When Cambridge Public Schools, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, decided three years ago to prioritize culturally responsive teaching, one of its longstanding institutions, the Amigos School, suddenly found itself ahead of the curve.
The small K–8 dual-language immersion public school has practiced culturally responsive teaching for years. It’s a philosophy that informs everything from its pedagogy to the school’s philosophy about Spanish-English immersion. “There are no blank slates walking into the classroom,” says Amigos’s principal, Sarah Bartels-Marrero. “Culturally responsive teaching is capitalizing on all that students bring with them from their personal lives and their home lives. And it’s really knowing that student, knowing where he or she is from, and using that to craft the most meaningful and rigorous learning opportunities.”
Culturally responsive teaching gets a lot of air time, especially lately as the nation grapples with its history of racial injustice, but it’s frequently misunderstood and oversimplified.
“Google ‘culturally responsive teaching’ and you can find a dozen videos of well-meaning teachers leading some call-and-response chant about exponents, or rapping about the Boston Tea Party while students sit back and giggle,” writes veteran educator Zaretta Hammond, author of the influential 2015 book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. “We usually talk about culturally responsive teaching only as an engagement strategy designed to motivate at-risk students to take learning seriously. Or we try to find a race-based connection to the content to make it ‘relevant’ to minority students.”
Instead, she contends, it’s about engaging the brain’s memory systems and information processing structures so we’re creating lessons that lean into students’ cultural traditions and values, allowing them to learn in ways that are uniquely suited to them—for example, in ways that are “oral and active,” Hammond suggests.
Schools That Work
- In 2019, students outperformed state averages on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests by approximately 20 percentage points each in science, math, and English language arts.
- Finalist for School of the Year in 2019, an award given by the Spanish Embassy in Washington D.C. for schools that show exemplary integration of content and language.
- The 2018 eighth-grade graduating class earned the Seal of Biliteracy, which celebrates dual-language proficiency.
At the Amigos School, where 45 percent of students are Hispanic, teaching in ways that are both oral and active is a fundamental part of the instructional philosophy. Kids are immersed in rich storytelling and playacting starting in kindergarten, including relating and acting out their own personal stories, with classmates taking key roles. Their Spanish and English literacy skills are boosted by pairing kids in the early grades with older students each month for a reading buddies program where the emphasis is on developing positive relationships and building empathy. Instead of being taught conversational language skills, students are immersed in rigorous academics and are expected to become fully biliterate—reading, writing, speaking, and even thinking at the same high proficiency level in both English and Spanish.
And to keep teachers constantly sharpening their skills and lessons, instructional coaches work with them in the classroom and provide ongoing professional development sessions because, says Bartels-Marrero, mastering culturally responsive teaching is hard. “It isn’t something where you say, ‘I went to a professional development session, I’m all set.’ It’s something you have to dedicate a lot of time to, throughout your career, to make sure you’re doing the best for students.”
The Benefits of Dual-Language Immersion
To meet the school’s goal of preparing graduates who are comfortably bilingual, biliterate, and multicultural, educators at Amigos front-load Spanish-language instruction in the early grades where only 20 percent of instruction happens in English. As kids mature, the model changes so that instructional time is split evenly between the two languages.
That’s because the objective is to teach kids much more than basic language skills. “Authentic biliteracy means that you navigate the language as a literate human being, not that you know how to go to a restaurant and order food,” says Caroline Butler-Rahman, Spanish language arts teacher for sixth and seventh grades. “It means that students feel confident reading, writing, communicating, and expressing themselves in both languages.”
Developing Literacy Through Reading Buddies
The school’s reading buddies program brings together older students to read with younger students, giving young students an opportunity to build relationships and literacy skills. In the upper grades, the program provides kids the opportunity to show academic competence, practice empathy, and experience being role models. Reading buddies meet monthly and rotate languages each session so that they’re spending equal time reading in both. “It’s very meaningful for a 13-, 14-year-old to come and read a story to a 7-year-old, and share their experience being in the same school and learning how to read in two languages,” says Bartels-Marrero.
Older students receive focused prep prior to each session so they’re ready with vocabulary strategies for their young charges, such as how to identify context clues, use illustrations to determine meaning, or find English and Spanish cognates to build understanding. “We talk a lot about not only skills, but strategies for students,” says Butler-Rhaman. “If you have a struggling reader as a reading buddy, there is a strategy called echo reading, where you read and then you ask them to repeat it, and you can use your finger to follow the letters and the words. If you have a buddy at a more developed reading level, then you can take turns, pause for inference, focus on vocabulary.”
Building Literacy Skills With Dramatic Play
In the early years, when educators at Amigos are heavily focused on helping kids develop and strengthen oral language skills, the school has students practice storytelling and acting. “We first ask the child to tell us a story—it could be a personal story of theirs, or something they made up,” says kindergarten teacher Oscar Carrillo. Teachers take notes and then retell the story aloud as the class acts out the different parts together. “We’re working on language, but at the same time, we’re working with elements of a story,” he notes. In the process, kids hone their storytelling abilities, receive plenty of oral language practice in both English and Spanish, and are exposed to diverse cultural viewpoints and value systems.
Helping Teachers Grow Through Instructional Coaching
Instructional coaches, says Bartels-Marrero, are a critical part of the Amigos teaching practice. “My personal philosophy as an educator is that we never stop learning and growing. Coaches help with that, they model that. … They often work like honeybees to share some of the best ideas throughout the building, and that’s really impactful for teachers, and ultimately for students.” And yet she recognizes that not all schools get to benefit from this type of support.
“I feel enormously fortunate as a principal to have instructional coaches in my building. I know that in many districts they are often cut when it comes to budget time. And I have fought long and hard to maintain our coaches because they really move our teachers forward in their development as educators,” she says. At Amigos, instructional coaches offer on-site professional development courses; they pop into classrooms to co-teach and coach; they work individually with teachers, focusing on curriculum, teaching strategies, and interventions and supports for specific students.