• Valentina Saavedra

Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

It has become increasingly evident to me that diversity in the school system should be praised and used to further education rather than seen as a disadvantage. As more cultures and backgrounds find their way to the American educational system, there is more of a need for both culturally relevant pedagogy and bilingual education. As a child, I remember having to learn how to speak English by watching cartoons rather than being taught by an actual teacher how to express myself in my new-found language. Though not actively discouraged, my culture and heritage was set aside so that I could learn American ideals, and if it were not for my parents, I am sure I would not know Spanish and I would not care about my culture the way I do now. No child should be denied education because they do not speak English or because their culture is not appreciated by the educational system. All schools should be practicing some sort of culturally relevant pedagogy that matches the demographic of the school and should implement true bilingual education so that no student is disadvantaged because they were not properly taught English.

Culturally relevant pedagogy and bilingual education is necessary in contemporary educational practices because of the overwhelming growth in cultural and linguistic diversity in this society. This “English-only” mentality needs to be reformed, as well as the exclusionary practices made by the school system to isolate those of a different culture. These changes need to be implemented so that we can better educate all of the students coming into our schools, not only teaching them content knowledge but teaching them that they should be proud of who they are and where they come from.

In the book Subtractive Schooling, Angela Valenzuela explores the cultural climate in the school Seguín, an inner-city high school in Houston, Texas, with a population of mostly Mexican and Mexican American students (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 3). This school is a perfect example of where culturally relevant pedagogy is necessary, and yet no such advances are made to implement these practices. The students are described as leaving the school being “monolingual, English-speaking, ethnic minority, neither identified with Mexico nor equipped to function competently in America’s mainstream” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 3). The students bring up good points about the nature of their education, saying that they “are neither inherently antischool nor oppositional. They oppose a schooling process that disrespects them; they oppose not education, but schooling” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 5). Rather than supplement the curriculum with the student body’s culture, the subtractive nature of the schooling almost assures that the students will not succeed. In fact, the students learn “perhaps no stronger lesson in school than to devalue the Spanish language, Mexico, Mexican culture, and things Mexican” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 19). The students at Sequín have been taught to see Spanish and their Mexican culture as inferior to that of English and the American culture. Their whole cultural background is seen as a hindrance that needs to be eliminated in order for them to learn and succeed in the United States. One student in particular complains, “There is a general lack of respect of students’ dignity and cultural differences. For example, some teachers still continue to tell students not to speak ‘Spanish’. This goes on even in the halls when students are passing. Some teachers call the students ‘wetback’ –although the teachers may do it jokingly or have that type of rapor with the student, the fact that a teacher uses any derogatory remarks contributes to a student’s disrespect for teachers.” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 55). The use of the term ‘wetback’ coming from a teacher towards a student is completely disrespectful, both towards the student and towards the student’s culture and experiences. It creates an intense dichotomy between student and teacher, especially because the teacher is the one with the power in the schooling system. The students are almost conditioned to see that those in power will not respect them, creating almost a need to disregard authority, seen clearly in Seguín. The students are also trained to see their culture as something that needs to be gotten rid of in order to be in power and in order to be respected. This is very clearly subtractive schooling, divesting youth from important social and cultural resources, leaving them vulnerable to academic failure (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 29).

Framing students in this way has a negative impact on how teachers view the students as well. Mr. Johnson, a teacher at the school, mentions, “I can tell you right now, a full quarter of these students will drop out of school come May… Joel, stop thinking, you know it might hurt you, cause you some damage upstairs,” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 64). The negative framework that surrounds these students is due to the subtractive nature of the schooling, and if culturally relevant pedagogy were implemented, this negative framework would almost cease to exist, creating an uplifting educational environment for the students.

Much like the Mexican students in Seguín, students all around the United States suffer from the effects of subtractive schooling. One of the consequences of the absence of culturally relevant pedagogy is the loss of the family language. In fact, few current second-generation immigrants can be described as bilingual (Fillmore, 2000, pg. 203). In the case of Kai-fong, he stopped speaking Cantonese when he learned English, and by the time he was 10, he no longer understood Cantonese well and rarely said anything in the language (Fillmore, 2000, pg. 205). He was bullied by his classmates and thus became “an indifferent student and rarely saying anything spontaneously” (Fillmore, 2000, pg. 204). Kai-fong and his sisters are seen as a success in the academic sense because they all learned English. The problem is that immigrant children do not just have to worry about learning English as a second language, and the educational system does not acknowledge these challenges. As Fillmore says, “Hanging on to their first language as they learn English is an equally great problem. Hanging on to their sense of worth, their cultural identities, and their family connections as they become assimilated into school and society is a tremendous problem for all immigrant children,” (Fillmore, 2000, pg. 207). Immigrant children discover that the only language that is acceptable in school is English. Unfortunately, this is the societal climate in today’s schools. Students’ mother tongue is disregarded and seen as a hindrance instead of an addition to the curriculum, as it should be, and there are dire consequences to that type thinking.

Yet, we have seen the implementation of culturally relevant pedagogy, and how that can change the experiences of students in the classroom. In Tucson, Arizona, teachers went into the Mexican communities to speak to the families of their students, using the information they learned about the students and their familial background to create an inclusive curriculum (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992, pg. 134). The teachers used the household knowledge, such as information about farming and animal management, construction and building, and finance on both sides of the border (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992, pg. 133). They used Carlos, a student in the study, and his multicultural experience to create lesson plans based on candy: making it, selling it, and investigating the differences within each step in different cultural contexts (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992, pg. 136). After this experience, one teacher said, “It is so important to learn how culture is expressed in students’ lives, how students live their worlds,” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992, pg. 137). This study shows just how effective and necessary culturally relevant pedagogy truly is.

In addition to the implementation in Tucson, Arizona, teachers like Patricia Hillard are also implementing culturally relevant pedagogy. She says, “Culturally relevant teaching requires that students maintain some cultural integrity as well as academic excellence,” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, pg. 160). Hillard uses her students’ culture as a vehicle for learning, translating her love of poetry to her students’ love of rap music (Ladson-Billings, 1995, pg. 161). She allowed her students to bring in samples of lyrics from non-offensive rap music and perform them in front of the class, and afterwards they discussed the “literal and figurative meanings as well as the technical aspects of poetry such as rhyme scheme, alliteration, and onomatopoeia” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, pg. 161).

In addition to teaching to a students’ culture, culturally relevant teaching, Ladson-Billings says, “Beyond those individual characteristics of academic achievement and cultural competence, students must develop a broader sociopolitical consciousness that allows them to critique the cultural norms, values, mores, and institutions that produce and maintain social inequalities…In classrooms of culturally relevant teachers, students are expected to ‘engage the world and other critically’,” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, pg. 162). This is the type of pedagogy that I try to implement in my service learning site, Durham School of the Arts. With one student, Rita, I have been able to teach to her culture because it is similar to mine. We are both Hispanic, so when I see that she is not interested in the material we are reading, I try to engage her either by using Spanish to tell a joke and get us back on task, or by trying to relate the material to our shared experiences. Though I am still building the groundwork of our relationship, I hope to, in a future session, be able to use this type of pedagogy to broaden her sight so that it includes the hardships that not only she faces but the hardships of her non-Hispanic classmates, and the history that has them in this disadvantaged position.

Though culturally relevant teaching has been seen to improve academic standing of minority students, subtractive schooling practices have not historically been seen as something to be changed. Culturally relevant pedagogy has not been seen as a practice in need of adoption in schools. Instead, whole cultures have been seen as not valuing education because of their historical struggle with schooling. Valenzuela says, “Rather than address the enormity of the issues before them, [the teachers] take solace in the blanket judgement about ethnic and underachievement or ‘deficit’ cultures that are allegedly too impoverished to value education,” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 74). Instead of it being viewed as a problem that can be fixed in schools, it is seen as a cultural problem, which affirms the idea that the culture must be eliminated in order for the students to succeed. However, there are possible strategies for reforms, that start with the acknowledgement of the problem, instead of dismissing the possibility of a more culturally relevant approach. There needs to be a reciprocity of respect and caring between both teachers and students, as well as showing students that the need they feel to become rapidly assimilated does not mean that they need to disregard their cultural markers. Ms. Aranda sees the need for culturally sensitive curriculum and she “provides opportunities for them by giving them the chance to bring something of interest from their country for show and tell” and Mr. Lundgren even “gives his Spanish-dominant students the opportunity to do the assignment in Spanish” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 99). In the article Loss of Languages: Should Educators Be Concerned, suggestions for reform in regard to loss of languages is also offered. For example, mentioned is the idea that teachers should help parents understand the importance of first language retention, even if it is not supported by the school, and the necessity for both teachers and parents to be aware of the traumatic experiences that the children might be going through (Fillmore, 2000, pg. 209).

The methods offered by Fillmore are effective in the conservation of the first language, but it would be more effective with the integration of true bilingual education. Though there are several modes of bilingual education, I want to specifically the transitional, the developmental, and the dual-language approaches to instruction (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). The transitional approach uses the native language as a bridge to the English language, first only using the native language and then slowly transitioning to English (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). However, this approach can stress cultural assimilation, something that would be counterintuitive to the culturally relevant pedagogy that we have seen to be so important in the school system. The developmental, or maintenance, approach to bilingual education is designed to help children develop academic skills in both their mother tongues and English, the students being taught in both languages (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). This creates a “truly bilingual student”, and the next step to developmental approaches to bilingual education would be a dual-language instructional approach (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). With this, students would continue to be taught in both languages up until they graduate, not only cognitively developing in both languages, but also learning about the culture and history of their ethnic group (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). This would create the most good for these students, not only being able to retain their first language, but also being able to develop in the second as well as being able to have their culture and background integrated into the lesson plans. Also, researchers have found that when language-minority students spend more time learning in their native language, they are “more likely to achieve at comparable and even higher levels in English” (Sadker, 2012, pg. 75).

I believe that multicultural education and bilingual education with culturally relevant pedagogy should be our future, but there is a history of opposition to my view point. In fact, Thomas Jefferson even said, “Maybe this isn’t America. I feel like a stranger in my own land. Why don’t they learn to speak English?” when regarding the amount of German in Philadelphia (Sadker, 2012, pg. 71). More recently, “No Spanish” rules were a prevalent feature of U.S.-Mexican schooling through the early 1970s, and though these rules have been abolished, the sentiment remains (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 172). Linda, a student at Seguín, complains that her teachers tell her, “English! English! You’re in America! Go back to Mexico [if you are going to speak Spanish]!” (Valenzuela, 1999, pg. 131). Most school districts agree, having their ESL, or English as a Second Language, students learn English through language submersion, which is truly a sink or swim approach (Sadker, 2012, pg. 71). Language submersion is simply putting ESL students in an English language classroom with no modification, with the student either learning English by sitting in the classroom or failing (Sadker, 2012, pg. 73). This is the type of ESL education both my sister and I had to go through. If we were not as extroverted and talkative as we are, we surely would not have succeeded in the educational system. I probably would not be at Duke University, and my sister probably would not be a lawyer. Many children who simply sink in this type of approach are not learning at their full potential because they do not understand the language, and yet there are those who oppose education that would benefit these children.

Many people worry that bilingual education threatens the status of English as the nation’s primary vehicle of communication, and as a result, an English-only movement has emerged (Sadker, 2012, pg. 74). Those in this movement believe that “English is a unifying national bond that preserves our common culture…English should be the only language used in public… and the purpose of bilingual education should be to quickly teach English to ELL students” (Sadker, 2012, pg. 74).

However, bilingual education characterized in this way is usually “rote, drill and practice, and intellectually limited, with an emphasis on low-level literacy and computational skills” (Moll, 1992, pg.20). What would be most beneficial for these students would not be to give them an intellectually limited education, but rather implement practices seen in bilingual schools in Dade County, Florida. These educators were “only concerned about the best possible way of educating their own children” and their primary concern was with “pedagogical issues and academic development, with providing a quality education for the children’ (Moll, 1992, pg.20). The Cuban schools made children active learners in both English and Spanish, using both languages as tools for inquiry and thinking in social and academic tasks (Moll, 1992, pg.21). This sociocultural approach to instruction presents new possibilities in bilingual education, where the emphasis is “not solely on remediating students’ English language abilities, but on utilizing available resources, including the children’s of the parents’ language and knowledge, in creating new, advanced instructional circumstances for the students’ academic development” (Moll, 1992, pg. 23). By doing this and using the communities as a resource of enormous importance, the Cuban schools become a perfect cross section between bilingual education and culturally relevant pedagogy.

The importance of culturally relevant pedagogy and bilingual education is prevalent in contemporary society as the United States continues to diversity. Though there has been opposition to integration of these educational practices, there are clear benefits to implementing these tactics. We as educators have a duty to our students to make sure we uplift our students and teach to their experiences and capabilities. It is important that a learner’s culture and language is not seen as a hindrance but rather an addition to the educational process.

Works Cited

Fillmore, L. (2000). Loss of Family Languages: Should Educators Be Concerned? Theory Into Practice, 39(4), 203-210. Retrieved from

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But That's Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. Theory Into Practice,34(3), 159-165. Retrieved from

Moll, L. (1992). Bilingual Classroom Studies and Community Analysis: Some Recent Trends. Educational Researcher, 21(2), 20-24. Retrieved from

Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., & Gonzalez, N. (1992). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using a Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms. Theory Into Practice, 31(2), 132-141. Retrieved from

Sadker, D. M., & Zittleman, K. R. (2012). Teachers, schools, and society: a brief introduction to education. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Valenzuela, Angela. (1999) Subtractive schooling :U.S.-Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany: State University of New York Press,

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