This is the first in a series of posts demystifying culturally responsive pedagogy.

This past school year, my colleague and I spent one day a month with a group of BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) support providers at one of our local county offices of education. These support providers were veteran teachers who coach, support and mentor new teachers in their first two years in the classroom, which we all know can be the hardest.

These were seasoned classroom teachers, mostly white and female, who were being charged with helping these new teachers become effective educators, including becoming “culturally responsive. ”

Despite the fact is that the concepts of “culturally responsive pedagogy” and “culturally relevant teaching” have been showing up more explicitly in teaching standards and district directives more and more these days, it was clear that these BTSA support providers didn’t have a common definition of culturally responsive teaching or a shared understanding of what it is.

Instead, the same misconceptions about its purpose and what it looks like in operation kept popping up. Think heroes, holidays, and “equity sticks”.

Since this is the first in a series of posts demystifying culturally responsive pedagogy, I thought it was only fitting that we start by busting up the most common myths.

Here are the top five myths I hear most often.

Myth 1: Culturally responsive teaching is about motivating students of color.

The No. 1 myth seems to reduce the purpose of culturally responsive teaching to being about student engagement or increasing motivation.

This particular myth always kills me. I hear teachers talking they are “doing” culturally responsive teaching because they rap parts of their lectures. YouTube is full of cell phone video kids shot of their teachers trying to rap. Check this one out. OMG. And this one. The production quality of this last one is pretty good; they even use Auto-Tune, but it this culturally responsive teaching?

Teachers act as if rapping and rhyming the same boring information about history, math, or science will help students understand it better. This is akin to talking louder and slower to someone who speaks another language thinking changing your pace and volume will suddenly translate your words.

The other way this myth shows up is when the teacher tries to tie everything to a foreign country tied to students’ racial background as a way to motivate them. For example, new teachers will try to motivate African American kids by trying to tie the content to Africa, sports or famous Black people in strange and awkward ways.

In reality, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings defines culturally responsive (or relevant) teaching is “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

What is important in her definition is the fact that CRP is about the intellectual, social, and emotional foundations of learning.

It isn’t about entertainment or heroes and holidays. It’s not a gimmick.

Myth 2: Being culturally responsive requires a teacher to master the details of every culture represented in his classroom.

Another persistent myth about culturally responsive teaching (and why a lot of teachers say they don’t do it) is that it requires teachers to have in-depth knowledge about each individual student’s culture. I once had a teacher say to me: “I have 19 different cultures represented in my classroom. I can’t do a different lesson plan for each child.” I hear some version of this statement every year.

In reality, culturally responsive teaching doesn’t require that a teacher individualize to that degree. Instead, you can simply begin by looking at your school’s demographics and identifying the largest demographic groups.

Is the school population mostly Latino? Then it stands to reason that understanding more about the intellectual, social, and emotional norms, values, beliefs, and ways of doing within the Latino culture would go a long way in making learning at school feel more congruent with learning at home.

In reality, you may only need to focus on 2 or 3 different cultures, finding where their norms, values, beliefs and ways of doing intersect and overlap. It also means understanding the diversity that exists within a racial or cultural group. For example, it’s a mistake to think all Latinos are from Mexico and therefore share the same culture. A culturally competent teacher learns the nuances within a given group.

Myth 3: Culturally responsive pedagogy is about having a “bag of tricks” to use with particular racial groups.

It never fails that someone asks me for “the list.” It is probably more urban legend than myth that there is some list of culturally responsive teaching strategies to use with children in a specific racial group. Many teachers believe we are hiding the list. It is sought after like the Holy Grail.

In reality, culturally responsive teaching is less about specific strategies and more about knowing the “cultural reference points” in core subject areas that allow you to build a bridge between what students know and understand and the new, unfamiliar content you are teaching. This focuses CRP on helping students interpret and make meaning of what’s being taught so that it becomes a part of their own funds of knowledge.

Myth 4: Culturally responsive teaching is about respecting the “culture of poverty”.

This is a new, merging myth that grows out of Ruby Payne’s popular Framework for Understanding Poverty that a lot of urban educators have bought into. It’s being offered as an explanation for low academic achievement. We even heard Newt Gingrich espouses a version of it during his run at the presidency when he suggested that families in low-income inner city communities of color don’t have a strong work ethic as part of their cultural values and belief system.

The sit-com teacher, Ms. Morello on the TV series, Everybody Hates Chris, exemplified this myth. The show was based on the comedian Chris Rock’s school days. In her attempt to “connect” and be culturally sensitive to Chris, time and time again she simply falls back on the stereotype of Chris living a “culture of poverty”. Check out this Ms. Morello montage for a good laugh.

In reality, poverty is not a “culture.” Let’s get real. No one chooses poverty as a life style. Instead, we know it is one of the socio-political realities of a living in a racialized society. A disproportionate number of people of color live in poverty not because they choose to, but because of the effects of systemic oppression.

Understanding systemic oppression and its effects on educational outcomes is part of what culturally responsive teaching about. Students of color, even in elementary school, are aware of the inequities in society when it comes to being black or brown. A culturally responsive teacher understands that, acknowledges this reality and then uses this information simply as one of many cultural reference points when helping students make meaning of new concepts or develop new skills.

Myth 5: Only teachers of color have the skills to be truly culturally responsive.

I call this the “cop out” myth. Like Myth No. 2, many white teachers use this as an excuse not to develop the knowledge and skill to be culturally responsive in the classroom. They often say they don’t feel they can be legitimate or taken seriously as a culturally competent educator because they are white. This myth also happens among teachers of color whose race and ethnicity are different from their students. Like an African American teacher working with Latino students and families.

In reality, being a culturally competent educator is less about your racial background and more about developing what we call “ a cultural eye,” a way to look at the cultural differences in the classroom and respond to them positively and constructively. It means being self-reflective about your own cultural identity so that you recognize when you are interpreting a child’s actions and reactions through a narrow cultural lens that does not account for different ways of doing, knowing and being based on one’s racial or cultural identity.

Next Tuesday we will look at the four elements of culturally responsive pedagogy as we try to get a handle on what it is.

In the meantime, tell me what other myths and misconceptions about culturally responsive teaching have you heard? What questions about CRP do you have?