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How Schools Can Sustain Students’ Cultures

New teaching methods focus on building up students from all backgrounds and undoing generations of discrimination.

New teaching methods focused on “culturally sustaining pedagogy” challenge schools to drop white settler-colonial narratives and instead center the histories and lives of Indigenous, Black, immigrant, queer, trans and disabled people.

High school students enter a classroom at Rainier Beach High School in Seattle on an October morning. They sit at their desks, but they’re soon asked to rearrange their chairs into a circle. Today is Thursday, which means they’ll be having their weekly class in restorative justice.

James Williams, the teacher, leads the students in a warmup game: the students pair off and play rock, paper, scissors—except when one student wins, the other becomes their cheerleader. This repeats through several rounds until teams of students are cheering on their classmates in a final championship bout.

Afterward, the students gather in a circle for conversation, passing around a talking piece—a small object like an animal figure or a bottle of essential oil—to focus everyone’s attention on the speaker.

“Who do you respect?” Williams asks to begin the conversation.

“My parents,” “my sister,” “my best friend” come the responses.

“Who do you know that respects you?” Williams asks his next question.

“My younger brother,” one student says. “My friends,” says another.

This leads into a conversation about respect—in the circle, among friends and families, and in the community—and why it’s important, and how it can be lost and earned.

What Williams, the restorative justice coordinator at the school, is doing in the classroom aligns with an educational theory gaining traction in schools across the country.

Django Paris of the University of Washington, Seattle, and H. Samy Alim of the University of California Los Angeles coined the term “culturally sustaining pedagogy,” in their 2017 book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World. It’s a teaching system that centers and supports diverse backgrounds and identities and avoids cultural assimilation and suppression.

“Culturally sustaining pedagogy exists wherever education sustains the lifeways of communities who have been and continue to be damaged and erased through schooling,” says Paris, who is a professor in the Department of Education where he is also the director of the Banks Center for Educational Justice.

The label, he says, is less significant than the outcomes. “If naming it culturally sustaining pedagogy is useful, that’s fine but more important to me, is [the] work.”

Restorative justice focuses on having mutually respectful conversations (or “circles”) among people involved in a conflict or disagreement. It’s an alternative to top-down punitive policies that result in student detention, suspension, or expulsion, which can be the first stage in what’s been termed the school-to-prison pipeline.

In the class, students learn the theory and practice of “circle-keeping” so that adults are not needed to mediate conflict, says Makaelah Smith, the programming manager for Washington Building Leaders of Change (WA-BLOC), the organization which brought Williams’ class into Rainier Beach High. Circles are also an important space where young people can talk about issues affecting their communities that they might not have space to talk about in other classes.

Changing the Narrative

The rationale behind culturally sustaining pedagogy is to address the all-too common situation in U.S. classrooms: students are generally taught a narrative that is told from the point of view of settler-colonial, white, male, cisgender, heterosexual, ableist, European descendants, and which de-emphasizes, misrepresents, and ignores the stories and lives of Indigenous, Black, immigrant, queer, trans, and disabled people, therefore alienating students who share those identities and histories.

As an example, Ray Raphael, author of A People’s History of the American Revolution, found that elementary, middle school, and high school history textbooks have “serious lapses” in how history is presented. Nearly all of the textbooks he reviewed gloss over and simplify details of African American history, he writes. For example, “Most texts do mention African American participation in the war, but they focus primarily on those who sided with the Americans. In fact, those who sided with the British were far more numerous, but you’d never guess it from reading the texts.”

An educational practice that seeks to rectify this must not just correct the historical record but provide narratives that are affirming to marginalized students.

Williams’ restorative justice class is one of the programs brought into the school by WA-BLOC, a nonprofit organization that works within the public school system to create better spaces for learning for traditionally marginalized student populations. Another program the organization offers is Don’t Judge Me, a group for boys to talk about masculinity, patriarchy, and how to treat the women in their lives better.

Smith runs a group called Black Girl Magic for young Black girls to talk about the beauty and struggle of being a young Black girl today. The point of the group isn’t to just focus on the negative aspects of Black girlhood. “It’s like sitting at the kitchen table with aunties and cousins and sisters,” Smith says.

The organization also runs an after-school homework help center, where students can come in and get help, take make-up tests, and receive tutoring from local university instructors. The center also is stocked with snacks. Many of the students at Rainier Beach High School are on free and reduced lunch programs and so food insecurity is another issue WA-BLOC works to alleviate.

Rainier Beach’s student body is 43.9% Black, according to Seattle Public Schools, and the school receives the least amount of funding of Seattle’s traditional public high schools. As part of larger districtwide budget cuts in the 2019-20 school year, Rainier Beach’s history class was cut for all sophomores.

Another of WA-BLOC’s initiatives, the summer Freedom Schools literacy program, introduces students to books written by and about people of color, such as Turning 15 on the Road to Freedom, a firsthand account of Lynda Blackmon Lowery, the youngest person to participate in the 1965 Selma Voting Rights March.

The mornings start with a daily energy-filled “Harambee,” which comes from the Swahili word for “let’s pull together,” and includes songs, chants, call-and-response exercises, and announcements for the day. From there, the scholars (the word “student” conveys a sterile environment that does not emphasize the broad learning and scholarship, Smith says) go to their classrooms for interactive activities related to the books, and make connections between the books and their lives and communities.

“I like to think of our Freedom Schools as us building leaders of change for social action and revolutionary education,” Smith says.

After class, the scholars have lunch, which is provided for free by WA-BLOC, and then head to other enrichment activities such as writing, basketball, coding, gardening, art, and more. The idea is to get them to try new things while still having fun. The in-class activities also engage students to think about their identities, and how they want to be agents of change in their communities. The program culminates with a Day of Social Action at the school, led by young people who choose what issues they want to talk about.

Each year the WA-BLOC Freedom Schools program has had tangible results. When it began, many students who lived up to two miles away had to walk to school in the morning, due to Seattle Public Schools’ transportation policy. WA-BLOC saw this as a problem and began working to get their students free passes for public transit, a program now extended to all Seattle public high school students. On the academic side, according to WA-BLOC, 84% of their Freedom School scholars did not experience any learning loss over summer, and many improved their reading skill level.

Smith understands that this work isn’t easy, but says, “You’re going to have to challenge people a lot and that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to challenge the system.”

WA-BLOC is in a unique position because it has an office inside the school. But Smith says educators don’t need these formal setups in order to enact change. “If you can’t do it in the classroom, do it at lunchtime. If you can’t do it with every single student, at least find a group of students that you can do it with. If you are really about that change, you’ll figure out ways to cultivate it,” Smith says.

A Vision of Liberation

Darozyl Touch, a Seattle educator who got her start with Freedom Schools, now works as a freelance home-school teacher with a collective of Black families who decided to opt out of the public school system, because they knew that it would underserve their children. Touch creates all her own curriculum.

“What I do with this home-school collective is contrary to what they would learn in a public school, and I do that intentionally,” she says.

Touch has many ways of upending traditional modes of education. “We all are socially conditioned to believe that what our teachers tell us is the absolute truth. I always tell my students: you can always prove me wrong. You can provide all the evidence and materials to say, ‘No, actually, Ms. Touch, you’re wrong, and here’s why,’” Touch says.

Touch also brings a strong political analysis to her work. “To do this work means that you have to root yourself in a vision of true liberation,” she says.

Anthony Jackson, a director who oversees principals in the Los Angeles Unified School District and former teacher and principal, says it’s important that parents don’t feel left out of the work that is happening at schools, while at the same time fostering independence in young people.

For Jackson, culturally sustaining work can be as simple as taking a city bus for a school field trip instead of a school bus. Getting an understanding of the city helps contextualize school within students’ communities, he says.

“Certainly, it takes planning, but what an experience for the children. It helps them develop a deeper appreciation. [It] provides a much richer experience for the kids,” Jackson says. “Think of your school as a work of art and having it really be something special.”

Lorena German, a multigrade teacher in a small, private, predominantly white charter school in Austin, Texas, says she focuses much of her lessons on identity, understanding racism, and unlearning what society teaches us. She explains that when she worked a predominantly Latinx classroom in a public school, she tailored her lessons to celebrate multilingualism.

“We would read something like a novel, and I’d bring in a poem that has a Spanish translation. If you read it in both languages and have a conversation about content and analysis, you can also think about what’s the difference between a translation and an interpretation,” German says. The students become critics, offering thoughtful and meaningful constructive critiques, and in the process their multilingual skills add value to the classroom discussion.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy is not meant to only take place within social studies or humanities contexts. Bontu Aman Mohammed, a graduate student at the University of Washington who identifies as Oromo, the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, is working on a dissertation on culturally sustaining practices in STEM fields for East African youth. Part of that work was creating a coding course specifically for Oromo students, which she did in collaboration with other engineers in the Oromo community of Seattle, youth from the Oromo Cultural Center, and Team Oromia Seattle, a networking group of students and professionals.

“It was coding curriculum but there was also space for storytelling,” she says. “In these spaces we shifted from English to Oromo, we used two different languages. We talked about our families, because all of our families were connected in some way or another. We talked about history.”

Culturally sustaining work can be a part of any lesson, and in this case, offers more than just a basic coding class. “The culturally sustaining part is the fact that it was designed to foster their identity development,” Mohammed says.

At the end of James Williams’ class at Rainier Beach, he asks students to brainstorm topics they want to talk about in future classes. The classroom is suddenly abuzz with conversation, students eager to take charge of the class and talk about what they care about: friendship, relationships, and school dynamics.

The students get to talk through some of these complicated experiences in a space that doesn’t exist in many other classrooms. Then they take those experiences with them for the rest of the day as they continue in their other classes.

The University of Washington’s Django Paris says that culturally sustaining pedagogy is a learning experience for educators as well as students, and a way to change practices that are destructive into people, communities and the planet. “We know that teaching and learning happens everywhere. It’s one of the ontological vocations of human beings,” he says.

“We hope we’re a small part of a movement to reclaim, revitalize, and reimagine, what education can and has been,” Paris says.