Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Community Inquiries, Identity and Awareness of Self

Theory of Action/Supposition Statement

If student are provided culturally responsive, rich tasks during cross curricular instruction involving authentic community inquiries, then self-identity, socio-cultural consciousness and awareness of self emerges.

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Inquiry Overview

This paper explores the notion that culturally relevant practices in education embedded into all curriculum endeavours provides a venue for students to construct social identity and awareness of self as critical learners. A Case Study in Peel District School Board elementary classrooms documented via Ipads, students' interactions with Social Studies, Language Arts and Visual Arts Curriculum in grade three allowing educators and students to engage in critical inquiries by formulating questions, gathering information, interpreting, analyzing and evaluating that evidence and communicating their findings to gain insight into self-identity, socio-cultural consciousness and awareness of self as critical learners.


Elmcrest Public School, Mrs. Anila Khan, Grade 3 Students, 2013

Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy

Culturally Relevant: "To describe teaching that integrates a students' background knowledge and prior home and community experiences into the curriculum."

Culturally Responsive: "To describe teaching that recognizes all students learn differently and that these differences may be connected to background, language, family structure and social and cultural identity."

Gloria Ladson-Billings (1994)

According to the Capacity Building Series on Culturally Responsive Pedagogy #35, “Culture goes much deeper than typical understandings of ethnicity, race and/or faith. It encompasses broad notions of similarity and difference and it is reflected in our students’ multiple social identities and their ways of knowing and being in the world.”
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The Mindset of Culturally Responsive Educators

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP): Educators who exhibit a mindset that enables them to work creatively and effectively to support diverse settings share the following characteristics as outlined by "Villegas and Lucas".

  1. Socio-Culturally Awareness: An awareness of how soci-cultural structures impact individual experiences and opportunities
  2. High Expectations: Hold positive and affirming views of all students of all backgrounds
  3. Desire to Make a Difference: See themselves as change agents working towards more equity
  4. Constructivist Approach: Understand that learners construct their own knowledge
  5. Deep Knowledge of the Students: Know about the lives of students and their families: know how students learn best and where they are in their learning
  6. Culturally Responsive Teaching Practices: Design and build instruction on students' prior knowledge in order to sketch students in their thinking and learning.

Visualization Linking CRP to Curriculum and Language Expectations

Success Criteria, Anchor Charts, Bulletin Boards and Word Walls

Community Involvement: Parents write to their Kids

Visual Arts

The students visualized what their parents described and drew those visualizations in beautiful pieces of art that were displayed with their parents’ letters. In addition student voice was captured through pedagogical documentation as they shared their visual representations and reasons their parents moved to their community.
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Corridor of Voices

Students engaged in a drama activity where students walked down a corridor of students. One side whispered reasons to stay in a community and the other side whispered reasons to move out of a community. This was a highly powerful activity where students were faced with a real social dilemma and needed to make a decision. Students had listed many reasons from leaving a place of war, to not having enough space for a growing family, to going where work is and to where better schools are, all real examples they heard from their parents.

Student Self-Awareness

The grade 3 students had rich conversations about the social dilemma that their parents had made and the sacrifices that people they love had to endure. Real examples from their parents provided them with an awareness of how social and cultural structures impact individual experiences and opportunities. Social and political concerns impacted their parents’ physical place in the world and whether they moved from one community to another. When one student said “I learned about myself that I will have to make my own decisions like my parents did to move from one country to another,” they recognized these are real social problems that will be their decisions to make one day. This student exhibited self-awareness and how this will impact them and how this has already impacted them, when they later told me that “sometimes I do have to make decisions, but not hard ones like that”.

In both these case studies the students began to identify themselves as being part of a community and also began learning their own inherent differences within the communities. Students reflected on how this task gave them insight about who they are and also about who other members in the class are. The learned to respect the differences each peer brought to the learning environment and found their voice was valuable to the collective learning of the class.

The use of letter writing allows students and their parents to share information about themselves. Using this form of writing is a discourse of self-representation and that self-identity is now shared in this process. Educators can turn to letter writing as a form of identity construction and sharing when establishing a positive cultural climate in the classroom.


“Identity affirmation is crucial for literacy development. Students who feel their culture and identity validated in the classroom are much more likely to engage with literacy than those who feel that their culture and identity are ignored or devalued. Students; perceptions of their intelligence, imagination, and multilingual talents are a part of their identity and when these are affirmed in the school and classroom context, they invest their identities actively in the learning process. (Cummins and Early, 2011, pg. 39

Critical Reflection

This inquiry gave the students an outlet to engage in dialogue with their parents about their community and therefore allowed students to construct their own identity and cultural awareness, they became investigators of their own research. When we look at social constructivist pedagogy, student develop higher-order thinking based on teachers and students co-constructing knowledge and understanding, this experiential learning is based on what students currently know and bring to the learning (Vygotsky, 1978). It is also the basis of collaborative inquiry, in which the students formulate questions they are interested in investigating and the teacher and students co-constructed how they would set out to answer these questions.

Another consideration for furthering this study would be to have students who are able to use technology to construct emails to their parents. This would give students opportunities to use technology to produce a writing piece and also engage them in a form of writing that they will be using frequently in the future. This may have implications for families who do not have internet access or use of a computer and will need to be co-assessed with the students to establish if it is feasible. With the grade 3 students we discussed email writing as a form of letter writing and made connections to these text forms.

Moving toward a culturally relevant or responsive practice provides educators with engaged students, working collaboratively, and achieving academically; however Paris (2012) discusses a new terms “culturally sustaining pedagogy which requires that our pedagogies be more than responsive of or relevant to the cultural experiences and practices of young people - it requires that they support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence. This is an interesting vantage to reflect upon. When discussing with the classroom teacher the impact of this inquiry we also came to a conclusion that the curriculum does force us to “want to get through subject matter quickly” and when we do this are we providing the students with opportunity to ‘sustain’ their cultural integrity? Are we teaching with a culturally responsive mindset in all subject matters or in isolation? This is not what we intend as educators but we fear that we fall into these traps. In discussing with all the classroom teachers involved it is my understanding that in engaging in one rich, authentic task that forced them to become self-aware themselves has given them a point to begin the work on their own. I know for me it is a continuous journey as I work with educators and students and it is a conscious effort to listen to students’ conversations and remarks for opportunities to learn about cultural and social identity and infuse educational opportunities within them. When we listen to student voice we are able to use that information to inform our practice and students are able to use that information to construct knowledge. Culturally responsive teaching lends itself to effective constructivist pedagogy as follows:

“culturally responsive pedagogy uses way of knowing, understanding, and representing various ethnic and cultural groups in teaching academic subjects, processes and skills. It cultivates cooperation, collaboration, reciprocity, and mutual responsibility for learning among students and between students and teachers. It incorporates high-status, accurate cultural knowledge about different ethnic groups into all subjects and skills taught” (Gay, 2010, pg. 45).

Additionally Ladson Billings has heard many times that culturally relevant pedagogy “well that’s just good teaching!” However the more surprising element is that it just is not happening. If we know that culturally responsive or relevant pedagogy enhances cultural integrity and academic success which is an approach that is favourable to Paulo Friere’s pedagogical stance, then why aren’t we seeing it in classrooms today?

Culturally responsive teaching also can be viewed as a “philosophical view of teaching that is dedicated to nurturing students’ academic, social, emotional, cultural, psychological, and physiological well-being,” yet I still encounter educators who ask me what is culturally responsive practices (Howard, 2012).

There is certainly a need to rethink how we are educating students and honouring and valuing their cultural and socio-cultural identities. Past implementation of multicultural education, food, costumes, music was a huge leap and shift in education. It laid the ground work for the integration of cultural education as we see it today and we cannot discount those early practices, they were necessary for culturally responsive pedagogy to evolve as it has. However as Ladson-Billings expresses through her work with African-American students, white privilege continues to impact how education is taught and the constant devaluation of culture is evident in schools and society and that there must be changes. Banks continues to affirm that we must go beyond “holidays and heroes” to ensure that students identity and self are reflected in the curriculum and classroom (Banks, 1993). We are already learning and formulating ideas about culture and identity, when we educate students and they are given tools to assess cultural information appropriately they begin to know themselves (Delpit, 2006). This is why culturally responsive pedagogy is of great significance to implement.

Key Learnings

In conclusion two major themes or key learning’s were evident when deconstructing the inquiry statement, “How does infusing culturally responsive pedagogy during cross curricular instruction involving authentic community inquires provide a venue for students’ self-identity, socio-cultural consciousness and awareness of self to emerge?”

They are as follows:

  1. Culturally Responsive Pedagogy challenges educators to adopt a culturally responsive mindset to be an effective practitioner of all students

  2. Embracing Culturally Responsive Pedagogy enables self-identity, socio-cultural consciousness and awareness of self for educators and students

Having the student touch upon a real social and human issue such as factors to move or stay in a community increased student engagement as it can be attributed to the personally meaningful context, and authentic purpose and audience for their writing. The learning was self-directed as the students didn’t know what to expect from their parents. Many were eager and excited to share their letters with the class and we even had a rich discussion about letter writing and email writing. The parent letters were beautifully written by parents or older siblings depicting their enthusiasm for receiving a letter from their child and for wanting to hear about their community and home countries. Inclusive, equitable safe spaces were established and this allowed the students to share these narratives and discuss them with their peers and teachers.

By embodying Culturally Responsive Pedagogy (CRP) teachers and students began to develop a habit of mind for awareness of identity and social realities that influence us as we engage in curriculum and education.

Salima Ibrahim-Khan

Student Work Study Teacher (SWST) Peel District School Board