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Center Students with Culturally Responsive Teaching | Jamila J. Lyiscott, Ph.D

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    EL Education

“CRT creates opportunities for us to undo the harm that educational inequity continues to perpetuate by casting the cultures and identities of students and their communities outside of the intellectual arena of schooling.”

We sat down with Jamila J. Lyiscott to hear from her about what culturally responsive teaching is, why it’s important, and the difference it can have on students’ learning.

How do you define culturally responsive teaching?

I define Culturally Responsive Teaching as an orientation toward teaching that is rooted in viewing historically marginalized students of color and their communities/families through an asset-based lens in a society that insists on viewing them as deficient. This form of teaching readily draws on and centers the assets of students and their communities as a part of the teaching and learning process, maintaining high and rigorous standards throughout. Because of this, culturally responsive educators are intentional about learning who their students are and regard their classrooms as a space that extends beyond the walls of the school, inviting people, languages, and practices within the ecology of their students’ lives into the classroom.

What are the biggest roadblocks you see teachers encounter when adopting culturally responsive teaching? How can they get past them?

One of the biggest roadblocks I see teachers encounter surrounds the glaring racial and cultural disparities between teachers and students. With a predominantly white teaching force, many educators struggle to develop an asset-based lens toward communities they have been socialized to view as delinquent or in need of saving. Even when teachers wish to develop an asset-based lens, they receive immense pressure to center the norms and standards that schools continue to privilege for testing, college readiness, and career readiness. Culturally Responsive Teaching then begins to feel like “extra work” for far too many. 

To work through this, I often have educators bring in an old unit with the task of revising the unit to meet Culturally Responsive goals. We then have a conversation about the unit goals that are required of them and then I ask them to design their own goals in alignment with the CRT orientations that they hold. In doing this, the entire unit must be held to CRT standards which can be met simultaneously with any outside standards. What’s important to me is that we stop viewing equity work as an extra burden on top of the “real work” of educating children. When teachers create their own goals and integrate them throughout the curriculum, CRT becomes the standard that saturates pedagogy.

"Thus, the greatest opportunity afforded to students is the space created for their identities and cultures to function as powerful and necessary for the co-creation of knowledge within any discipline while disrupting the pervasiveness whiteness." Jamila J. Lyiscott, Ph.D , Social Justice Education Scholar

What is the greatest opportunity that culturally responsive teaching creates for students?

CRT creates opportunities for us to undo the harm that educational inequity continues to perpetuate by casting the cultures and identities of students and their communities outside of the intellectual arena of schooling. It creates opportunities for students to understand their cultural practices and histories as valuable and essential for their educational and social development and calls teachers to the responsibilities of de-centering whiteness while centering cultural diversity. Thus, the greatest opportunity afforded to students is the space created for their identities and cultures to function as powerful and necessary for the co-creation of knowledge within any discipline while disrupting the pervasiveness whiteness. 

Tell us what culturally responsive teaching looks like in action. What is an example of success?

The work that I have been blessed to do with Cyphers for Justice in NYC, alongside dope youth and amazing adult allies draws heavily on the tenets of Culturally Relevant, Responsive, and Sustaining Pedagogies. Within Cyphers for Justice, students learn the qualitative research process alongside hip-hop, spoken word, and critical media literacies. Neither of these culturally diverse literacy practices is used as a bait and switch to coax students into learning the “real skills” of the academic qualitative research process. Rather, we are careful to have community artists and specialists as a part of our community to sustain hip-hop, spoken word, and critical media literacies as a part of our classroom culture and pedagogical approaches. We work to apply the same rigor and expectations to the teaching and learning of these literacy practices as we do with the more highly academically valued qualitative research process. We center these practices as a means to disrupt whiteness, to draw on the power and intellect of Black and Brown communities, and to stay deeply connected to the interests and cultures of students in the program.

Jamila J. Lyiscott, Ph.D is a community-engaged scholar, a nationally renowned speaker, and a spoken word artist. She serves as an Assistant Professor of Social Justice Education at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a Senior Research Fellow of Teachers College, Columbia University’s Institute for Urban and Minority Education (IUME).