), 7–18.
Teicher, S. A. (2007, Mar 01). "Teacher of the Year Makes Science Real," The Christian Science Monitor.