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Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy in the Literacy Classroom

By Emily Machado
 | May 31, 2017
Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Classrooms are more diverse than ever before. In our interconnected world, students bring a range of languages, literacies, and cultural practices into their schools. As educators, we’ve often thought about culture as something associated with a student’s ethnic heritage. However, a newer approach to teaching and learning called culturally sustaining pedagogy challenges us to promote, celebrate, and even critique the multiple and shifting ways that students engage with culture.

Django Paris, associate professor of language and literacy in the College of Education at Michigan State University, developed culturally sustaining pedagogy to extend asset-based teaching approaches such as culturally relevant pedagogy for the 21st century. His approach challenges us to go beyond acceptance or tolerance of students’ cultures and to move instead toward explicitly supporting aspects of their languages, literacies, and cultural traditions. Culturally sustaining pedagogy also encourages us to consider the term “culture” in a broader sense, including concepts such as popular, youth, and local culture alongside those associated with ethnicity.

Recently, educators have taken up culturally sustaining pedagogy within particular academic content areas. My colleagues (Rebecca Woodard, Andrea Vaughan, and Rick Coppola) and I have examined what culturally sustaining pedagogy might look like in literacy classrooms in Chicago, IL. We’ve found a few practices that literacy teachers might try as entry points to this work.

Seek out nontraditional texts. In our research, literacy teachers sought out nontraditional read-alouds and mentor texts for writing. We’ve documented teachers going beyond canonical texts and incorporating videos, student writing, poetry, and more into culturally sustaining units. Teachers might also consider using blog posts, memes, podcasts, and other artifacts as reading material or writing models. In addition to potentially promoting students’ cultures, languages, and literacies, these texts encourage broader ideas about what counts as reading and writing in schools.

Explore and model meshing languages. Language is a critical part of culture. Rather than require only “standard” English in the classroom, culturally sustaining literacy teachers explore, model, and support the meshing and blending of language varieties. We’ve documented teachers speaking and writing in ways that blend languages, dialects, and formal and informal registers. In addition to helping students see themselves in the texts they write, this approach helps students note complex power dynamics surrounding language use.  

Encourage students to explore alternative cultural affiliations. Culturally sustaining literacy teachers understand that students engage with a wide range of cultural groups and encourage them to explore these affiliations. In our research, we’ve seen students explore Chicago culture, culinary culture, digital culture, and more. Teachers can ask students about spaces, places, and communities where they feel like cultural “insiders” and can help them connect with these communities in person or online. This practice helps students and teachers understand the complexity of culture and the multiple affiliations of every student.

These suggestions just scratch the surface of what it means to teach literacy in ways that are culturally sustaining. Teaching, like culture, is complex. However, by approaching our practices with this cultural complexity in mind, we may be able to see and understand our students’ languages, literacies, and cultural practices in deeper and more meaningful ways.

Emily MachadoEmily Machado is a doctoral candidate studying literacy, language, and culture at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She researches equity-oriented writing pedagogies in urban classrooms. Previously, she worked as a public elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C. She tweets at @emilynmachado.

Emily Machado, along with Rebecca Woodard, Andrea Vaughan, and Rick Coppola, will present a session titled “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy in the Urban Literacy Classroom: Lessons from Mr. C’s Class at the ILA 2017 Conference & Exhibits, held in Orlando, FL, July 15–17.

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