Some Thoughts on Beginning CRT Work

The schools I serve are beginning a yearlong journey into Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT).  This is, for some, a journey they didn’t ask to take part in.  As such, it is important that we use the methodology itself to teach how it works.  Because CRT is not a boxed program, or a couple strategies to streamline a unit, it is harder to teach it.  And, as most people are aware, we are living in a time in which some of the socio-economic and racial biases in this country have been opened up and are raw to the touch.  Teaching this approach would have been a difficult process even without the current moment exacerbating things, but here we are and we must take the situation as it is, and not (unfortunately) as we’d prefer it to be.

This sensitivity is the fog that obscures the work that needs to be done.  It’s the emotional baggage we carry from our experiences in the world and the beliefs we've developed as a result.  I’ve heard more than once from people working on CRT methodology with teachers, that the “cultural” part of CRT is the thing that can problematize the work—mainly because that is where the self-questioning around one’s biases occurs.  And the word, culture, is fraught for many.  Just think about the term “multi-cultural,” and how it can be divisive, because for so long it was primarily referencing non-white culture and was used as a way to encourage predominantly white groups to become more diverse in their membership.  “We need to be more multi-cultural," was said more than once over the years.  Perhaps soon, the term, “diverse” will prove problematic eventually as well, since there are people who may describe themselves as diverse as short-hand meaning non-white.

All this is to say that, coming into a program that calls for one to increase their self-awareness as an instructor in regard to one’s own racial and social biases can be a minefield.  I have heard veterans who think that CRT is saying they are teaching wrong, or that they are horrible people.  This is not the goal of CRT, because ALL races/cultures/social groups are going to have biases toward the others regardless of whether they are a minority or majority group.   This often gets overlooked.  I have heard white folks say in response to some of the conversations held around CRT work, that they don’t have a culture because they’re white.  I must admit when it came to questioning my own culture, I was confounded because I couldn’t put my finger on what defines my culture.  Perhaps, that is because to define my culture as white culture is too broad.  Perhaps, what I needed to do was look at the communities I am, or have been a part of.  White folks in North Dakota (where I was born) and white folks in Texas do not experience the same culture.  There are places where they overlap, but they’re not the same.  Consider also that sometimes when African Americans travel to some African nations, they find that they are not treated differently from white Americans.  Rather they are just Americans, who can be looked at with suspicion and distrust regardless of their skin color.  It’s tricky.  It is however, necessary to recognize that culture is important to the process.  While the concept of learning styles has been more or less determined to be incorrect, there is plenty of literature showing how cultural context determines the way we interact and view the world around us—i.e. it shapes the way in which we take in and interpret data.

The other issue, which I touched on is by no means insignificant.  Asking teachers to question their practice can take you into some very personal and emotional places.  This is obviously something a CRT book group or professional development session should be careful with.  For one, there are teachers who have had great successes, yet haven’t engaged in what would be considered CRT.  For them, their prior success should be celebrated; however, the goal is to help them push over the hump and close those gaps that often get dismissed as unalterable.  So instead of re-teaching them the “right way” the idea is to give them the tools to increase the likelihood they will replicate their successes across all their student groups—thus closing gaps.  Yes, there may need to be some practices that are abandoned, but in general, those successful teachers have figured out how to teach to one or more cultures already.  Look at the process scientifically.  There are transferrable approaches that will function for other groups, so it’s not reinventing the wheel.  The hard part is getting over the emotional aspects, the gut reactions and emotional triggers we all experience.  By applying the tenets of CRT to the process of learning it, perhaps it will allow for that safe space instructors need to examine their own biases and examine thoughtfully the immediate responses that can materialize unexpectedly while doing such deep reflective work on one’s practice.  Why wouldn’t we, when working with adult learners, model the methods we hope to integrate into our practice with the learners who come into the classroom each day?