Creating a supportive learning environment for all children is a goal held by many organizations. Yet how to accomplish that goal is debatable. Do we become ‘colorblind’? Some have tried, but this option continues to favor the dominant (white middle class) culture as normative and dismisses rather than celebrates difference. Do we separate children into affinity groups so they can receive information and support targeted to their social location? The history of segregation policies clearly teaches that this approach is flawed. So where do we go from here?
Enter a new paradigm: culturally responsive teaching. This approach takes children’s cultural contexts seriously, uses those contexts as a means of learning, and encourages children to examine and resist cultural norms that create social inequities.
RKRF asked researcher Amanda LaTasha Armstrong to help us understand this new approach and what it might mean for how we nurture children’s spirituality. She explains that culturally relevant pedagogy requires that adults who work with children take time to get to know each child’s home and neighborhood culture. Rather than ignoring race or seeing skin color as a liability, the goal is to learn more about how race shapes each child’s life. The same is true of social class, ethnicity, gender, and ability. Paying attention to difference rather than dismissing it, is key.
Armstrong says that the best way to learn about cultural differences is to get involved with families. Involvement extends beyond talking with parents and caregivers to other activities:
- Create projects children can do with their families that include retelling family stories or drawing on family values and practices, then have children share those projects with one another.
- Institute a ‘sharing time’ when children bring personal or family artifacts, such as photos, holiday decorations, or toys passed down from generation to generation, and talk about what these items mean to them and their family.
- Invite families to be ‘experts’ on their culture when discussing differences by talking about daily life and their hopes and fears as well as special holidays, foods, and clothing.
- Treat children and their families uniquely rather than generalizing based on a cultural identity. Get to know their individual interests and incorporate them into the learning process.
Armstrong also recommends that adults use culturally diverse materials and examples when working with children, even if the group appears to be from the same social location. Not only can appearances deceive, but children have diverse friends and live in a culturally diverse world, so hearing others’ experiences included reinforces a sense of difference as normal.
Finally, Armstrong says that adults need to nurture children’s ability to think critically about society and take action. Children pick up on social nuances from a young age and then look to others for help in interpreting what they have noticed. Naming social inequities and talking about what can be done to change them empowers children to see many kinds of people as good. It also helps them see themselves as capable of making the world more equitable. So when children see an injustice, culturally responsive teachers help them explore the problem and come up with appropriate responses.