Student, Teacher or Both? Lessons Learned in the Discovery of Culturally Responsive Teaching and Best Practices for Effective, Organic Application

By Nafeesah Symonette

Editor’s Note:  This is the second in a four part series by Nafeesah Symonette on the important topic of culturally responsive teaching. Be sure to check out her first post here.  Enjoy!

I began my high school visual arts teaching career in Maryland, at Prince George’s County Public Schools. A densely populated urban school with predominantly Black and Hispanic students and a wide range of socio-economic status. I was determined to introduce the arts to this group of students in a bold new way, who by all accounts had experienced little to no arts education since elementary school. It was my mission to deliver collegiate level instruction in the same way that I had been taught. Drawing warm ups, formal critique circles, artists research, by way of Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claude Monet, Wassily Kandinsky, the list goes on. Regretfully, I didn’t give much thought to teaching about artists who looked like the students I served.

I moved on to a charter school in Southeast Washington, D.C. six years later, and continued with this same practice, doing my best to keep my students engaged and excited about learning these same artists and their styles, because, of course, they should know the “Master” artists. It wasn’t until I neared the end of my high school teaching career that a real shift took place in my teaching practice. I began planning my lessons with the input of my students, focusing primarily on their interests. I wanted to know and understand the nuances of their world with the idea that perhaps the work would resonate with greater significance. I quickly found out that it did.

Fast forward to graduate school where I discovered culturally responsive teaching.  Studying this teaching philosophy validated my shift in approach to teaching my mostly Black student population. When offered the opportunity to teach the course EED 3220: Educating Children in Art and to be a University Supervisor to Art Education Pre-Service Teacher Interns at Oakland University, I made it my business to weave culturally responsive teaching into every aspect of the course curriculums as a cornerstone of their developing philosophies of education. I wanted my pre-service teacher interns to understand early what took the majority of my teaching career to realize.  Releasing the power that one has as an educational leader and opening the door to allow students to guide the practice, I believe, is one of the most important learning and teaching experiences that one can have and brings one closer to becoming a more culturally responsive teacher.

I challenged my students to step outside of their known comforts when introducing artwork during a Visual Thinking Strategies lesson. Choose work based on the mirror or window approach, I suggested. The artwork could represent the students in your classroom as a mirror for them to feel seen, heard and represented. Or, the artwork could act as a window into a new world, an introduction to a culture unknown. This is culturally responsive teaching.

My pre-service teacher interns explored this new approach to their teaching practice with enthusiasm and care. They employed many effective examples:

  • During a virtual classroom lesson an intern used a smiling muslim woman wearing her full hijab as a main character on her slide presentation.
  • The work of artists from all over the world was shared, as was the flag of their respective countries alongside historical and relevant facts about the country and the artists.
  • Women artists were used more frequently.
  • Artist’s demonstrations were pulled from TikTok drawing on students’ connectedness to social media.

Interns had previously relied on the notion that they were required to pull artists from the same regurgitated box of European, male “Master” artists that I did, but as my interns expanded their ideas and approaches, I saw their students respond with an interest that I had not experienced in my early years of teaching.

Experience and discovery through research has a magnificent way of revealing, uncovering if you will, new ways to grow as a student, a teacher and a human being. Along my journey of understanding culturally responsive teaching, I have gathered ways that support this practice. I hope they help you reflect on your own teaching practice.

  1. Unlearn in order to shift your mind

This reflective practice requires you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Acknowledge that you, yes you, ALL of us, have unconscious biases that we like to tell ourselves don’t really exist. They do! Identify yours and get about the business of understanding where they originated.  Get curious with yourself and challenge why you believe said biases. This work is personal and tough, be truthful in your approach and have grace with yourself along your path of discovery.

  1. Lead with empathy, understanding and a listening ear

Many of us find it relatively easy to relate to folks who look like us, have similar backgrounds and experiences as us. We are quick to offer the benefit of the doubt to someone fitting this description. What about the students in your class who don’t look like you? How do you relate to them? You can empathize and understand those students by knowing them. Relationship building is key. Take one lunch period a week and invite a different student to share themselves with you. Have conversations that have nothing to do with the arts in order to reveal their artistic interests. Listen to their stories that tell more than what is on the surface.

  1. See and hear your students

Acknowledge your students by acknowledging the world in which they reside. It might look completely different from yours culturally and generationally. Be intentional about learning from your students and use what you see and hear to guide your lesson planning. Practice incorporating into your lessons artists, musicians and dancers within the last decade.

4. Become a facilitator

Being a culturally responsive teacher requires the practice of ongoing learning. By default this means that you acknowledge that you are not the most learned person in the room. Make it your business to step outside of your cultural box to create space for students often unseen or unheard. Facilitate through this lens. Get curious and ask the questions that allow your students to make their own conclusions about art that you present to them. Avoid correcting for right or wrong and allow student observations to just be.

  1. Set high expectations for all of your students

First, see number one of this list. It is impossible to have high expectations for students that you have a negative unconscious bias about and who you think are incapable of producing quality work. Recognize the possibility that all of your students are capable. If you learn and tap into the cultural nuances of your students you will be rewarded with a more engaged willing participant more than capable of meeting your expectations.

Nafeesah Symonette, MA, is a former visual arts educator with thirteen years teaching experience and over twenty years working in and through the arts. She is an arts education consultant focused on the intersection of arts education and culturally responsive teaching and is on faculty at Oakland University and Eastern Michigan University. Most recently she joined Detroit Excellence in Youth Arts (DEYA) as Co-Founder and Network Coordinator for Arts Education, Research and Advocacy.






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