Project-Based Learning (PBL)

PBL and Culturally Responsive Instruction

June 12, 2013
Photo credit: Rob Wood
Blogger Rob Wood's classroom.

Cultural responsiveness in the classroom can often be written off as something patched by a quick fix, especially in an English classroom where swapping a traditional (read: Dead White Guy) text with something written by a person from an underrepresented background can take the place of more significant cultural response. Don't get me wrong, I think that putting Zora Neale Hurston, Chang Rae Lee, and Junot Diaz into "the cannon" is an important social step for our discipline, but doing this at the expense of also having substantive structural changes in the classroom is a temptation that one has to be careful of embracing.

As my colleagues at Sammamish High School and I have struggled with development and implementation of a problem-based learning (PBL) curriculum across disciplines, a great number of the discussions have involved a philosophical look at the place of seven key elements within our instructional framework. Through my work with two colleagues in developing new curriculum for tenth grade English, one important philosophical point we confronted was what it meant to include culturally responsive pedagogy in our teaching. Through a focused exercise in collegial collaboration (another of these key elements discussed by Jayesh Rao), we developed an understanding of this concept that divided into different facets: Inclusive Cultural Response and Reactive Cultural Response.

What follows is a discussion of my experiences in both developing curriculum for PBL and teaching an eleventh grade AP English language course while adjusting the classroom to address cultural response.

Inclusive Cultural Response

Inclusive Cultural Response is the term we decided to use for those cultural responses that were addressed through additions and inclusions of texts and changes in units of study. This practice works best as a response to gaps in cultural learning and representation that happen when curriculum is perceived to have too narrow a focus on a white, middle-to-upper-class, male-dominated view of the world. In this sense, cultural response seems like an altogether simple proposition:

  1. Look at the cultural make-up of your course's content (socioeconomics, race, religion, gender, political leanings, etc.).
  2. Create a reading list that addresses gaps and deficiencies in representation by including new authors.
  3. Celebrate the wonder of cultural response!

In reality, however, this kind of cultural response is only a portion of how significant cultural response functions in practice.

As we struggled to define what cultural response might mean beyond shuffling book titles around, many questions emerged for our team. A sampling from our communal notes on this issue gives a glimpse of our thinking:

  • Is being culturally responsive based in what we teach or how we teach it?
  • How do we bring the idea of culture into the assessments we give (a question also covered in Mark Wilbert's post about authentic assessment)?
  • How will different cultural precepts affect how we assess the students?
  • How can we respond to those elements of school and social culture that work against student success?

Beyond attempting to address historical omissions, Inclusive Cultural Response also needs to be an active force that changes with the needs of a given group. This can mean responding to the culture of the nation, the culture of the community where the school is situated, or the culture of the classroom. With this in mind, cultural response balloons out into a much larger consideration for the classroom, one that will shift and change from year to year as demographics, students and our political landscape ebb and flow. In practice, this aspect forces us to look not only at what books we assign and what questions we ask, but also at the norms, activities and expectations we set up so that our classroom's structure responds to the culture of our students.

Reactive Cultural Response

This additional type of cultural response we have called Reactive Cultural Response, and it has been a much trickier animal. The process is far more dynamic and dependent upon a classroom's day-to-day operations, and upon the personalities and challenges that crop up in that context throughout the year. Reactive Cultural Response is the ability to change the structure, activities and focus of a class within the school year as you see the personality of a given group of kids emerge.

My experience with this aspect of cultural response came about while I thought I was doing an excellent job with this whole concept. I was working with juniors in my AP language course on a unit about argumentation where we considered the following central question: should the U.S. use "enhanced interrogation techniques" as a means of preserving individual liberties? The students were getting to read a wide variety of perspectives from both the left and right, civil liberties groups, the army field manual, and other primary sources about this topic. The final activity was a Structured Academic Controversy (SAC) (based on the work of Johnson and Johnson) where students assumed roles as different interest groups and then debated the merits of this issue, using the skills and rhetorical strategies we had learned about along the way.

What could be better? We were using contemporary materials; various national and international perspectives were represented; kids discussed and debated ideas that they had heard about in the news. I thought it a smashing success. However, I was using this technique with teenagers and, as it inevitably happens in this kind of exchange, things began to be about who was winning and who was losing. Debate forced them into polarized positions, and the focus of my previously collegial and congenial eleventh graders turned into a competition over who would win. In looking toward the first goal of Inclusive Cultural Response, I had altered the culture of my classroom itself, and I was not especially proud of the acrimonious results. But what to do?

I decided that for the final activity of our next unit on racism and racial privilege (another place where I felt I'd thought through the first piece of Inclusive Cultural Response), something had to be done to change the nature of our interactions with one another. I wanted to model for my students a healthier and collaborative manner of argumentation. It felt unrealistic and unhealthy to set up an example where debate simply meant bludgeoning your opponent and entrenching yourself even more deeply in your position. If I had any hope that they would leave my class with a positive attitude for conflict resolution, I needed to bring in a healthier model. The culture of my class and of my students' learning was in need of a Reactive Cultural Response.

Resolution: Interest-Based Negotiation

PBL at my school centers around creating challenges, projects and problems that are authentic to the students and which engage them in working together to find solutions. If I was not careful in how I taught them to come together for this, I would be setting them up for an extremely unproductive view of working together with people who didn't share their viewpoint. Enter Interest-Based Negotiation.

Concurrent with my efforts to turn kids away from viewing discussion as an exercise in point-scoring, I was involved with contract negotiation between our teachers' association and the school district. This is where I was trained in and began to practice Interest-Based Negotiation. To summarize the process, while traditional positional negotiation begins from a place where each side first establishes what they want and then goes back and forth in argument, Interest-Based Negotiations create a single team out of the interested parties who establish the different perspectives, backgrounds, interests and options for resolution. In short, it centers around people of different positions working together instead of against each other. And it was just what my students needed.

As we approached the final assessment for this unit on racism and racial privilege, I again posed a central question for students to consider: to what degree, if any, should colleges and universities in Washington State use affirmative action programs in their admissions decisions? Again, I assigned different interest groups and roles to the students, and they were once again asked to prepare a case using various Supreme Court decisions, articles about racial bias, testimonies from documentary films, and assorted essays. But this time, I required them to then use the Interest-Based Negotiation strategy to come up with a recommendation and resolution to this question. The end result of this debate was extremely different, but I'll let the students speak for themselves from the reflections I asked the class to write after our second SAC.

To me, their words say something positive about the success of this exercise on our classroom's culture.

The Challenge Continues

Thank you for reading along on our journey of transition to PBL at Sammamish. As we continue to engage in the challenge of increasing the authenticity of our learning environment through PBL, we look forward to sharing our story here. For more information about Sammamish High School, we invite you to visit our website.

Editor's Note: Visit "Case Study: Reinventing a Public High School with Problem-Based Learning" to stay updated on Edutopia's coverage of Sammamish High School.

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Filed Under

  • Project-Based Learning (PBL)
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Curriculum Planning
  • Literacy
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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