Layers of Culturally Responsive Education by Rob Gulya

I have been woman
for a long time
beware my smile
I am treacherous with old magic   
and the noon’s new fury
with all your wide futures   
I am
and not white.
               -Audre Lorde, “A Woman Speaks”

In an interview, Audre Lorde, who had come under fire for her “radical agenda” rebutted these criticisms: “My sexuality is part and parcel of who I am, and my poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds…” Audre Lorde resisted being labeled a “Black author” or a “lesbian writer”or a “feminist” because accepting one label meant denying those other aspects of her identity. Instead, she embraced her unique title, a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.”


One of my first posts was on Culturally Responsive Education. There, I defined culturally responsive education as “using culturally relevant instructional material, affirm student cultural identities, and use cultural backgrounds as a knowledge base for learning and academic success.”Image result for audre lorde woman vs black

Since then, I’ve given a few trainings to teachers (new and veteran) on culturally responsive education that have forced me to think more deeply about what it is and what it looks like in practice.

The first thing I’d like to be clear about is this: Culturally Responsive Education is a layered education. This means, like Audre Lorde above, students– Black, Brown, Hispanic, Immigrant, Differently-Abled, homosexual– don’t come as single entities to our classrooms or to our lives. There are layers to our personalities; there are layers to our identities. And, at different times, we express different aspects of those identities, based on who we’re around, how vulnerable we feel, how comfortable we are. Our identities are constantly a calculation of risk/reward. What is the social/emotional/physical/metaphysical/educational risk I’m taking here? What is the reward?

When parts of our identity come under attack, intentionally or unintentionally, we make a social calculation about whether to hide that piece of our identity or whether to defend it. We all do this. For example, every now and then when I meet someone new and tell them I’m a teacher, I get the comment, “Summers off are nice, right?” In each moment, I can choose to laugh that comment off, or I can choose to engage in it. That choice will be calculated based on the venue (bar? dinner?), the person (someone I might see again?), the people around me (did they hear? am I going to be supported here?) and a variety of other factors. Sometimes I’ll engage with it; sometimes I’ll decide the reward isn’t worth the risk (or the effort).

In the classroom, this can create sometimes fraught social/physical/educational dynamics. There was one student who I had in class 2 years in a row, each year in a different setting. The first year, I had her in an ICT class (a mix of students with disabilities and students without disabilities). In that setting, she refused extra support and attention. When provided or approached, she would either act out angrily or shut down. She was constantly in detention and was suspended for several days because of her outbursts. The second year, I taught her in a self-contained class (made up only of students with disabilities). In that setting, she became a leader in the classroom. She asked for help and advocated for her educational and emotional needs.

I believe part of that is because I was a better teacher the second year. I also believe that she felt the reward of getting additional support wasn’t worth the risk of looking like she was “retarded.” She hid that part of her identity. In a class where all students shared that and she felt supported by them, she was able to embrace it.

That means that the first mindset we need to have when thinking about CRE is our students have a variety of layers to their identity, and we should take time to get to know them. Otherwise, we run the risk of marginalizing parts of their identities, and we fail to recognize them as full, complicated human beings.

Second, it’s important for us to know what aspects of those identities might feel vulnerable. By creating an environment that purposefully supports students where they feel attacked, we can encourage them to feel safe expressing those parts of themselves. This is necessary for students to feel safe in the classroom and sets the stage for students to fully engage in meaningful learning.

In addition to being layered in terms of the identities of our students, CRE happens at many different levels in the classroom environment. I think the three major layers in the classroom are: structure, curriculum, and lesson levels.

At the structural level, I mean the rules, procedures, and habits that govern the classroom. How is the classroom physically set up? Who sits where? What rules are there? How are students expected to interact with each other? What language do we use? Eye contact? Where does the teacher stand (or not stand)? What names do we use to refer to each other?

By the curriculum level, I mean the content and process by which students are taught. What books are we reading? Who are the authors? What are the themes? Who are the characters? How am I expressing my knowledge? How am I interacting with the content? How flexible is it? How much room is there for student voice and choice? For centuries, the curriculum in schools has focused largely on the white, male, heterosexual experience (Holden Caufield, Jay Gatz, Hemmingway, Hamlet, Columbus, Washington, Einstein) with a sprinkling of a few others (Zora Neale Hurston, Morrison, Woolf, Hester Prynne). But we need to think deeper about what meaningful content looks like to our students and how they are interacting with that content.

At the lesson level, I’m thinking about how I build in voice, choice, and identity in the fabric of the day-to-day life of my classroom. How am I creating a safe and invigorating space for all of the identities in my classroom? How am I making meaningful content for every student?


Culturally Responsive Education can feel overwhelming and, sometimes, down right impossible. But it starts with the right mindsets: believing student choice and voice is necessary for meaningful learning; understanding that students have layered identities; understanding the importance of protecting and supporting the most vulnerable aspects of those identities; and a sincere desire to get to know our students.


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