When asked about being a “culturally responsive teacher,” some science teachers may comment that they involve their science students in one of the following scenarios, hence they are, in fact, culturally responsive teachers:
Being a culturally responsive teacher (CRT) is much more than merely mentioning the contributions of BIPOC scientists or inviting them into our classrooms as role models. According to Gloria Ladson-Billings, who has written extensively about culturally relevant teaching since the 1990s, being a CRT means embracing three pillars in our teaching to ensure all students are successful:
To Ladson-Billings, “that’s an all-or-nothing proposition—you can’t do one or two and say, ‘Oh, I’m being culturally relevant. You’ve got to do all three things.’” (Fay 2019).
Being a CRT means building bridges between the classroom and the community. Engaging students in community issues makes science authentic, meaningful, and affords the students the opportunity to showcase their knowledge in ways that in-class work does not. Schools and teachers that are culturally responsive see it as their responsibility to break down barriers in order to help students negotiate their three worlds of school, home, and peers.
Kopkowski (2006) further offers: “…it is about understanding students’ home life, their language, music, dress, behavior, jokes, ideas about success, the role of religion and community in their lives, and more. It is bringing the experiences of their 24-hour-day into the seven-hour school day to give them information in a familiar context” (p. 1).
Teachers who practice culturally responsive teaching consider themselves as change agents, or to use Henry Giroux’s term, transformative intellectuals (2010, p. 38). They acknowledge the dominant culture of day-to-day teaching practices and curriculum of our schools and question whether equitable experiences are provided to all students.
Teaching is not a neutral practice, but rather a transformational act. CRTs and schools practicing culturally relevant teaching can potentially reverse the cycle of inequality in education, close the achievement gap, address the disproportionate representation of BIPOC students in programs serving students with special needs, and increase the low numbers of BIPOC students enrolling and succeeding in AP science courses. Holding high expectations for ALL students will raise the academic level of all students, not just those high-achieving students.
Many schools do not provide students with inviting scientific spaces where they are given opportunities to engage in learning that is challenging, culturally responsive, and humanizing. Instead, students often zone out, tune out, or tune in to YouTube on their phones while instruction is occurring AT them and not WITH them.
Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) as defined by Gay (2000) means using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. Culturally responsive teaching has the following characteristics:
As described by Ladson-Billings (1995), CRT recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning.
Becoming a Culturally Responsive Science Teacher
Becoming a culturally responsive science teacher is a career-long process, not something obtained from a two-hour professional development session. It involves constantly learning from and about our students’ interests, their lives outside of school, and the cultural practices in their homes. This knowledge informs our science teaching in rich and meaningful ways.
Validating students’ cultural identities in classroom practices—such as understanding and integrating the students’ family makeup, immigration history and experiences, individual concerns, strengths, talents and interests into the curriculum—enriches our science classroom through the students’ knowledge they bring into our science classes.
Some strategies we can begin to use in our science teaching:
For an illuminating, powerful TED talk, watch The Danger of a Single Story, featuring Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian woman who relays her story of coming to study in the United States and her roommate holding many misconceptions of life in Nigeria and of Chimamanda, herself. Adichie admits to reading many stories of American life as a young child, believing that all we do is talk about the weather.
We must do more than treat our science students as if they have a single story to tell us. Their stories are beautiful, multifaceted, and engaging. Are we ready to listen and enact change?
Adichie, C. 2009. The danger of a single story. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D9Ihs241zeg
Fay, L. 2019. 74 Interview: Researcher Gloria-Ladson Billings on culturally relevant teaching, the role of teachers in Trump’s America and lessons from her two decades in education research. https://www.the74million.org/article/74-interview-researcher-gloria-ladson-billings-on-culturally-relevant-teaching-the-role-of-teachers-in-trumps-america-lessons-from-her-two-decades-in-education-research/
Gay, G. 2000. Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, & Practice. New York: Teachers College Press.
Giroux, H. 2010. Teachers as transformative intellectuals. In Kaleidoscope: Contemporary and Classic Readings in Education, eds. K. Ryan and J. M. Cooper, pp. 35–40. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.
Kopkowski, C. 2006. Sounds great, but how do I do it? NEA Today Magazine.
Ladson-Billings, G. 2007. Culturally Relevant Teaching: Theory and Practice. In Multicultural Education: Issues and Perspectives, eds. J.A. Banks and C.A. Banks, 221–245. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.
Ladson-Billings, G. 2009. The dream-keepers: Successful teachers of African-American Children (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Ladson- Billings, G. 1995. Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal 32 (3): 465–491.
Equity Inclusion Multicultural Social Justice High School