Fostering Student Engagement Through Voice and Choice via Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Now, more than any other time, it is important to give students a place for their advocacy and hearing their opinions. In this time of Covid-19, students are unsettled. Their traditional ways of going through their lives have been disrupted by the closing of schools and times of isolation during the lockdown. Students have not been able to interact with their peers and family members. And they’ve spent even more time on technology as a result. Students need to be given some control of their lives and giving them more control over assignments and assessment is a good place to start.

Choice in assignments and assessment

Building student advocacy is a powerful instructional strategy to build on student engagement and their overall learning experience in school. Empowering learners happens through student voice and student choice. Here students can provide suggestions on how to learn and how to demonstrate their learning through their choice of assessment. Visual learners might wish to supplement a writing assignment with a illustration, graphic organizer, or video. Auditory learners may wish to talk about their science project while limiting some of their writing. Kinetic learners might ask to act out their summary of their novel study.

In being flexible and open to suggestions, teachers allow students more agency in their own learning and in their ownership of their work.

The importance of hearing students and honouring their perspectives

As an advocate of student voice, I have listened to my students’ concerns and feedback. This process keeps my teaching practices in sync with students’ life experiences. I always thought I had a well-established practice with student advocacy until one day. While talking about police my student stated, “I hate the police.” At first, I was taken back by this very definitive statement (this was before the Black Lives Matter protests of the Spring/Summer of 2020). I thought the statement was disrespectful but then I realized that this was based on the students’ experiences as he identified as Black. He watched his older siblings being harassed by police. He had experienced being watched in stores to see if he would steel anything. He had been criticized for his very large amount of curly hair.

There, in that moment, I adjusted my perspective as he had every right to state this. I asked him to explain why he had said it and the rest of the students in my classroom were in shock that their experience had been very different to his. In allowing him to voice his perspective, he introduced a new perspective to each student in our classroom.

Hearing students’ voices in schools

Students should be able to see their identity in the curriculum they study. This means promoting equity and inclusion through culturally responsive instruction and assessment. The role of culturally responsive teaching is to understand who students are as people and who they are within their community. This pedagogical approach acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental aspects of student culture while providing equitable and inclusive education for students of all backgrounds and identities. With the Black Lives Matter movement in full force, this is especially important for students who identify as Black. Essentially, in teaching through a lens of culturally responsive pedagogy, student identity is honoured.

How does culturally-relevant pedagogy benefit teaching?

Teachers need to be reflective of who their students are and how best to adapt with instruction and assessment to their needs. As reflective practitioners, teachers learn to adapt their teaching to meet the needs of their students. Here, the focus of teaching goes away from the curriculum and towards the learning needs of the students.

Schön (1987) stated that in teachers’ reflection, learning influences behaviour through the teachers’ self-discovery, self- assessment, and deciding the appropriateness of instruction. It is through teacher reflection that the opportunity, the motivation, and the environment reflects on the idea that learning belongs to the learner, the student. In this process, teachers take on the role of and status of facilitator over the traditional role of an “expert” teacher (Schön, 1987).

In using a reflective stance (Schön, 1987), teachers incorporate issues of equity, inclusion, and social justice as a necessary element in their day to day teaching practices. The development of culturally relevant teaching strategies is necessary in order to challenge learners to think critically about their own learning and who they are as learners. In other words, to feel included, students need to see themselves within the curriculum and instruction (Hutton, 2019).

By including their identity in education, students become more engaged in their culture in the context of learning. This helps develop perspectives and skills to adapt to present day reality in order to address skills and knowledge for the future (Hutton, 2019).

Best Practices for Culturally Responsive Teaching & Assessment.

The Culturally Responsive Educator Mindset (adapted from Ontario Ministry of Education, 2014, p. 4/5)

  1. Socio-cultural consciousness: Teachers are aware of how socio-cultural structures impact individual students’ experiences and opportunities.
  2. High expectations:Teachers hold positive and affirming views of student success from all backgrounds.
  3. Desire to make a difference:Teachers work towards more equity and inclusion as change agents.
  4. Constructivist approach:Teachers understand that students’ learning is constructed through their own knowledge (or schema).
  5. Deep knowledge of their students:Teachers know who their students are by knowing about students and their families. Teachers then know how individual students learn best and where they are at in their learning.
  6. Culturally responsive teaching practices: Teachers design and build instruction based on students’ prior knowledge in order to stretch students in their thinking and learning.

An example of student agency in action

Before schools closed and the lockdown was in place, my class was studying Black History. One student mentioned Viola Desmond being place on the Canadian ten dollar bill. As we discussed her story, the students became very engaged as they were great advocates of human rights and several students identified as being Black. I had planned this to be a relatively short lesson that was followed by a short journal. But I have learned that half of my planning is abandoned due to student choice and voice as the students usually come up with much more engaging lessons and ways to show their learning.

My time of lesson planning stopped and the students took over. One student said “Let’s do a play about Viola” another mentioned costumes and another started writing scrips. By the time they were done, we had full scripts, costumes, props, blocking (i.e. where actors should stand), and invitations to come see our play, Viola Desmond Buys a Ticket. The principal and vice principal came to see our play; the grade 2s and 3s came to see our play; the grade 4/5 class came to see our play; and even the custodian came to see our play. My assessment blossomed with reading, writing, art, media, and drama marks. It was magical all because I let go.

I write this blog as a person who identifies as White in privilege. Because I am White and educated, I carry my privilege in my Invisible White Backpack. I’ve included a resource if you’d like to explore this further.

Wishing you good health and peace,

Dr. Deb Weston, PhD

References

Hutton, F. (2019). Notes on culturally responsive pedagogy.

Ontario Ministry of Education. (November 2014). Culturally responsive pedagogy: Towards equity and inclusivity in Ontario Schools, Secretariat Special Edition #35, Ontario Ministry of Education, Downloaded from http://www.edu.gov.on.ca/eng/literacynumeracy/inspire/research/cbs_responsivepedagogy.pdf

Schön, D. A. (1987). Educating the reflective practitioner.

Resources

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

Fostering Self Advocacy Tip Sheet

Promoting Students’ Self Advocacy

Advocacy – Student Voice by Adam Lajoy

Unpacking the Invisible White Backpack

Advocacy – Student Voice by Adam Lajoy

Promoting Black Lives Matters

No single right way to be an effective ally, says Black Lives Matter activist — but there is a wrong way

 

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The Author

Deb Weston

I love teaching. I’ve been teaching over 20 years in Ontario. I’ve taught grades 2 through to grade 8, including split and contained Spec Ed classes. I am an advocate/ally for issues dealing with Workplace Health & Safety, Special Education, Mental Wellness, LGBTQT, and Aboriginal topics. I have qualifications in Special Education, Reading, Technology, Mathematics, eLearning, and Integrated Curriculum. I hold a PhD in Education Policy & Leadership. I am learning disabled! I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together. My opinions are my own, usually supported by peer-reviewed literature and law. Follow me on Twitter @DPAWestonPhD

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