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Teachers Learn About Culturally Responsive Education

Teachers and district staff talk with Dr. Stembridge during a recent professional development session.

A group of 20 of our middle and high school teachers, along with staff from the district, had the opportunity to participate in three days of learning about Culturally Responsive Education, led by Dr. Adeyemi Stembridge, author of the books “Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom, an Equity Framework for Pedagogy.”  

This work is part of the district’s effort to create high-leverage instructional practices for teachers to use in the classroom to support all students. It’s one strategy within our Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS), said Alaina Sivadasan, the district’s Executive Director of Equity. “Culturally Responsive Education is beneficial for all students and bases instructional practices around engagement, relationships, assets, vulnerability, rigor and cultural identity,” Sivadasan said. 

The residency, which was funded through a grant offered by the Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, included two days of learning with Stembridge at the district office; on the third day, the staff members planned a lesson using their new learning and then taught three classes using that new learning. Several staff members from Issaquah High School (I.H.S.) who participated in the residency talked with us about their reflections on the opportunity. 

“The CRE residency with Dr. Stembridge was one of the most impactful trainings I've received as a teacher – in part intellectually/philosophically and in part in the practical realm of curriculum development/pedagogical strategies,” said Rachel Heilman, who teaches social studies at I.H.S. 

“I think two factors explain the impact: the blend of knowledge with a coherent set of actions that are directly applicable to my daily job and the sustained nature of the training,” Heilman explained. “I understand why we'd want (to or) usually receive a one-hour training here and there, but then what we end up are getting scattered ideas that we're supposed to incorporate in the complicated system of our daily work.  Doing the training over three days gave us the opportunity to put things together into a workable whole.” 

She said she’s working to maintain the mindset that Culturally Responsive Education is a philosophy that drives decisions about what to teach, how to teach it and at what level of rigor. While Heilman said that it’s widely applicable, she’s using it explicitly to re-vamp her Civics Course. 

Joseph Nguyen, who teaches Health, Sports Medicine and Future Ready classes at I.H.S., said that the coaching was structured very well.  

“The residency changed my teaching at a foundational level and is influencing every decision I am making in planning and delivery,” Nguyen said. “The key to this training wasn't adding more tasks for teachers to perform in order to become more ‘equity-minded,’ but to fundamentally shift my definition of equity, culture and pedagogy. Every student has so much to offer in class and this training helped me to draw on that by teaching me how to plan, structure and adapt my lessons to be truly student-centered. Incorporating models of high rigor and skill development, while accessing student experience and assets, I believe students can be appropriately challenged to grow into their best selves.” 

Kelsey Early, who teaches Spanish at I.H.S., said that the training with Stembridge was “extremely useful.” 

“He paired scientifically backed theory with easy-to-use tools for building units. Through stories, data and practice, he helped shift my mindset around equitable education. I used to think that equity meant adjusting lessons to each individual student in the class in a way that related to their culture,” Early said. “After the training, I realized equity means setting up lessons in a way that students can connect what they’re learning to something they already know. He gave us specific phrases to listen for from students such as, ‘Oh that’s kind of like…’ If we can get students to make connections, they are naturally using their cultural and personal knowledge.” 

Early said she’ll be using the tools she learned in the residency to plan units moving forward that focus on long-term learning and impact. Stembridge also helps teachers think about how to plan with specific students in mind. “By doing this, you are proactively setting up specific students to succeed. I could go on and on but the use of practical tools mixed with scientifically backed theory was so helpful!” she added. 

“Culturally Responsive Education & Universal Design for Learning are two lenses on learning that are at the heart of how we are working to improve the learning experience for all students and engage learners from all backgrounds,” said Rich Mellish, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning Services. “The whole experience of establishing a mental model – his words describing the way a teacher thinks about teaching to be more culturally responsive – then applying the model into a lesson and reflecting on how the Culturally Responsive approach better engaged diverse learners and deepened learning was a powerful influence on teachers.” 

Our district was one of a handful of surrounding school districts to receive the free professional development for staff from Stembridge, Sivadasan said. District leaders hope to continue our partnership with Dr. Stembridge through additional residencies and/or professional development opportunities in the future.   

Above, teachers and staff members talk with Stembridge during the residency. Below, Nguyen with Stembridge.

Teacher Joseph Nguyen with Dr. Stembridge