Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

A Perspective from an Educator and Mom

I began thinking about the question, “What is education?” in a different light when I recently became a mother.  Although my little girl is only 6 weeks old, I was already thinking about what this means for her and for me as a parent who is also an educator.  Was it still relevant in education that she was a girl?  Were there specific needs, opportunities and strategies that should be addressed because she is an African American girl?

– As a researcher,
– Culturally responsive educator and educational consultant,
– Former special education teacher and professor,
– Author of articles, a book on women doctoral students of color and blogs on the needs of diverse learners,
I knew the answer was a resounding yes!

However, as I ponder this topic now it is not from as much of a statistical point of view or abstract concept but from what in a practical and very personal perspective I want and see for my own child (like most parents and many teachers).

As culturally responsive teachers, we are called upon to see other people’s children as our own—to establish a relationship in which we are truly invested in the outcome of our students’ lives as we would be and are for our own children.  This is the hope I hold for my daughter and standard I hold for her future teachers. I expect that when my daughter attends her first formal school her teachers will automatically understand this and act accordingly.  But what if it is not automatic?

How will this impact her education?

Which brings me back to, what is education?

In order to be effective in the classroom, education requires inclusion at every level (from kindergarten to doctoral programs). Creating a welcoming climate, being sure every child’s voice is heard and honored, is non-negotiable.  Students need to have positive images of themselves as well as others who may not look like them.  They need to be encouraged to fulfill their dreams and provided with the means and tools of accomplishing them.

Effective education requires holding high expectations for all students and recognizing their intellect, talent and skills (this should be a given, but rather the classroom and educational system still perpetuates the deficit model and stereotypes and limits students of color).  High expectations lead to empowerment and visibility and inspires creativity and imagination. How many examples do we need of what the latter does to children (and adults)?

When I was a graduate student, there was no discussion of Waking Up White, which is the Curry Common Read selection for the upcoming year, or the unpacking of racism and racial inequities in society or even the classroom. My experiences of being one of the only African American graduate students in my special education program at U.Va. helped to solidify my sense of responsibility and purpose in creating awareness and making these discussions mandatory for my undergraduate and graduate students in teacher training.  As a result, I have always included these lessons in my own classroom (formal classroom and informal global world).

I have learned the critical importance of being visible for students of color as well as students from the dominant culture. It’s hard work, but getting out of one’s comfort zone (as students and teachers) is a necessity.  Many of my college students from the dominant culture who often will work in schools (but have not lived in neighborhoods) with children of color came to understand their white privilege and lived experiences not through theory and research but by walking in the shoes of others.

My student were obligated to get out of their comfort zones and become situated in an activity or event in which they were required to be a racial, ethnic, religious, language, and/or ability “minority.” My students were required to have the experience of being the only one or the “other.”  Previous to these activities, the majority of my students from the dominant culture had not been in situations where they were the minority—except when doing charity work or a supervisory position.

For example, my college students in my Introduction to Special Education class would take on this assignment as “ability minorities,” yet they almost always would try to approach the experience as the teacher, the authority, the “knower.” Rarely did they consider being the peer, let alone the learner (without my prompting or mandating).  Requiring them to further address race and linguistics to unpack disparity and inequality in education, over-representation in special education and the needs of English language learners required much more prompting, discussions and lived experiences.

Maybe there is a need for us as humans to stay with what is familiar. Maybe there is a need for us to play it safe.  But life requires so much more than that. How could we not require that of our students and ourselves?

So what is education?  And what does it mean in our own lives?  Asking ourselves what we would want for our own children (or sisters, brothers, nieces, etc.) is a good place to start the educational journey and from there, leading with knowledge, courage and heart.

Guest Author

Jennifer Bacon and daughter

Jennifer N. Bacon, Ph.D

M.Ed. ’04 Spec Ed

Exploring Career Options with YSI Majors

“It was so amazing to meet people in the field that I want to work in. It helped me envision my career path and establish contacts to help me get there.”

This was the enthusiastic response of Mary Hemenway, a Third Year student in Curry’s new Youth and Social Innovation (YSI) major. Because this undergraduate major is brand new, we day tripped to Washington, DC, to give our students a chance to meet people in the kinds of jobs YSI is preparing them to do. The YSI major integrates theory and research on youth development, programming, and policy with hands-on application working with youth in the Charlottesville community. Students learn how to evaluate social innovations for youth and collaborate to design new ones.

First Stop: Bellwether Education Partners

At 10:30 a.m., Professor Winx Lawrence, Mary, Alysse Dowdy (Third Year), Jack Baker (Fourth Year) and I pulled up to our first destination. Located in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, Bellwether Education Partners supports the education sector through strategic advising, research, policy analysis, educational idea generation, and talent identification. Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner, told the students about his journey to founding Bellwether, fueled by his drive to ensure educational opportunity for all students. (Andy is also a Curry alum—M.Ed. ’00 Soc Fdns!)

Second Stop: Dance Place

Across town in the Brookland neighborhood of DC, Deborah Riley and Richard Pilkinton shared how the Dance Place serves as both a major player in the dance performance world and a second place to call home for local youth. The story of Dance Place illustrates how a commitment to community integration can yield beautiful art, meaningful relationships, and enriched lives for youth and their families.

Third Stop: The Forum for Youth Investment

Cady-Lee signThe historic Cady-Lee House in the Takoma neighborhood is home to the Forum for Youth Investment. Several Forum staff members (gathered by Ian Faigley, External Affairs Senior Manager) talked about their work on Capitol Hill, consulting with state legislatures, creating and providing Ready by 21 trainings and tools, and designing and maintaining online resources for youth, all with the aim of leveraging leadership (local, state, national) to make sure youth are prepared for successful adulthood.

Fourth Stop: Administration for Children and Families

Belongings scanned and photo IDs examined, we followed Colleen Rathgeb, policy and planning director at the Office of Head Start, down the hallway and up the elevator to an imposing conference room with a city view. We were greeted by eight representatives of different Administration for Children and Families (ACF) offices. A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ACF focuses on the wellbeing of children as well as their families and communities.

“It felt practically like an honor to have all those people come in to our meeting just to see and talk to us. I also appreciated getting a chance to see government in action, which these days might seem like an oxymoron to some,” said Jack.

Energized from the interactions of the day, the students expressed wonder and gratitude that all of these people had taken the time to meet them and share a bit about their work and passions. Alysse summed up our visit, “Each organization we visited was different, and that was especially beneficial in trying to pinpoint exactly where I want to take my degree after graduation.”

We look forward to future field trips and collaborations (like summer internships) with these new YSI partners in DC!

Interested in YSI? Learn more about YSI courses and the YSI major

Guest Author

Melissa Levy

Melissa Levy

Assistant Professor

Teaching Machines and MOOCs

The allure of educational technology is easy to understand. In almost every other area of our modern world, machines have significantly contributed to modern life, but they are largely missing from our schools. A nineteenth-century visitor would feel quite at home in a modern classroom, even at our most elite institutions of higher learning. People have looked to machines to solve issues in most other endeavors in their lives, hoping to gain improved efficiency, cost, and time savings. So it is not surprising that technology has been employed for both noble (better learning outcomes) and less than noble reasons (teacher proofing).

If one is to believe the press, from obscure educational journals to the New York Times, the teaching machine for the start of the twenty-first century is the MOOC. Massive open online courses are the latest contender, where courses from commercial companies and prestigious universities such as Stanford, MIT, and Harvard are offered online to huge numbers of participants, often thousands at a time. There are those who view MOOCs as the savior to managing the ever-spiraling cost of higher education, and others who see them as sowing the seeds of the demise of the university as we know it. The truth, of course, lies somewhere between.

It is important to see some of the potentially threatening innovations such as MOOCs in the same way that their providers see them, as experiments. Daphne Koller, co-founder of venture-capital-funded MOOC developer Coursera, views the MOOC as an unprecedented opportunity to use the large numbers of people to scientifically test what works by doing controlled experiments she refers to as “A/B testing,” where a change is made to instruction for some population of students and not for others. Because of the large numbers of students not typically available in traditional educational research, the results of the change can be tested empirically for its effectiveness and the overall instruction changed accordingly.

One of the more concerning issues about the commercial educational technology providers is the source of their funding, venture capitalists. Venture capital is provided by investment firms to fund early stage companies. These firms typically invest in a large number of startups with the assumption that 90 percent of them will fail, but the 10 percent that thrive will yield a return on investment of at least 300 percent (known as a “3-bagger”). This strategy has been extremely successful in the high-technology sector and in large part is responsible for the phenomenal products and companies that have emerged from Silicon Valley. Venture capital firms provide a strong support network to help guide new entrepreneurs, but their model has its darker side.

There is an inherent instability in any “disposable” relationship. The funded companies typically cede a significant amount of control in exchange for the millions of dollars they receive. When the company delivers the kinds of profits that the funders see as significant, that control can be very constructive and nurturing. But if the company underperforms or takes longer to deliver, it can find itself among the “walking dead,” with just enough capital to stay in business but not enough to grow, closed down completely, or merged with another of the firm’s portfolio of funded companies.

I’m not sure teaching machines have as much potential in K-12 as they may in higher education. Not that there aren’t issues that might be addressed using technology, but the impact will probably be less. That said, some of those barriers to adoption in K-12 are being removed. Using computer technology in the classroom 20 years ago meant classes traveling to an expensive dedicated “computer room” filled with expensive, fragile, and difficult to maintain desktop computers loaded with largely ineffective software.

Laptops and Internet access made the process somewhat better as they emerged, but the newest computer tablets fit in the classroom, are more comfortable and have lots of potential–if teachers see the value in using them. This will require compelling web-applications and sufficient training on how to best use technology in the classroom.

The rural sociologist Everett Rogers founded a systematic study of ways innovations are introduced to and adopted by potential users, known as “diffusion of innovations.” Many of the terms and concepts he identified, such as laggards and early adopters have made their way into the language of business and the popular culture.

The diffusion of innovations provides a practical framework on which to study the common elements in such disparate areas as MTV marketing and animal husbandry. In a series of diffusion studies across multiple areas, Rogers found that innovations that have high relative advantage (a better mousetrap), compatibility (works well with what’s available now), trialability, observability, and low complexity are likely to succeed over innovations that possess lower levels of those attributes.

I think tablets have many of the characteristics that Rogers identified, but time will tell if they live up to their potential.

Teaching Machines Cover

Excerpted from Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology by Bill Ferster. Reprinted by permission of Johns Hopkins University Press

Guest Author

Bill Ferster

Bill Ferster

Ph.D. '07 IT

Join Us for the 2015 Curry Common Read

Finding Ourselves in the Story of Race: An invitation to explore diversity and difference in Curry

Four years ago the Curry school began a tradition of a common read for all faculty, students, and staff. Some years a number of alumni have joined us as well.

With this post, we introduce the book we’ll be reading for 2015 and encourage alumni to join us in our efforts to expand our thinking, stretch our horizons, and embrace different ways of knowing. The common read is woven into everything from fall orientation to professional development and lectures.

Choosing the book is a daunting task, one we took very seriously. We solicited suggestions, read reviews, and discussed options in our Diversity Action Committee. In particular, we wanted to continue the discussions brought up at a very well attended open forum this past spring consisting of faculty, staff, and students. We looked for a book that could resonate with all our varied constituencies, across degree levels, majors, and the diverse individuals who make up the Curry School—no easy task, but one we embraced as central to our mantra this year of “One Curry.”

Waking Up White coverWe are excited to introduce Waking Up White (and finding myself in the story of race), by Debby Irving (2014) as the Curry Common Read for 2015-16. This compelling, fascinating, sometimes jolting but always brave book chronicles the author’s personal journey toward a deeper understanding of race, racism, power, discovery, equity, insight, and action.

Debby Irving was a teacher, grew up in what she considered a typical American family, and firmly believed she lived by values that embraced diversity and equality. We love the book’s honesty in admitting that even when we embrace these values, living by them is challenging. The book challenges the reader to take the role of the other but also to look deeply at our own experiences and how those shape our beliefs and behaviors about and around others.

The “aha! moment” the author talks of experiencing, the one that “shifted her worldview and upended her life plan” (from the book description), is a journey worth taking. Importantly, the book is a call to action; it provides numerous opportunities to examine your own experiences, regardless of your background, personal history, race, ethnicity, or class. Chapters like “invisibility,” “color-blind,” and “surviving versus thriving” are followed by “courageous conversations,” “becoming multicultural” and “from bystander to ally.”

Truly, it is a book made for group discussion, and we see endless possibilities as we consider programming for next year. We welcome dialog about the book and hope you can participate with us in this year-long exploration. Watch for more information about how you can get involved in our discussions once the 2015 fall semester begins.


Guest Author

Diane Whaley, DAC Chair elect, and Antoinette Thomas, DAC Chair

Good Sports and PYD

Playing sports as a young girl, changed my life. When I was in high school, being part of a team helped me feel good about myself, and gave me tools to connect with others. So it has been my passion to help other girls feel connected and competent through physical activity and sport.

In the ‘90’s, when I started working in the world of after school programs in New York City, there were no acronyms like “PYD” (positive youth development) or “SBYD (sports-based youth development).” Practitioners and researchers understood that after school programs could provide many diverse opportunities — as safe spaces for youth to connect with peers and adults, as growth places for youth to explore new activities and identities, and as home bases where youth could learn skills and competencies that could open doors to unimagined futures.

As a practitioner in the world of out-of-school-time, I try to create contexts that facilitate positive youth development, and allow youth to feel connected to others, while they learn sports skills. As a lifelong athlete, I have always been passionate about the power of sport to foster connections and competence. As a coach, I use sports to help youth be better, and find their “super self.”

One thing which we know from research, and which we also see in our programs, is that life skills, such as pro-social development or respect, are not learned simply because youth are participating in a sport or physical activity. These skills, such as listening, getting to know others, appreciating differences, dealing with emotions, problem-solving, being positive, supportive or fair, are not learned by osmosis. The context alone does not teach lessons. Coaches and administrators must intentionally teach and model these skills, planning ways to integrate them into team activities, practices and games, so that youth will learn how to be better teammates in sports and in life, and be their “Super selves.” That’s my mission, and why I do what I do.


Guest Author

Ellen Markowitz

Ph.D. '10 Applied Dev Science