The Explicit Act of Normalizing Diversity and Inclusion in Arts Education

By Nafeesah Symonette

Editor’s Note:  This is the fourth in a four-part series by Nafeesah Symonette on the important topic of culturally responsive teaching. Be sure to check out her first three posts here.   ~ Joni Starr


For three previous blog posts I have mused on the intersection of arts education and culturally responsive teaching. What does it mean? Where did it come from? How do we become culturally responsive arts educators? Why is this even necessary? And what’s this I hear about being culturally responsible? How is being responsible different from being responsive? How do we assess our progress and that of our students? Why have I asked you to get comfortable with being uncomfortable?

My hope is that, as my arts education colleagues, some of these questions surfaced for you as you read and reflected on this topic. Here is one more for you. Why is culturally responsive teaching the exception and not the norm in arts education classrooms? The answer is simple: because we’ve always done it that way. “That” way being the absence of intentional cultural relevance used as a central motif in a curriculum. Teaching visual art, music, theatre and dance that represents what the dominant culture has deemed “traditional” and imperative knowledge, without really thinking about it. How many times have you heard that as a reason for not trying something new? It’s going to take willingness, patience and understanding to unlearn, dismantle and restructure the American educational system created and designed through a white male dominated lens.  That said, it’s time we get about the business of doing the work. With all that the world has experienced in the past eighteen months it seems reasonable that every teacher, everywhere, would have begun the process of designing a new framework by which they construct and facilitate lessons with every student in mind. This would, of course, mean challenging yourself as an educator to ensure diversity and inclusion become the norm in your arts classroom—seeing your students, acknowledging their presence, and teaching with direct intention of representation. This allows your students to see themselves or introduces them to an unknown culture by way of your research and resource gathering. In 2021, this should be what we have collectively normalized because everyone benefits from this mindset shift.

I would argue that right now we have an opportunity to usher in a new wave of rising teachers through their university and college-led pre-service teacher education programs. A cohort who will learn, through a revamped curriculum, how vital this philosophy is to the success of their teaching practice and the success of their students. As an adjunct professor and university supervisor to arts education student teachers, course shells were provided to me as a blueprint for my respective classes. With each engagement, however, I retooled the curriculum to lecture on artistic contribution, visual thinking strategies, thus teaching art methods to elementary students through the lens of a culturally responsive teacher. In most College of Education curricula, teaching, learning, understanding, and engaging in multicultural education is almost always a separate component of the curriculum. This was true in my post-secondary teaching experience. Having multicultural education as a separate component is not culturally responsive teaching. To prepare effective educators in the practice of intentionally engaging every student in the classroom, multicultural education should be a thread organically woven into the fabric of a pre-service teacher’s matriculation. To weave this thread into training would mean growing teachers who would not have to unlearn the archaic behaviors/teachings of their own teachers and professors.

What I know for sure is that there are droves of BIPOC and non-teachers of color who must get comfortable with challenging themselves to examine how we learned, from whom did we learn and how that perspective has impacted how we deliver instruction. We are offered the opportunity to do this by strategically engaging ourselves in professional development that challenges all of these constructs. While it can be difficult to convince a veteran teacher that his/her teaching method or their artist selection is antiquated, it ultimately serves the field and the student well to challenge decades old philosophies while opening ourselves up to new ideas. Unfortunately, these were missed opportunities for us during our days of training, but it doesn’t have to be a missed opportunity for the student sitting in front of you today.

As I leave you in this final musing on the intersection of arts education and culturally responsive teaching, I would like for you to consider the following questions:

  • How have you challenged/expanded the artistic work that you are presenting?
  • Have you taken account of the changing demographic in your classroom and how that impacts your teaching practice?
  • What are you doing to immerse yourself in cultural understanding?
  • How are you assessing these new implementations?
  • Have you checked your unconscious bias at the door?

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.

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