Charles Rice-González, Distinguished Lecturer
When I taught my first creative writing class at LaGuardia Community College, the majority of my students said they were eager to write creatively but that they didn’t like to read. A significant part of a writing class is reading, so I set out to figure out how to get my students to read. I looked at them who were all names on a roster before that first day. Names disconnected from faces and from histories, and for whom I had prepared a syllabus of works to read based on my own education and on what I thought would be great for them. As most professors, I was educated in the U.S. whose system is founded on White middle-class beliefs, values and perspectives. Many studies and books (including Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: Clashes and Confrontations by Lisa Scherff and Karen Spector) have documented that those beliefs often lead many “marginalized” students (students of color, immigrant students, poor working class students, queer students) to the idea and experience of being incapable of or not fit to achieve success in education and thus employment.
So at LaGuardia, and later here at Hostos Community College, I looked at my classroom of diverse students from working class families, and immigrants from India, the Caribbean, Egypt, Mexico, Poland and Africa, and/or children of immigrants, and I could feel their eyes challenging me, “Go ahead, make me read.”
I didn’t know that in my quest to get them to read, I had embarked on the practice of Culturally Relevant or Responsive Pedagogy, which operates from the teacher drawing upon the students’ cultural knowledge to make the classroom and the materials used in the classroom more relevant and meaningful to them. In its most simplest terms, it’s the teacher being considerate about the histories, cultures and values of their students, and understanding that integrating those histories, cultures and values is essential to engaging the students, thus putting them in the best position to receive the goals of the lesson and curriculum.
By embracing culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy (CRP), and by my integrating it with the education I received, which was not very culturally relevant (but nonetheless valuable), I bridge the divide between the training I received and students’ cultural knowledge. The writer and scholar, E. Patrick Harris of Northwestern University writes in The Curriculum Journal that CRP is “a pedagogy that can broadly appeal to today’s diverse college student population, embrace students’ cultural perspectives and have a commitment to academic success for all, without the preoccupation with historical social inequities.” In a sense, CRP can level the playing field for learning.
For example, one way this looks in my ENG 111 Literature and Composition class is that I select poems from a vast diversity of writers (race, culture, gender, countries of origin, etc.). We study Sylvia Plath alongside the Bronx’s La Bruja and the groundbreaking Phillis Wheatley along with the barrier-breaking Sandra Maria Esteves; Maya Angelou, Natasha Trethaway and Tim Seibles can have a conversation about blackness in America; while Emily Dickinson and Tupac Shakur can muse about love and perseverance; Adrienne Rich can talk excitedly about a lover’s body while Kim Addonizio traces the outlines of her lover’s tattoos; Pablo Neruda can praise his queen while Audre Lorde urges us to praise and value all of our identities; and Melvin Dixon reminds us of the peril of AIDS as Theodore Roethke shares the menace and fun of dancing with his drunk papa.
Students experience works that reflect themselves together with works that may introduce them to a new experience. They see that a poem by the Bronx Dominican writer J. Skye Cabrera earns the respect and proximity to the great Sonia Sanchez; and that the work of Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad is as valuable as the lauded Nikki Giovanni, that the cultural experience of W.B. Yeats is as valid as the cultural experience of Senegal’s Léopold Sédar Senghor and that Dino Foxx’s preoccupation with his gay lovers shimmers with Robert Frost’s preoccupation with nature.
At the end of the poetry section, the students can select any poem or poems to write one of the classes required formal essays. I distributed a simple, optional, in-class, written survey in one of my ENG 111 class at the end of the semester in the spring of 2017. The survey didn’t ask for the student’s name but for biographical information. Nineteen of the 27 students participated.
- nine of the 11 Latinx students selected a Latinx poet
- seven of the eight Black women selected Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise” and/or “Phenomenal Woman”
- nine of the 15 women selected poems by women
- the one Senegalese male chose the poem by the Senegalese poet
So, given a choice to write about any of the poems we studied, the majority selected work that reflected their cultural experience and/or gender.
The survey also asked them to write why they selected the poem. Many shared that they found the poem “relatable.” In response to selecting Maya Angelou’s poem “Phenomenal Woman,” an African-American, non-Latinx, female student between the ages of 21 and 30 wrote: “I chose ‘Phenomenal Woman’ because I could relate to the poem. I’m an African American woman who faces many stereotypes in today’s society. This poem spoke life to me. It made me feel like I’m not the only woman that is going through these challenges. Even though it was (written) long ago, these issues still arise today.”
In addition, 23 of the 27 registered students in that class handed in their poetry essays by the deadline. This indicated that they were engaged with the work. Geneva Gay’s article, “Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching” in the Journal of Teacher Education says, “Because culture strongly influences the attitudes, values, and behaviors that students and teachers bring to the instructional process, it has to likewise be a major determinant of how the problems of underachievement are solved.” So, culturally responsiveness can affect their participation, behavior and achievement.
In a New York Times Opinion article titled “How to Get Your Mind to Read,” Daniel T. Willingham asserts that to be a better reader one has to have better comprehension. “So what does comprehension require? Broad vocabulary, obviously. Equally important, but more subtle, is the role played by factual knowledge….Knowledge also provides context.” So factual knowledge, which includes cultural knowledge and knowledge from one’s own lived experience, provides context and improves reading comprehension. The more a student comprehends, the better reader they become which leads to them gaining an overall sense of achievement and intelligence.
Culturally Relevant or Responsive Pedagogy is about improving education and ultimately providing a fertile environment for students to learn. Some may feel that the last decade’s discussion of equity and inclusion, that CRP is a fairly new exploration. Although the studies and publications on CRP have vastly increase in the last decade, the benefits of this pedagogical practice has been argued for half a century. Educators and scholars Gerald Mohatt and Frederick Erickson published a study in 1977 where they observed teacher-student interactions and participation structures in Native American communities, and “found teachers who used language interaction patterns that approximated the students’ home cultural patterns were more successful in improving student academic performance. Improved student achievement also was evident among teachers who used what they termed, ‘mixed forms’- a combination of Native American and Anglo language interaction patterns. They termed this instruction, ‘culturally congruent.’”
Being able to explore and practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy at Hostos Community College at times has moved me beyond my comfort zones of teaching, but it has also allow me to learn more about other cultures, and embrace and value my own cultural experience as a Black, Latino, Gay man from the Bronx. Ultimately, the students are the greatest beneficiary, which is not only rewarding to me but also the purpose of my position in the front of my classroom, and my responsibility as an educator.