Back to the Fold: Re-engaging our most marginalized students with culturally responsive and universally designed instruction.
“Mr. Culver, we like your class. You respect us. There’s really no excuse for failing your class. As long as you do the work, it’s easy.”
In a moment of uncharacteristic candor, one of my students — on this otherwise uneventful morning — took it upon herself to speak for her peers offering me some of the most insightful feedback of my teaching career. This particular student (while incredibly intelligent) has not demonstrated her academic prowess through the typical conventional measures. She is a student of color. Her attendance is inconsistent. She has repeated several courses due to failures. And let’s just say some staff in the building have not had the opportunity to experience the most pleasant aspects of her personality. All of these anecdotes paint a clear picture: she is one of the most promising students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.
Our Students on the Margins
My time in the classroom has revealed several incontrovertible truths that I try to cherish as guiding principles. The one I that keep on the forefront of my mind the most? A student’s marginalization is neither a measure of his or her intelligence nor academic capability. Further, for students who feel marginalized, we cannot help them unlock their full potential to achieve until we provide appropriate supports to address these feelings of alienation.
So what do we as teachers do to address this monumental challenge? How do we cut through all of the chatter regarding the supposed failure of public schools (and teachers) to equitably help all of our students? The data is clear. Students of color disproportionately perform lower on standardized measures of academic achievement. They also represent an uneven share of the chronic truancy, disciplinary interventions, and special education designations on record throughout public school systems across the nation. All of this data, of course, doesn’t reflect some innate difference in academic capability across different student demographic groups. Rather, these statistics reveal the results of decades of disenfranchisement and marginalization. Ultimately, it is an inconvenient truth that students of color comprise a disproportionate share of our most marginalized youth within our social institutions. Nonetheless, like my aforementioned student, when properly engaged these young prospects have the potential to display unique insight and leadership.
Our Role as Instructors and School Staff
While we as teachers, counselors, and administrators cannot single-handedly address the countless social conditions that sometimes drive our students to feel detached, there are certainly steps we can take within our classrooms and buildings to help our students feel less marginalized. For students to excel academically, they have to receive instruction and experiences that help them: (1) feel like they matter and (2) feel like they have tangible, sustained evidence of success. At a bare minimum, both of these needs must be sufficiently addressed to begin resolving our students’ feelings of estrangement. Culturally responsive teaching and universally designed instruction offer effective tools to address these student needs.
Creating a Culturally Relevant and Responsive Environment
I find that while the concept of culturally responsive teaching is one the most-circulated philosophies within urban public school settings in the past several years, it is also one of the most misunderstood. Undoubtedly, we need to create environments where our students feel seen and validated. However, our efforts at helping our students feel they are visible must extend beyond having ethnically diverse posters displayed in the classroom and non-Eurocentric names interspersed throughout our class assignments.
A truly culturally relevant and responsive classroom requires genuine fluency not just in the ethnic backgrounds of our students, but in youth culture more broadly. What topics are trending on Twitter this week? Who are the five top-charting musical artists this month? What movie trailers for upcoming releases are getting the most views? What YouTube personalities are receiving the most followers? While the thought of keeping up with such information — in addition to the ethnic practices, values, and cultural ways of our students’ families — may feel unnecessary to some of our colleagues, it is interest in these very details and their integration on a daily basis into the classroom that communicate “respect” to our students (and it is what drove my earlier mentioned student to feel comfortable sharing her impressions in class). Students who feel respected and validated will feel less withdrawn and take increased ownership in their learning.
Delivering Universally Designed Instruction
In all honesty, when we think about demonstrating mastery of state-mandated curricula on standardized assessments and understanding of core academic content, simply helping our students feel respected — in and of itself — isn’t going to get the job done. This is where universally designed instruction does the heavy lifting for motivating and engaging students. The philosophy of universal design has increasingly become a focus of specialized education pedagogy over the past two decades. However, it’s application is truly intended to apply to every classroom, regardless of student learning ability. In essence, every classroom should be universally designed so that any student, regardless of learning difference, may set foot in the room and receive all of the instructional differentiation, supports, and accommodations necessary to be successful. This approach not only allows students to receive instruction at a level where they can more readily see their own progress, but eliminates the need for tracking, which is one of the most transparent, marginalizing practices leaving our most vulnerable students feeling isolated. Students who receive instruction at a level that is individualized — and provides them with opportunities to demonstrate their learning in way that is tangible — will feel like there is a meaningful point to exerting effort in the classroom (and like my earlier mentioned student, will feel like as long as they apply themselves and “do the work” they will be successful).
Professional Development and Educational Leadership for the Future
So, yes let’s say for a moment that some of these interventions make sense and seem desirable in the classroom. How do teachers, who already feel like we have too much to do, actually go about infusing these practices in every classroom? Resources, professional development, and the space to experiment with these practices — backed by administrators and policymakers — offer a way forward. Teachers need sufficient professional development opportunities focused on culturally responsive teaching and universal design to master these new approaches. Additionally, instructional staff need opportunities to experiment with these practices without fear of criticism for not sufficiently delivering on learning objectives, progress checks, common writing/assessment tasks and the increasing myriad of evaluative tools mandated in the classroom. Such an approach will require a re-examination of priorities at the policy level that strikes a better balance between demonstrating effectiveness and building capacity. In the meantime, resources such as the Center for Applied Special Technology and the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning offer great supports for teachers looking for guidance. With the right priorities, we can transform our school buildings into places that pull our students back from the margins and help them see themselves as their own agents for change in their journeys toward success. I long for the day when all of our students feel the support and ownership to affirm that, when it comes to their success, there is “no excuse.”
Rahman A. Culver is a dual certified special education and secondary social studies teacher who also serves as a department chair at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County, MD. Culver has also worked as a teacher in Prince George’s County and as a manager in the DC nonprofit sector. Culver attended Montgomery County public schools for his entire childhood and is a graduate of Montgomery Blair High School.