Classroom Strategies, Research and Reflections
Part 3 of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

On English Learners and Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

Why the hip-hop mindset applies across the board

In my last post, I wrote about the idea of bringing hip-hop culture to the classroom—staying fresh and evolving to best meet students’ needs, interests, and life experiences. But what does that look like in a classroom full of students who are learning a second language? The answer lies in Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings’ own work on culturally relevant pedagogy. 

“Culturally relevant teachers use students’ cultures as a vehicle for learning,” she writes in her 1995 piece, But That’s Just Good Teaching! The Case for Culturally Relevant Pedagogy

In practice, this can look like a lot of different things. It’s developing word problems in mathematics with specific cultural references that speak to your students’ lived experiences. Or changing strategies to assess student understanding so that all students, no matter their ability, can demonstrate what they know and have learned. Or simply being aware of student customs and culture to understand how they show up in a classroom setting. Sometimes, though, it’s throwing away the whole syllabus to center student culture over Eurocentric ideals about what student success looks like. 

Jack Agüeros, community activist and writer, learned this lesson firsthand as an adjunct professor at Touro College. In the foreword of Song of the Simple Truth: The Complete Poems of Julia de Burgos, Agüeros recounts his experience teaching English as a second language using the poems of Puerto Rican writer and activist Julia de Burgos to better engage his class of mostly Puerto Rican women. De Burgos, whose poems spoke to issues of race, feminism, and anti-fascism, was a cultural icon for Puerto Ricans grappling with their own identities and personal politics.    

In the foreword, Agüeros writes: 

Occasionally I would hear Julia de Burgos’ name, but I didn’t know anything about her nor do I recall ever seeing her again in El Barrio. Years later I was an adjunct professor at Touro College which had a campus in East Harlem at Taino Towers. I was teaching public speaking and English as a Second Language classes to primarily Puerto Rican women. For these women I began translating into Spanish short poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Dickinson, among others. One day I asked if they had ever heard of Julia de Burgos and to my surprise nearly every student had. Moreover, they repeated the “Puerto Rico’s greatest poet” line. I decided to find some poems by Julia de Burgos and translate them into English for my students to recite. Ever since I have been in her custody. 

I offer this example to demonstrate the importance of not only staying fresh (AKA embodying hip hop), but also of creating a culturally relevant classroom. Agüeros’ recollection perfectly and succinctly articulates how a simple change in content can have an enormous impact on students learning English. Here, the adult students, whose identity and sense of self were perhaps already formed within the context of Puerto Rican culture, were learning to navigate a second culture. All Agüeros did was meet them where they were, which offered them an alternate pathway toward academic achievement, cultural competence, and socio-political consciousness. 

With this in mind, I ask you to consider the power of being met halfway in your own learning experiences, academic or otherwise. Wasn’t it easier to learn how to ride a bicycle with training wheels? Or to pick up a dialect (Southern American English vs. Northern American English) when you already knew the foundation of the language spoken?

Think of the impact a small change like the one Agüeros made can have on K-12 students whose identities as scholars and citizens are being molded each time they engage in a new lesson or learning experience. These changes require flexibility in approach and practice–in other words, they require you as educators to employ the same ingenuity and resourcefulness prevalent in hip-hop culture. 

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About the Author: Tara Martinez is the Communications Manager at Student Achievement Partners. Prior to joining the team, Tara honed her content development and project management skills in a variety of marketing and editorial roles. Tara holds a bachelor's degree in English from Stony Brook University.