A brand-new school embraces the opportunity to include culturally responsive and relevant pedagogy (CRRP) in its founding mandate. How did they do it, and what factors were essential for success? What does Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy mean and why is it important?
There was a time when Canadian students weren’t asked to leave very much at the door when they came to school each day: their collection of hockey cards, a baseball bat, an occasional slingshot. Once, if the story is accurate, a white-fleeced lamb. Like most public institutions, Canada’s schools were originally designed to reflect the cultural values and worldview of a largely white European society and, for the great majority of students, this meant a comfortable continuity between home, school and community.
Since the 1970s, we have seen a relatively rapid demographic shift and a major change in the cultural make-up of many communities. Yet in many important ways, school systems have not responded to this significant cultural shift.
Nowadays, in addition to leaving their personal belongings behind, many students are also asked to check some crucial aspects of their culture at the school door: their family stories, their language, their sense of community connection and their unique perspectives and ways of knowing the world.
It’s not you, it’s the system!
For decades, Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay have been arguing, in separate bodies of work, that the reasons traditionally used to explain the persistent failure of black students in the United States do not suffice. Through their work, both began to insist that the answer to the thorny problem of race-related school success was not to be found by blaming the students or their family context. Instead, the mirror needed to be turned to reflect both the problem and the solution to this essential equity challenge: the systemic realities that ignored or even actively suppressed the cultural capital that students brought to school.
When Nicole West-Burns came to Canada from the U.S. to work with Jeff Kugler in the Centre for Urban Studies at University of Toronto’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE/UT), she brought her deep knowledge and experience of this research to add to Kugler’s many years of working as an educator/administrator in Toronto’s Regent Park. Combining the theories of Ladson-Billing’s Culturally Relevant Pedadogy and Gay’s Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, they framed an approach many Canadian educators now know as Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy (CRRP).
At first their intensive work with educators was concentrated on ten “Model Schools for Inner Cities” in the Toronto District School Board, but in 2013, they were asked by the Ontario Ministry of Education’s Inclusive Education Branch to mobilize the work in a year-long pilot program, centred in two Greater Toronto Area Schools: William Burgess Public School in downtown Toronto, and Irma Coulson Public School in the town of Milton, just northwest of the city.
A framework for deep transformational work
CRRP is not a program that can be delivered to schools in a box and distributed at a staff meeting or even on a single professional development day. Instead it is a dynamic framework that provides a set of tools and lenses that, if taken seriously, can lead to thoughtful unpacking, personal reflection and honest dialogue among staff, students and communities. CRRP examines issues of power and privilege, calls participants to challenge the beliefs and assumptions about the students in their class and explores on a very deep level what is necessary to enable all students to be successful in school. It intentionally centres the cultural assets that students bring with them to the classroom and uses those assets as a way to get to know the students and their way of knowing the world, and as a way of engaging all students. But it also forces educators to consider how those assets are put to work to allow students to see themselves reflected in the curriculum and in the life of the school.
To be sure, CRRP is an approach that takes time, resources, vision and leadership. But under the right conditions, it can significantly impact the way we talk and think about race, culture, identity and equity. The story of CRRP at Irma Coulson Public School (ICPS) offers a grounded vision of how those conditions can come together in a very tangible and powerful way.
A strong vision for equity and excellence
In early 2013, Principal Merrill Mathews and Vice Principal Mary Marshall were busy preparing to open the doors of a new school in Milton, Ontario – Canada’s fastest-growing town. The neighbourhood in which Irma Coulson was to be located was also one of the most culturally diverse in the Greater Toronto Area. The ICPS catchment area drew families from seven or eight different schools in the Milton area and included a wide range of religious and ethnic groups.
It was this diversity that drew Mathews to his first assignment as principal. The belief that all students could and would excel at Irma Coulson was part of the way that Principal Mathews presented his vision for the school – to potential teachers and staff, to parents and students who would call ICPS home, to potential community partners and to district colleagues. The phrase “Equity and Excellence for All” became the official motto for the school, and appeared on the front doors of the school when they opened in the fall of 2013. On most days, members of the ICPS staff could be seen wearing school T-shirts proclaiming their belief in the work in which they were involved. At the heart of this belief was the recognition that every family enrolling at ICPS had a story richly steeped in culture, and the promise that the school would be a place where those stories were valued.
Vice-Principal Marshall recognized that Mathews’ commitment to the vision ran deep. “His own experiences as a student really played into that and his passion for equity work as an educator from the very beginning of his career. And so, when the opportunity came to be appointed as a principal for an opening school, that vision was front and centre.”
This dogged commitment to a clear and compelling vision is a necessary condition for CRRP. It was something that Kugler recognized as soon as he began to understand that Mathews’ vision would run through the entire design of the school: “The major criteria in hiring new staff to come to this brand-new building was their openness at least to working around equity issues… And to build a school upon which equity was the foundation.”
Today’s complex school context provides many challenges, not the least of which is finding the room to focus on what is important. The CRRP pilot was not an add-on, but something that supported and expressed the grounding philosophy of the school.
In many cases, educational pilot programs revolve around one or two enthusiastic teachers who are provided with the time and resources to engage in the work. By contrast, the CRRP pilots at both William Burgess and Irma Coulson demanded the involvement of all staff from the very beginning. It was a requirement for participation in the pilot.
In addition to the internal resources available at the school level, the Ministry commitment to CRRP came with extra release time for teachers to participate in monthly sessions with Kugler and West-Burns’s team, and for the “in between” work necessary to deepen the conversations among staff.
One of the most important words that emerges when Mathews and Marshall talk about their leadership role is intentionality. At Irma Coulson, monthly staff meetings were intentionally planned in advance, ensuring that the work of the CRRP pilot was maintained as a priority. School Council meetings followed a few hours later, so the admin team could intentionally involve parents in some of these same conversations. Schedules for planning time were intentionally organized to allow grade-level teams to meet together weekly. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind that this was important work and that it involved everyone in the building – not just teaching staff – and extended to the parent community.
Marshall admits that the extra resources provided by the pilot were a luxury, but insists that, if the commitment is there, the work can get done. “I believe that there’s time and space and resources in schools that make a commitment to do this work, to then undertake this work. Now, it may take longer because you haven’t got the richness of resources.” She believes, however, that strategic thinking, a strong sense of direction and the type of intentionality that instills confidence and commitment can make things happen in a very powerful way.
Support for the important conversations
Much of the transformational power of CRRP is that it requires a good deal of deep and very personal work. At the core of this identity work is understanding that most Canadian educators have grown up in and have been favoured by the system in which they are now working. It is challenging, if not contentious, to begin the process of unpacking issues of privilege, marginalization and oppression. The work can be emotionally charged and requires participants to come face-to-face with questions and realities that they may be encountering for the very first time.
ICPS teacher Shannon Morgan doesn’t remember encountering any of these ideas in her own teacher preparation program. She does remember clearly the unease on the part of many in the early days of the pilot. “It was the conversations happening, not just in the groups with Jeff and Nicole, but sidebar conversations as well,” she says. “You could really see how uncomfortable this work was, and some people not wanting to say how uncomfortable it was in a large group.”
Yet, this personal identity work is necessary if educators are going to be able to truly understand CRRP. Teacher Phil Gibson, an Afro-Canadian male, remembers the day when he realized that his experience of growing up in Burlington, Ont. was different than other staff members from the same area.
“One of our colleagues was also from Burlington. And when she talked about her experience growing up there, it was like all flowers and roses. It was a great environment. My experience growing up in Burlington was the exact opposite of that. So it kind of jump-started the conversations where people were able to say, ‘I’ve never thought of that!’”
Many leaders and participants might be tempted to back away from these types of conversations and reflection. But Nicole West-Burns insists that we need to stay with them and live through the discomfort. “We talk (to teachers) about the rumbling in your stomach or the things that stand up on your neck and that this is part of the feeling. But the discomfort sometimes is what helps us push through or figure out. And so that’s what we need.”
Moving beyond these initial feelings of discomfort is essential to the work of CRRP. The expertise and sense of confidence brought by West-Burns and Kugler helped the staff move to the next level in their conversations – a focus on the students.
“The intensity of the work built strong relationships with people and established some trust, which is always a challenge in the first year,” says West-Burns. “This wasn’t about jockeying for position, this was about coming together for the good of the kids. This project really allowed staff to establish that from the beginning: This was about the students.”
From identity to practice
The personal and group identity work formed the important groundwork for a change in the way that teachers and staff saw students and families at the school. It was noticeable in the way that parents were welcomed into the school and spoken to by office staff and administrators. It was noticeable in what was hung on the walls throughout the school. And it was noticeable in the stories of change that staff began to experience and share with each other.
Phil Gibson is a Phys-Ed teacher at Irma Coulson. He recalls what happened when, during a unit on baseball skills, he decided to bring in cricket equipment as well, placing the game in a cultural context that resonated with many of his students. Students unfamiliar with the game of baseball suddenly felt empowered and affirmed by the opportunity to teach their peers about an important part of their culture. “They were teaching them how to bowl. They were teaching the rules of cricket, talking about how to hold the bat.” Now, Gibson reports, those same students can’t wait for spring and the opportunity to get outside and play cricket again.
Shannon Morgan has many stories about the impact of CRRP but one that she remembers fondly was reported to her by a lunchroom supervisor who had listened in on a conversation among Morgan’s Grade 2 students. “They were all sharing the different creation stories from their different backgrounds and families. In a very civil manner, they were actually engaging in a rich dialogue… They were able to listen to each other and respect each others’ differences, and that was huge for me.”
Bringing it all together
It could be argued that the extra supports directed toward pilot programs makes operationalization on a larger scale difficult, if not unrealistic. It is true that lighting a pilot light may get things started more easily, but there are lessons to be learned from identifying the conditions that allowed CRRP to take root and drive equity work at ICPS.
The understanding that cultural change is reliant on focused leadership should open up important conversations about how our school leaders are chosen, trained and supported through their work. Creating the ability for principals and vice-principals to develop and maintain that energetic focus is important for everyone in the building, as is the way that we encourage school leaders to connect with each other across a district and beyond.
If a staff is going to follow a leader into uncomfortable and challenging work, there needs to be a strong sense of intentionality. One-off workshops or single-day PD events cannot replace the knowledge that this is the work that we are doing, now and throughout the year.
Finally, outside support and expertise may be necessary to guide the personal work that allows CRRP to take root. Having the resources to draw in that support, especially to facilitate the difficult but essential conversations, cannot be overlooked or taken lightly.
Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy was originally introduced in Ontario by Nicole West-Burns and Jeff Kugler as a way of addressing a specific group of racialized students proven to be marginalized by the system in Canada’s largest school district. It was soon recognized as a powerful framework that challenges all educators to see themselves and their students differently. Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy insists that we start to understand that success for all students means embracing the cultural assets that they carry with them every day, and refusing to let those assets remain at the schoolhouse door.
As the two CRRP pilot programs reveal, this is not easy work. It takes vision, time, resources and the courage to stand up to a system that is, too often, supportive of the status quo. At stake is the success of a growing number of culturally diverse students who are marginalized and often alienated by a system built for a different time and place. What’s possible is the nurturing of school communities that reflect, respect and leverage the power of the stories, experiences and ways of knowing carried by all of our students and their families.
Photo: courtesy Halton District School Board
First published in Education Canada, September 2019