Culturally Relevant Practice: What This Means for a K-8 School in Colorado Striving to Make Learning Meaningful

By Carolyn Gery, Ed.D., Principal, Scholars to Leaders Academy

(This was first posted to the Latino School Leaders blog, an NCLR Education project)

MLK_Memorial_LaitnoSchoolLeadersHe tossed my renewal application across the table and stared at me, with a pointed look, rubbed his head and spat, “How can you state in this that your kids can think critically.” What could I say? I had to sit quietly, knowing what I know, and knowing it was neither the time nor place for a heated debate.

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He is a board member of our authorizer and the power dynamic is clear. I was told one metric alone counted as the primary measurement of the quality of our school – our standardized test scores. I work between the rock and the hard place of using the once-a-year test scores to guide instructional practice in a way that results in meaningful learning for our students.

When I look to the improvement plan our authorizer created to outline strategic practice at the district level, I am confronted by their admission of a growing English Language Learner (ELL) demographic among the 21 schools within their portfolio. The district notes an academic achievement gap between ELL students and their non-ELL peers. Yet their analysis of this data is confounding. For example, their improvement plan states,

“When controlling for language proficiency, being Hispanic is a strong predictor of student Colorado Student Assessment Program (CSAP, the state standardized test) within the portfolio. When Hispanic students are removed from English-language Learner calculations, ELL students significantly surpass non-ELL students in performance, suggesting ethnicity is moderating the relationship between English –language Learners and CSAP proficiency.”

How does one approach this as a school leader serving a student population that is 67% Latino? At our school, we address the mission of closing the achievement gap through multiple dimensions and use culturally relevant pedagogy as a foundation in our work. We are an Expeditionary Learning school and embed literacy throughout our day.


This path is one guided by the long view. It is our fundamental belief that our children, who primarily come from poverty, have the same right to experience learning as a child attending a prestigious private school. With that said, we are exhaustive in ensuring students have access to high quality food, literature, and connected learning experiences. In the future, they will stand shoulder-to-shoulder at their college with others who went to orchestra camp, traveled abroad, and read the classics. Yet, while our students will also be able to reference classic literature, they will have the capacity to hold a literary argument drawing upon the thinking of Langston Hughes and Isabel Allende. They will know they have a voice and will find support from literary masters extending beyond the world of the “canonized authors of western culture.”

Culturally relevant pedagogy is dependent upon building critical literacy skills. Literacy is built through engaging students in text that speak to them, absolutely begging them to love them back. Building literacy requires intentionality in creating an inclusive culture of readers which translates to classroom libraries stocked with rich and relevant selections, time in the day to sit with a book, and guidance for students to find their “just right book.”

“Declines in reading for pleasure are extremely serious because students who enjoy reading and read a great deal improve their reading skills at much faster rates than do students who read very little for pleasure (Allington, 2001; Anderson, 1996; Cipelewski & Stanovich, 1992; Krashen, 1993).”

Our students also engage in rich, intensive learning expeditions integrating social studies and science. Through these studies, context is built and connections are created between text and self. Students navigate between fieldwork and multiple genres related to an in-depth study. Academic vocabulary then becomes embedded as part of their own lived experience.

I know with all certainty — our children are growing, and I have evidence to support this thinking! Our students are thinkers, writers, and politicians. They have authored books, drafted letters to the city council regarding renewable energy, and have garnered awards for their artwork. When research is conducted, it is guided by an expert, a librarian at the downtown library or in the archives in Denver. They conduct intelligent conversations with senators and are often lauded by our community as articulate and well-versed.

How can I say our children think critically? Through their work, in the pride they take in the craft of their writing and how they demonstrate and provide evidence of their thinking. Does this translate to their test scores? Not always, the reality for our children at our school is that their outside lives do not march to the beat of the standardized test calendar. On any given day, including the test day, a child may wonder where they will put their head down that night, or may be fearful for the impending spring break because of food insecurity. Yet, every day our students amaze me with their fortitude in the face of great obstacles, their grace in navigating the inequities existing in this nation, and the world view they hold at such a young age.

An example of some of my students’ poetry:

Bad Day Every Day
Fernanda Tello Martinez (3rd grade)

Today I saw a bright red tractor
Saying adios mi casa
My dream
Hope lost forever
Can’t cry tears
Smelling fresh, burnt grass
Covering my mouth from the smell of the bug repellant
Saying, “No me gusta!”
It tastes sad
Nothing like mi casa
Tastes BAD
Saying to the sky
“Virgen de Guadalupe, ayudame!”
Hard work for a spirit and a body
Voy a ayudar a otros ye eso es una promesa!

Great Books on Culturally Relevant Practices:

  • Right to Read: An Open Letter to Teachers ~ Harry Hood
  • The Hardest Questions Aren’t on the Test: Lessons from an Innovative Urban School ~ Linda F. Nathan
  • Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom ~ Lisa Delpit
  • “Multiplication is for White People” Raising Expectations for Other People’s Children ~ Lisa Delpit
  • The Skin That We Speak: Thoughts on Language and Culture in the Classroom Lisa Delpit and Joanne Kilgour Dowdy
  • A framework for Understanding Poverty ~ Ruby K. Payne, Ph.D.
  • Educating Everybody’s Children: Diverse Teaching Strategies for Diverse Learners ~ Robert W. Cole
  • The 9 Rights of Every Writer: A Guide for Teachers ~ Vicki Spandel
  • “Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys” Literacy in the Lives of Young Men ~ Michael W. Smith & Jeffrey D. Wilhelm

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