A Culturally Relevant Lens Brings 21st Century Teaching into Focus

James M. Loy, Miami University's College of Education, Health, and Society

Education has enjoyed a long tenure of making a positive impact on both culture and society. Teachers, the good ones, have the power to change lives and build brighter futures. And because teachers are, in very real ways, responsible for forging paths of learning and self-discovery, it is a system that often attracts a passion for helping students find a meaningful place and purpose in the world.

But this world, our entire world, is evolving. The educational climate is currently weathering a fierce storm of change, and if good teachers are to remain relevant and impactful, then they too must evolve in tandem.

“A lot of the changes are demographic,” says Ganiva Reyes, Visiting Assistant Professor and Heanon Wilkins Fellow in Miami University’s College of Education, Health and Society (EHS). “There are also so many different schools that are emerging. There are public schools, but now charter schools, and there are different responses and different ways in which people are trying to create different educational opportunities for students, especially those coming from disadvantaged backgrounds.”

As 21st century forces shake the foundation of a system that has rarely, if ever, experienced so much flux, many long-held conventions and practices are being challenged.

EDT 190Both culturally and linguistically, classrooms are becoming much more diverse. Many of today’s new students look and think and act very differently from the teachers themselves. They have very different educational and social needs, or they may even fundamentally view society from a completely different perspective.

Even when teachers do possess a similar cultural background, other powerful agents of change, such as technology for example, can still inhibit relevant and meaningful student engagement, especially for those teachers who are struggling to keep up with rapid innovation. Furthermore, still other stressors exist for teachers trying to juggle the ever-changing mandates of standardized performance criteria, many of which often receive criticism for prioritizing quantifiable metrics over individual student needs.

And these are just a few the new realties that very few professional educators were ever prepared to address, but must now, nevertheless, still somehow manage.

For some, this transition may be difficult and uncomfortable. But for others, it marks an exciting departure from an outdated system increasingly burdened by convention, habit, and routine.

“If we think about how school has always been, it is really hard to get away from the notion that it can be anything else,” says Scott Sander, an EHS Department of Teacher Education clinical faculty member. “We should all be trying to push ourselves in response to the changing world. If we are still teaching the way we did 30 years ago, then something is wrong with that.”

Progress, then, is partially about encouraging professional educators to begin adopting an array of critical global perspectives in contemporary classrooms. But it is also about training the next generation of educators to successfully manage the cultural challenges that they too will inevitably face once they enter classrooms of their own.

At Miami University, the College of Education, Health and Society (EHS) is among the institutions striving to helm this paradigm shift, and both Sander and Reyes are highly involved in the effort. 

Recently facilitated through a new Interdisciplinary Teaching and Curriculum Grant provided by the college, their work involves redesigning core curriculums around race, gender, class, ability, sexuality, language, and religion. Their mission is to help both EHS professors, and their preservice teaching students, address the needs of diverse student groups, think critically about the forces that perpetuate inequality, create an environment that builds inclusiveness, develop interdisciplinary learning opportunities, and more

This work is allowing EHS to advance the culturally relevant philosophies, pedagogies, and professional development resources that will help both preservice teachers and their professors understand and manage the complexities of 21st century classrooms.

But in addition to helping teachers acclimate to such a mercurial educational climate, the grant also aligns directly with the EHS vision, which seeks to reframe education by emphasizing holistic and integrated experiences.

This means that another goal is to cross interdisciplinary boundaries by identifying key areas of overlap and converge across multiple EHS departments. And therefore, alongside Reyes and Sander from the Department of Teacher Education (EDT), the project is also supported by EDT faculty member Rachel Radina, as well as Educational Leadership (EDL) faculty Andrew Saultz and Brittany Aronson, and Educational Psychology (EDP) faculty Molly Kelly and Ashley Cartell Johnson.

“We thought about how to expand on this idea of centralizing culturally relevant teaching and social justice into the entire teacher preparation program at Miami,” Reyes says. “It so closely ties to the mission and vision of EHS, because EHS wants this shift to happen, because the shift has already happened nationwide. So it’s about how we respond to that. We are having these critical conversations, looking at our curriculum, and making changes across all our classes.”

So far, these changes are most evident throughout the sweeping transformation of EDT 190, an introductory EHS course designed to help students decide whether or not to pursue a teacher licensure, and what to expect if they do.

In the past, EDT 190 displayed little systematic collaboration between different instructors. This resulted in students having different experiences across different sections of the course. EDT was also more focused on the basic mechanics of teaching, and little attention was paid to the cultural and social realities of education and schooling. Issues of race, class, and gender were tangential.

But that’s all changed dramatically. EDT is now more streamlined and provides students with a knowledge set that can be built upon. Now centralized anchor readings, core activities, and relevant discussions correspond to a consistent and predetermined set of themes, all of which are tightly focused through a critical cultural lens.

Now, from the very onset, EHS preservice teaching students are introduced to the concepts of social justice, how to balance standardized teaching requirements with individual student needs, as well as the realities of teaching diverse students who may look, act, and perceive the world very differently from themselves.

“With EDT 190, preservice teachers are being more empowered to be agents of change,” says Reyes. “But it also involves this notion of being intellectual, and making teachers much more self-reflexive about who they are, how they can be responsive to the needs of students, and how to make classrooms much more meaningful, and enable teachers to build wonderful relationships with students.”

EDT 190 may have opened the door to more systemic and institution-wide changes to come, though the work has really just begun. But for now, at least, the seeds have been firmly planted.

Plans are underway to connect the threads now first introduced in EDT 190 across the rest of the teacher education preparation program. And this will not only be a continuation of similar concepts throughout subsequent EHS courses, it will also involve the professional development of EHS faculty, who will themselves also undergo continuous training on how to develop and teach culturally relevant curriculums. 

This, Sander and Reyes believe, will soon provide a much-needed approach that resonates with preservice teaching students, again and again, across a variety of EHS courses, under the ideological and philosophical guidance of multiple professors, and all throughout their journey toward becoming educators of the future.

“I think about being on the right side of history,” Sander says. “Thirty years from now, when we look back, it’s not going to be less diverse. Society is not going to be less complex. So if we are still training our teachers to fill out lesson plan boxes, that is limited, and it does not prepare students to be creative or adaptive or agile thinkers. It gets you trapped.”