The Next Big Thing in Culturally Responsive Teaching

arts education artsed creativity culturally responsive teaching liberatory ed loveledlearning transformativeteaching Dec 03, 2021

It’s not a new idea at all. It’s a very ancient idea, and one that has clung to the sidelines of our educational system for way too long. It’s been waiting ever so patiently for recognition, acknowledgment, and a ready audience. It’s been dancing in the background with poise and conviction, making marks on the walls, finding cyphers in classrooms that employ hip hop pedagogy, taking on lyrics and rhymes in the occasional assessments. The next big thing in Culturally Responsive Teaching is…the Cultural and Contemporary Arts! 

Adored by millions but ignored entirely as a viable partner in the development of learners, the arts proudly stand hand in hand with culturally responsive teaching as the pulse for sustaining practice and pedagogy in our schools. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning Through the Arts (CRTLA) is defined as utilizing the knowledge, methods, forms, and purposes that the arts and culture play in building cognitive capacity for independent learning and collective wisdom. As teachers and educators, we can support the development of culturally responsive teaching and learning by prioritizing the role of the arts, which effectively build cognitive capacity. 

Sustaining practice and pedagogy in CRTLA supports our development as teachers who aspire to design lessons that love our students. It is the development of meaningful units of instruction that center student inquiry and reckon with systems and structures of racialized and socialized harm while providing students the opportunity to think creatively and expansively to reach academic goals.

Making the connections between culture, the arts, and learning will dramatically shift how you teach. It did for me, and it did for the many teachers I’ve worked with over time. 

A Mind for the Arts

The brain is poised to learn through the arts, because we as humans have always been artists. Do you know the number one way our brain likes to learn? Through story! What else? All of the visual and performing arts...that means theater, movement, dance, music, clay, paint, and the myriad expressions that the visual and performing arts take. 

Introduction to the Contemporary Artist

I did not understand the whole world of contemporary arts when I started learning about arts integration. The concept was utterly foreign to me. Having taken an art history class in college, I assumed that modern art was contemporary art. I lumped Jackson Pollock, Joan Miro, Pablo Picasso, and others into contemporary art. Finally, a friend who was an art teacher explained to me the term “contemporary artist.” It was like tasting ice cream for the first time. He explained that a contemporary artist is observing the world around them and making select choices to problem solve or draw attention to an issue through their art. I was introduced to Mark Dion, Do Ho Suh, Latoya Ruby Frazier, and many others who I was utterly transfixed by. So began my artistic research process of learning about the artists around me, the artists at large (like Ai Wei Wei), and making the profound connections between culture, teaching, thinking, and the arts. 

No Small Thing

Transforming practice is no small thing. With endless demands on educators to meet the learning needs of children, trying to implement new concepts can often lead to the tipping point of ostentatious “screw it all” behavior and thinking. 

During times of survival (which is all too real in this current climate), what teachers want most is a strategy that can be applied the next day. While CRTLA contains strategy, techniques and practices with direct classroom applications, it also requires an in-depth study to leap from novice pedagogy to internalized pedagogy. It means letting go of patterns of teaching that many of us were trained well to lead. It requires persistence, and it requires some grace.  

Ancient History Can Stir Your Soul

In 2017, I sat as a learner in Mexico, listening to a lecture by cultural anthropologist Alberto Vallejo Reyna. He wanted us to understand the historical connections of ancient Mayan cosmology with central issues of contemporary life. The cornerstone of the lecture, the point where I started crying profusely, was when Alberto explained the belief system of nowales (spelled as Alberto has spelled it). Nowales are the part of our human experience, an entity of sorts, that provides us with a larger sense of self, connection with each other, and the cosmos. He explained that everyone must connect with their nowales, the part that understands their purpose and participation on the planet. This connection is also defined as art. To find one's nowales is to find and be guided by your inner artist. And the inner artist is the development of your connection and role in the vast universe. This internal knowledge of the self expands effortlessly to the external world. 

Alberto’s words meant a lot to me. I sat with a sense of awe, learning how humans have always been invested in connecting to the world through art. It was an affirmation that the ideas I’ve chosen to lead for in education were necessary, valid, and critically needed.  

It is for this reason that all societies have battled with the incorrigible disturber of the peace — the artist. -James Baldwin

The good news is

The shift to Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning through the Arts is where we can support our students to grow their minds and exercise and develop artistic thinking habits. Creative mindsets allow learners to meet the world with layers of creative thought and action.  

The shift to culturally responsive teaching and learning through the arts is also how we interrupt unconscious teaching practice. The result of ongoing racialized caste structures found in our US school systems are patterns of practices that have been in place for so long they seem like the natural order of things (Wilkerson). Inequitable school funding has left our students with unequal opportunities for how they learn, what they learn, and the quality of teaching they receive.  

The good news is many teachers are on board with making their lessons and curriculum anti-racist, and are learning to be liberatory/emancipatory educators. The arts play a critical role in liberation and must be placed as a central component of liberatory pedagogy. The arts play a crucial role in addressing shared history and achieving outcomes of justice and belonging. When a mind can develop core qualities of artistic thinking, it has the freedom and ability to think (to evoke creativity) to address complex text, issues, ideas and co-create solutions that arise in the world around them. 


Mariah Rankine-Landers, November 12, 2021