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Culturally Responsive Classrooms and Schools

Meeting the Needs of All Students

diversity artThe last year has brought the issues diversity, equity and cultural responsiveness into all of our lives in vivid ways. Issues of racial inequity in policing have been brought home through a series of tragic deaths captured on bystander videos. The confederate flag has been taken down from state capitols in response to a mass murder in Charleston. The Supreme Court has legalized gay marriage while opposition to that decision makes headline news. Caitlin Jenner and award winning television series have raised awareness of the complexities of transgender lives. Presidential candidates have made anti-immigration policies the centerpiece of their platforms and sparked fervent debates. Opposition to women’s health services threaten to shut down the federal government while worries about the wellbeing of boys and young men of all backgrounds arise from a wealth of educational, social and economic data.

Everywhere we turn we read of individuals and groups, new and old, grappling with these issues and looking for ways to right wrongs and make change. At PassageWorks we are deeply engaged with this topic and with making sure our work supports teachers to expand their own capacities to engage with difference and to create inclusive classrooms in which all students are seen, valued and fully supported in their learning.

Our course work in this area began with Transformational Leadership for Educators. Developed and taught by a multi-ethnic team, the course explicitly includes activities and dialogues that engage participants in equity and diversity issues. Through the work of that course and the contributions of many colleagues, The 5 Dimensions of Engaged Teaching integrates ‘cultural responsiveness’ as a central component of the ‘Five Dimensions’. The definition we use in all our work is:

Cultural responsiveness is a fundamental human capacity and commitment to an ongoing practice where:

  • We choose to respond to difference by 1) becoming aware of the role of culture in each individual’s experience and 2) committing to an ongoing exploration of our own cultural influences, as well as the history of oppression in society.
  • We acknowledge and value differences and choose to engage in courageous conversations about these differences.
  • We are committed to using our power to support social justice and to responding to challenging situations when they arise.

We have also been collaborating with colleagues in the field and exploring the connection between mindfulness and cultural responsiveness and have presented workshops at state and national conferences. These sessions help participants understand the ways in which introspection, awareness, mindful listening and speaking, and emotional self-regulation are crucial skills for engaging with diverse individuals and for engaging in conversations about diversity and equity. Rona Wilensky has been involved in helping to plan two national gatherings intended to begin a dialogue between advocates for contemplative teaching and learning in education and advocates for social justice in education.

Interestingly, preliminary research suggests that mindfulness practice can reduce implicit bias – those prejudicial habits of thought that are not part of our conscious thinking and that are present in the minds of everyone who grows up in societies where some groups are valued over others. We have begun incorporating this exploration of implicit bias into our mindfulness offerings.

The most recent development at PassageWorks is a new course, whose design was led by Vivian Elliott that focuses on developing Culturally Responsive Leadership. This is a class intended for administrators, teacher leaders and teacher mentors. It focuses on transforming educator perspectives and practices to help participants lead their schools in creating learning environments and experiences that engage students from diverse cultural backgrounds. School teams will collaborate on creating new approaches and strategies that engage all students regardless of their race, gender, ethnic background or learning style. Our first offering will take place in Aurora Public Schools in October and we look forward to offering it in districts and communities in Colorado and in other school communities we work with in the U.S.

We support all of the educators we partner with to explore these topics in depth while drawing on the Engaged Teaching capacities: cultivating an open heart, engaging the self-observer, being present, establishing respectful boundaries and developing emotional capacity. These skills and dispositions allow us to reflect honestly on our own biases without shame or blame and to engage with colleagues, parents, communities and students who are different from us. Please join us in this important work so that every student whose life we touch can access the very best that we have to offer and so that we can change the policies and practices that get in the way of inclusion and justice.


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