At the District 65 School Board’s meeting on Jan. 28, Jamilla Pitts, Coordinator of Social Studies and the African American Curriculum program, and Stacy Beardsley, Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction, presented a report on the work being done to implement a Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in District 65.

Their report cited data presented in prior achievement reports showing that a smaller percentage of Black and Hispanic students are on track to college readiness than White students, and more are in the bottom quartile than White students.

 “There was a clear need to identify practices, strategies and resources that were perpetuating achievement and opportunity gaps while identifying and accelerating practices that are proven to advance learning and achievement of historically marginalized students, who in District 65 are historically children of color and second language learners,” says the report. 

Dr. Pitts told Board members that she and others looked at work that has been done in the District, and they reviewed articles and books on the subject by nationally known educators.

“Ultimately we landed on the model of Zaretta Hammond, because it specifically speaks to two important aspects of learning, … and it gives us some details in how to implement in practice,” she said.

 “The Zaretta Hammond Model emphasizes sustaining an intellectually and socially safe learning environment that builds students’ intellective capacity while centering a focus on accelerating learning and increasing independence,” the report says. “In short, we must create and maintain a safe space for learning and give students the intellectual tools of empowered learners. This is the model for Culturally Responsive Pedagogy in D65.”

In her book, “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain,” Ms. Hammond says, “Our ultimate goal as culturally responsive teachers is to help students learn how to learn.

 “The chronic achievement gap in most American schools has created an epidemic of dependent learners unprepared to do the higher order thinking, creative problem solving and analytical reading and writing called for in the new Common Core State Standards,” says Ms. Hammond. “Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom’s taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brain power. As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.”

Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley say in their report, “Culturally responsive pedagogy seeks to facilitate critical thinking, communication, collaboration, and creativity for all students while accelerating the learning for students who have been historically and systematically underserved.”

Dr. Beardsley said Ms. Hammond’s model elevates four practice areas: awareness; learning partnerships; information processing; and community of learners and learning environment. Ms. Hammond lists between four and six things under each of the four practice areas, including to:

• “Understand the three levels of culture, and recognize cultural archetypes of individualism and collectivism,

• “Understand how the brain learns,

• “Help students process new content using methods from oral traditions,

• “Take responsibility to reduce students’ social-emotional stress from stereotype threat and microagressions,

• “Help students cultivate a positive mindset and sense of self-efficacy,

• “Provide appropriate challenge in order to stimulate brain growth to increase intellective capacity,

• “Connect new content to culturally relevant examples and metaphors from students’ community and everyday life,

• “Create an environment that is intellectually and socially safe for learning,

• “Build classroom culture and learning around communal (sociocultural) talk and task structures.”

Dr. Beardsley said the ideas the District is working on are “very much present in Ms. Hammond’s framework and connects with and helps lift up that work.” 

“We have done Beyond Diversity [training] and we have done SEED. This is a convergence of all of those efforts that will equip us to better serve students who have historically been marginalized,” said Dr. Pitts.

 Dr. Pitts provided School Board members and administrators with an exercise to illustrate how the model works in practice. They were divided into groups of three or four, and each group was asked to plan an itinerary on how they would spend four and one-half hours at the Museum of Science and Industry. They were provided a single sheet that listed seven possible activities at the museum and were told they should discuss what they needed to consider in developing the itinerary, and that they could only choose one activity that required a fee.

Dr. Pitts said the exercise required the members of each group to work together, and required each member of the group to use cognitive skills to plan the itinerary.

When asked what grade level this exercise was appropriate for, Dr. Pitts said with some modifications, fifth grade, but that it might be more appropriate for the middle-school level.

Dr. Pitts said the exercise did not mention race or culture, and added that culturally responsive instruction may not be “culturally specific. … It’s not about race or ethnicity when you’re talking about culturally responsive pedagogy.”

In a recent article, Ms. Hammond said, “It doesn’t have to mention race or reference culture at all. Instead, what makes a practice culturally responsive is that it mimics students’ own cultural learning tools.” She adds that teachers who have been taught how to use the model “all realized that these practices are helpful for all students, not targeted at minority students.”

Dr. Pitts and Dr. Beardsley’s report summarized steps taken to implement a culturally responsive pedagogy at District 65 in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 school years. At a summer planning retreat, their report says, the District 65 leadership team identified the District’s “five greatest priorities” as equity learning, multi-tiered systems of supports, culturally responsive pedagogy, restorative justice, and school climate – each of which is included in Ms. Hammond’s framework to accelerate student learning through increasing student independence on challenging (standards aligned) learning tasks.

“This allowed the D65 leadership team to shift its lens from working on CRP [Culturally Responsive Pedagogy] as one of the important pieces of our work to CRP being our work,” said the report.

Quoting from Ms. Hammond’s book, the report says, “The problem of the achievement gap won’t be solved by simply trying to motivate students of color to become more engaged learners. We have to focus on two-tiered learning: What are the strategies we can use to help dependent learners do complex thinking, and how do we build our own teaching practice in order to help them. We have to create school environments that welcome their natural ways of learning and shape content so that they see its connection to their lives and funds of knowledge.”

Over the next six months, District 65 will build a longer-term plan for strengthening culturally responsive pedagogy in District 65.

Larry Gavin was a co-founder of the Evanston RoundTable in 1998 and assisted in its conversion to a non-profit in 2021. He has received many journalism awards for his articles on education, housing and...