The Brushstrokes of All Folks: Teaching Arts Education Through the Lens of Culturally Responsive Teaching in a COVID Era

By Nafeesah Symonette

Editor’s Note

I am excited to introduce the first post in a four part series written by Nafeesah Symonette on the intersection of Arts Education and Culturally Responsive Teaching in an era of COVID. She asks us to reflect on teaching during these difficult times using multiple lenses that highlight simple rules of humanity: kindness and empathy. She poses thoughtful ideas that can make us all think deeply about our ‘normal’ practices. We are also happy to have Nafeesah as a guest speaker at MAEIA’s Better Together in the Arts program launching in October. Registration information can be found here.                                                                            

~ Joni Starr


Allow me to introduce you to Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT). In the early 1990s, leading culturally responsive teaching researcher, Gloria Ladson-Billings, identified and defined culturally responsive teaching, indicating the pressing need for this topic in the American educational mainstream. “Culturally relevant teachers believe that all students can succeed by using an engaging curriculum that represents students’ culture and background.” She asserts that culturally responsive teaching is a student-centered approach to teaching that focuses specifically on the student’s unique cultural strengths. By identifying and nurturing these strengths, by virtue, CRT promotes a sense of well-being, thus increasing student achievement and connectedness to learning. CRT is a philosophy of education that allows us the opportunity to reimagine ourselves as active learners through our teaching practice. In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain, Zaretta Hammond notes that there is a mindset shift that must occur, not simply an infusion of cultural acceptance and acknowledgement.

COVID has surfaced many disparities in the virtual and face to face classroom from housing insecurity to an inability to successfully engage virtually for reasons ranging from inadequate internet access to no adult supervision for the student who has to independently navigate learning because of working parents. Culturally responsive teaching forces us to shift our viewpoint from one of blame to one of empathy and understanding of the cultural nuances of our individual learners. It asks that educators acknowledge their own individual lived cultural experiences and immerse themselves in the knowing and understanding of cultures not their own. This mindset shift allows for an organic teaching experience that intentionally includes the lived experiences of all learners. Perhaps, your student population looks exactly like you with similar lived experiences, if so, a CRT mindset shift allows you to organically introduce cultures without “othering” the student or their identified cuture to the point of being alien.

So how is this all connected and relevant to the array of arts disciplines in the classroom? Through art we have the opportunity to learn about our students and engage them in a way that honors their cultural individuality. The pandemic has exposed how differently that can look for each one of our students, but at the intersection of CRT and arts education in the era of COVID, we find opportunity. Here if we shift our mindset to include new cultural awareness of our students, we will find a more engaged, trusting and willing student. When we learn about and incorporate social-justice movements, contemporary artists, music, language, fashion and hair into how we plan our art lessons, we are teaching through the lens of cultural responsiveness. We are showing our students our ability to connect and empathize with where they are, not where we want them to be. No longer will our lessons be pulled only from the stacks of the so-called “masters” that we diligently studied as undergrads. At the intersection of CRT and art education we are taking a walk through our students’ neighborhood with a camera and designing a lesson that is reflective of the massive mural we photographed that celebrates a heroic figure. Perhaps, we have visited the neighborhood sneaker shop and returned with a lesson asking students to design the next hottest shoe incorporating their name in the design. You see, CRT and arts education is an organic exchange of ideas laced with respect for and understanding of the culture.

When I reflect on my own visual art teaching practice, I am reminded that most of us teach how we were taught, through a European male dominated lens. But when immersed in the field I ponder what is the best choice, my students knowing the work of Vincent Van Gogh, because they should, or creating space that honors the artwork and artists connected to their culture and generation? Is it more important to introduce cubism by way of Picasso because he is a so-called “Master,”or to create a space of knowing and a cultural connection to the African tribes he “borrowed” the design style from through traditional wood carvings?

As we get the 2021-22 school year underway and you continue to plan your art lessons, I encourage you, while taking intoconsideration the impact of COVID, to revisit each of your lesson plans and consider how they can best express your willingness to show empathy and understanding of cultural responsiveness to your students, regardless of their backgrounds.

 Nafeesah Symonette 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 in Rochester, Michigan and Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

  1. Ladson-Billings, Gloria (1994). The Dreamkeepers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
  2. Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal; Washington, vol. 32, no. 3, Sept. 1995.
  3. Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: A.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review, vol. 84, no. 1, 2014.
  4. Lynch, Matthew. What Is Culturally Responsive Pedagogy? The Huffington Post,, 13 Feb. 2012.
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