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Aurora Institute

Designing Equitable and Culturally Responsive Learning Spaces

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Karla Vigil, Emily Abedon

Issue(s): Issues in Practice, Commit to Equity, Support Professional Learning, Rethink Instruction

Karla Vigil and Emily AbedonTruly supporting the needs of all learners requires intentional planning and design. In our recent session on designing equitable learning spaces at the Aurora Institute Symposium, the Equity Institute explored how culturally responsive teaching and leading pushes us to reimagine what is possible in our schools. Placing student voices and identity at the forefront of our work helps ensure that those we serve help to define what counts as successful. It challenges us to build student-centered, actionable strategies to support our vision for an equitable education system.

The workshop took its participants on a journey, rooted in equity and focused on becoming culturally responsive educators. We begin with identity development and understanding how educators’ individual identities are intrinsically connected to our students’ identities. Using uniquely designed tools, such as the Equity Institute’s “identity bonds,” participants gain skills necessary for engaging with their communities. Identity bonds provide educators with the opportunity to reflect on their own personal identities and ask critical questions like:

  • Which identity are you most proud of?
  • What part of other people’s identities do you notice first?
  • Which identity gives you power?
  • Which part of your identity do you see having the most effect on your interactions with your students?

Educators At TableWhen educators have the opportunity to think about their identities and have critical conversations with their colleagues, they gain crucial awareness about themselves. This awareness can, with practice, enable them to connect to the larger community and ultimately their students in more authentic ways.

We may think of ourselves as individuals, but each one of us is operating as a member of larger groups in society, depending on how we have been socialized. As Sensoy and DiAngelo (2017) have stated, “Our socialization is the foundation of our identity. Thus to consider that we have been socialized to participate in systems of oppression that we don’t condone is to challenge our very sense of who we are.”[1]  For example, I may have been socialized to think of gender as binary. Today, we know that gender identity is not fixed and falls along a continuum. Recognizing how we have been socialized and how this process impacts our beliefs today is critical when trying to build connections with students who may have been socialized differently. The work with the Equity Institute is informed by the knowledge that our identities and our students’ identities are profoundly impacted by culture and socialization.

Our goal is that the participants begin to develop a deep understanding of how life experiences, values, assumptions, and identity influence the way we see the world around us. When teachers can understand their own identity, they can develop the characteristics needed to effectively teach their students who may have different cultural backgrounds.

A section of the workshop is dedicated to developing and maintaining relationships with students by empowering their cultural identity. If teachers start the school year by building a responsive classroom community and understanding who their students are, where they come from, and how they learn, then they can begin to build trusting relationships. The goal during this process is for teachers to understand how their own experiences and backgrounds impact their day-to-day practice in the classroom. This daily practice can lead to forming connections with all of their students. The teacher can then leverage students’ cultural identities to create units and curricula that reflect students’ passions. Additionally, teachers will begin demonstrating a greater appreciation for diversity and building a strong learning community. We aim for educators to strengthen their understanding of how relationships are a cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching and personalized learning.

Educators explore and analyze our Building Equity in Your Teaching Practice framework (shown below) by collectively making meaning of it and asking themselves how they may or may not be applying some of the practices to their work. Questions they explore include:

  • Are materials and resources reflective of the diverse identities and experiences of students?
  • Does the curriculum create windows and mirrors for students?
  • Does the content affirm students as well as exposing them to experiences other than their own?
  • Does this unit or lesson help students question and unpack biases and stereotypes?

Gloria Ladson-Billings originated the concept of culturally responsive teaching (CRT). She saw it as a way to maximize students’ academic achievement by integrating their cultural references in the classroom. Geneva Gay, a professor of education at the University of Washington-Seattle, defines CRT as “the ability to use the cultural characteristics, experiences, and perspectives of culturally and linguistically diverse learners as conduits for teaching them more effectively.”[2] CRT is also supported by scholar James A. Banks, known as the “father of multicultural education.”

A deep field of research has developed around CRT. This includes recent work by Zaretta Hammond on the neuroscience that supports CRT, which we incorporate into our workshops. We support teachers to explore the science behind culture and how it impacts the brain. When you help students think about how they think, it helps build neuroplasticity which helps create more neural pathways. It is important to help students activate their prior knowledge or schema so they can begin making connections and creating new knowledge. For example, educators can offer multiple ways to solve a challenging math problem and encourage group work as an option. They can also create multiple entry points when teaching foundational material, especially reading. They can expose students who are learning to read to tactile, phonemic, kinesthetic and other creative ways to reach them. By understanding students’ cultures and experiences, teachers develop skills to use cultural scaffolding and help students achieve. When folks say that students don’t have the capacity to learn, it is simply not true. An essential step toward ensuring that all students learn is reaching and connecting with them to impact their attitudes and behaviors.

Equality vs. Equity

Our schools are filled with resources, people who care, frameworks for learning, technology, and a host of other ways to equip our students for success. Creating equal access to resources and pathways to success is important, but it is only one part of the answer. In the final part of the Equity Institute workshops, we assert that equity has to be an integral part of any classroom and school. It’s about expanding your reach to meet the needs of all students. For many folks, equality means the same as equity. We often are asked questions like, “Aren’t equality and equity the same thing?”

“Shouldn’t I treat all of my students the same?”

We guide educators and leaders to make an important distinction between the two by using our visual below. We instruct participants to look at the picture of “Equality” below and talk about what the image means to them, what they see, and what connections they can make to their organizations, schools, and classrooms.

Equality Image

Soon after the discussion, teachers and leaders are asked to think about how the picture would change if the caption said “Equity” instead of “Equality.” They are assigned the “Equity” image below and work collaboratively to create and design at their tables. How would they transform the image to be a metaphor for equity? Participants may add on to the image or create their own image of what equity would look like. We remind them that no one has to be perfect; we are focused on moving the metaphor forward. When they are finished, they present their work to the whole group.

We wrap up the activity by saying that equity is about expanding your reach to meet the needs of all students. As stated by author, anti-racist advocate, and former classroom teacher Enid Lee, “Equality is giving everyone a pair of shoes, but equity is giving everyone a pair of shoes that fit.” Equity is about giving kids what they need in order to be successful;  giving students shoes that FIT is being culturally responsive.

Equity Image

Equity can only exist when educators, leaders, and schools modify their instruction, policies, and practices in ways that facilitate the academic achievement and emotional well being of students from diverse racial, cultural, gender, and social-class groups. For instance, to name a few of the strategies advocated by the Equity Institute: Educators and school leaders should examine their practices to ensure strong differentiation of classroom instruction. School leaders should shift to a disciplinary approach that is grounded in restorative practices. School communities should have an explicit equity statement to ensure that staff, family, and the community at large have a clear understanding of the school’s commitment. High-quality training should be provided for staff to sustain equity and culturally responsive teaching. And intentional efforts should be made to hire teachers with diverse identity backgrounds.

Equity Institute develops innovative systems that cultivate culturally responsive schools and communities for all learners through organizational development, research, and networking. We envision an educational system that recognizes identity and human connection is central to the process of teaching and learning and ensures young people have access to educational experiences that allow them to build the knowledge and skills they need to thrive in the world.

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Born in El Salvador and raised in Providence, Rhode Island, Karla Vigil serves as the CEO and co-founder of the Equity Institute, an organization whose mission is to develop innovative systems that cultivate culturally responsive schools and communities. She has also been an advocate in her state and beyond voicing the importance of recruiting and retaining teachers of color. Karla was a senior associate for District and School Design at the Center for Collaborative Education, where she worked as a thought partner in the development of frameworks and resources centered on equity, culturally responsive teaching, and personalized learning. She was also a fourth-grade classroom teacher dedicated to broadening students’ perspectives through multicultural and social justice education. Karla was a Deeper Learning Equity fellow and was recently selected as a Pahara NextGen Fellow. She lives in East Providence with her partner and three sons.

Emily Abedon is a teacher in East Providence, Rhode Island, and consults with the Equity Institute. She is a passionate youth developer who spent years working in non-profit, college prep programs in New York City. Her formal teacher training began as a New York City Teaching Fellow. She earned her Masters of Science in Education at Brooklyn College. Emily spent six years teaching fourth and fifth grade students at her neighborhood school in Brooklyn. She has completed anti-racism training with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and is a graduate of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Peace and Nonviolence. She is a member of the antiracism group White Noise Collective that works at the intersection of whiteness and gender oppression and organizes with Showing Up for Racial Justice RI.

[1] Sensoy, O., and DiAngelo, R. (2017). Is Everyone Really Equal? An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education. New York: Teachers College Press.

[2] Gay, G. (2002). Preparing for Culturally Responsive Teaching. Journal of Teacher Education, 53(2), pp. 106-116.