Recently I attended a conference and was able to be a part of a session being run by Dr Bishop from New Zealand as he discussed his project with educators in New Zealand to make a difference in Maori Education. What was done in New Zealand can easily be modeled in RVS; first educators need to acknowledge that what is being done may not be working. Aboriginal students in Alberta have a higher drop-out rate, lower completion rate, and are over represented in social services and justice programs. RVS is doing better than the provincial average but can continue to improve learning conditions for our Aboriginal students. It is important to note that note only will becoming a culturally responsive teacher have a positive impact on Aboriginal students, but on all students. On Dr Bishop’s website Anjali’s Story describes how this educator, with over a decade of teaching experience, realized something needed to change in order for her to improve student engagement in her classroom.
The Aboriginal population is the fastest growing demographic in Canada, our future is in our classrooms today so how do educators work to become culturally responsive teachers? What needs to be addressed first before one begins this journey is to recognize Canadian history as that of interactions between colonizers and the colonized. Many do not understand the current impact this has on today’s Aboriginal people, and this needs to be explored on a personal level in order to begin to understand the effect. Learn Alberta has produced a resource for teachers to begin to explore Aboriginal perspectives and here is a short video from Lois Edge as she speaks to her experience in a grade 5 classroom.
Inter-generational trauma has a significant impact on today’s students and Canadian social policy’s have historically been meant to remove the Aboriginal worldview and replace with the colonized one. What needs to next happen along this journey is also the recognition that it is the institutions, not the Aboriginal students, that need to change. As Dr Bishop believes, there needs to be a 4 inch revolution to make classrooms and teachers culturally responsive: the 4 inches between the ears.
So, what are the strategy’s to becoming a culturally responsive teacher? There are four:
The first strategy to become a culturally responsive teacher is to walk in the Aboriginal students shoes. What is it like to be an Aboriginal student, a family member of an Aboriginal student, a teacher of an Aboriginal student? Dr Bishop’s research showed that parents, students, and administrators felt that the relationship between the teacher and student was the most important factor that affects student achievement. Shockingly, teachers felt that it wasn’t the relationship, but the child was the most important factor of success. In other words, the teachers in this project thought the child was the problem. In Dr Bishops book Culture Speaks a student says the teacher makes them feel “Dumb, and I always argue with her. She makes me feel like I have a dumb name, and I’m dumb.” Another student says “They never even actually make and effort to understand our culture. They don’t try to understand where we are coming from.” The mismatch between students and teachers needs to be adjusted and teachers need to recognize that their relationship with students is the most important factor for student engagement which naturally leads to student achievement.
The second strategy is to let go of deficit thinking. Once the importance of the relationship is realized, this is what needs to change, not the child, family, or teacher. Ask yourself, would you tell your partner that everything is their fault and they need to change? Probably not, so why do the same for students, families and teachers? Relationships can be changed once there is cultural understanding. Deficit thinking can easily become an excuse to stop engaging with students and instead regard them as behaviour problems, for example passive/aggressive students. Are they simply just not engaged in the relationship? Once stereotypes are removed and cultural perspectives are understood, respect, trust, and friendship will begin to grow. Another student in the book Culture Speaks says that because of poor relationships with teachers she lost courage in herself because she was not regarded as a learner. Teachers need to become agents of change and establish caring relationships. Not only will there be respect, trust, and friendship but communication becomes easier and engaging. Students believe they have someone they can rely on.
Third, having well managed learning environments engages students. Begin with a guarantee: that all students in the class will learn, and back it up! Maintain high expectations for all students and provide supports for those necessary. Providing a safe and caring universal learning environment will enhance student engagement. Culturally responsive teachers care, have high expectations, have positive relationships with their students and have supportive learning environments. Students become more motivated when they see their learning improve.
Fourth, teachers should have a range of teaching interactions that are culturally relevant. In his research, Dr Bishop outlines some instruction strategies that do not work: direct instruction, monitoring, feedback +/-, and feed forward +/-. Instead, focus on students prior knowledge and allow them to bring their own cultural experience into the classroom. Feedback needs to be immediate and academic in nature. Instead of saying ‘good work’, be specific and relate feedback to content and context of the assignment. Feed forward as well needs to be immediate and academic. Instead of saying ‘next time why don’t you read this book’ state what specific action needs to be taken to see improvement in the skill being taught. Co-construct knowledge together with students and give them control and ownership of their learning.
Another interaction involves using a different pedagogy: one example is using a narrative pedagogy. As 21st Century learners, students need to learn how to ask questions and find answers. This also allows for them to bring in their cultural knowledge into curriculum and co-construct learning. By using narrative pedagogy, students are able to capitalize on their strength of oral language and story telling. Instead of giving students guiding questions before having to read an article or watch a video, let them formulate their own questions and see what magic happens!
It is not enough to have cultural pictures or one day events, but to have all members of the school community engaged in culture.
So, what were the results? Does using these strategies to become a culturally responsive teacher actually work? Yes it does.
In this work amongst the schools targeted, literacy increased and students became engaged in their learning. Teachers felt more empowered and that they had better managed learning environments. Parents felt that they become an equal in their child’s learning experience. This combination saw a natural increase in student engagement and achievement. Students became passionate about their learning and felt engaged in their learning environments.
One student stated “I have become me.”