When embarking on planning instruction, educators share a common goal: to promote students’ learning. We want to provide rigorous and meaningful instruction that prompts all students to think, understand, apply, communicate, and achieve.
But as our schools become more diverse, educators face the challenge of delivering curricula designed for the so-called “mainstream,” which puts the majority of students in US schools at a disadvantage. To provide equitable access to rigorous instruction in classrooms, we need a dynamic approach to teaching that is reflexive to students’ unique and diverse backgrounds to make learning more relevant, engaging, and effective.
But there is no quick and easy approach to this work: no one-size-fits-all program, no prescriptive curriculum guide, no silver-bullet list of instructional strategies.
To provide this type of instruction–which is grounded in the principles of culturally responsive pedagogy (Gay, 2018)–educators must first get to know the unique and diverse students in their classrooms and schools. Then, they need to determine how to design and implement instruction in ways that taps into their backgrounds as strengths and resources for learning. Below are a few initial steps to begin this important work in schools.
1. Deconstruct the labels that are entrenched in schools. Labels surely serve some valuable purposes in the educational institution, but they have a tendency to minimize important complexities in daily practice.
For example, the label of “English learner” indicates only that a student is still learning English without signifying important variables such as home language, language proficiency, literacy ability, cultural background, country of origin, generation and circumstances of immigration, and more. To plan responsive instruction that attends to individual students’ needs, educators first need to examine the seemingly homogenous labels commonly used in schools.
2. Recognize the assets that students and families bring to school. This idea is premised on the crucial recognition that all students and families bring rich and valuable resources to schools that can be integrated into instruction in order to promote rigorous and meaningful learning. These look and sound different depending on the family and might require educators to negotiate what is traditionally valued and recognized as a resource in mainstream American schooling (e.g., speaking in English at home, reading a bedtime story at night, going on family vacations each summer).
Socorro Herrera (2016) provides a helpful framework to probe sources of student background knowledge, including funds of knowledge from home (e.g., traditions, family dynamics, home languages), prior knowledge from community (e.g., family employment, bilingual speech communities, language brokering), and academic knowledge from school (e.g., previous content knowledge, school literacy practices, school-based collaboration skills). This three-facet scheme can support educators in gleaning important data they can integrate into instructional design and implementation.
3. Consider ways to make formal data more easily accessible to educators. For example, schools collect home language data from students and families when they enroll in schools, but that data rarely make their way into the hands of classrooms teachers. Formalize data organization procedures so that teachers know students’ home languages. For the primary home languages spoken by students in the school, provide one-pagers with pertinent information on the language, highlighting the connections with English to promote teachers’ recognition and use of metalinguistic awareness between languages.
4. In addition to formal data from school-based assessments, encourage collection of anecdotal data. Anecdotal data prompts more nuanced understandings of cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Home visits are an incredible way to build rapport with families and get to know students’ rich sources of background knowledge. Parent-teacher conferences can be used as two-way conversations where educators prompt and listen to parents as they share information about resources and practices in the home and community. Students can provide insight to teachers in informal conversations or dialogue journals.
Once educators collect these data from students and families, they can begin the process of culturally and linguistically responsive instructional design whereby students’ unique and diverse assets drive the curriculum and serve as a springboard to promote equitable learning opportunities and outcomes.
How is your school or district working to build diversity and equity into classroom instruction? Tell us in the comments.
Amy Heineke is an associate professor of Bilingual and Bicultural Education in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago. Her career in education began as an elementary teacher in South Phoenix, Arizona, where she began to develop her advocacy and expertise for English learners. She currently works with pre-service and in-service practitioners across the country to build capacity for work with linguistically diverse students. She is the co-author of Using Understanding by Design in the Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Classroom with Jay McTighe. Follow her on Twitter @DrAJHeineke.