5 ways to align blended learning with culturally responsive teaching practices

July 25, 2019 | by Kenzie Chin

This is the second piece on this topic. For part one, click here.  

“We make sure we know who our students are.” Kathryn Procope, Principal of Howard University Middle School for Math and Science (MS)², is committed to meeting each family whose child enrolls in her school. “We find out about their concerns, and what they like and dislike [about school]. And all of that knowledge is being used to influence what’s being taught.” 

Culturally responsive teaching practices, based on the idea that students carry with them a treasure trove of culture and knowledge that schools should use to construct students’ educational experiences, has become essential to educating students of all backgrounds. Cultural responsiveness starts with simply knowing your students and community well.

In a recent Blended Learning Universe (BLU) interview with Procope, she discussed how blended learning and culturally responsive teaching practices can support one another. Using insights from schools in the BLU Directory, we created a five-step guide for how to use culturally responsive practices when implementing blended learning in school.

  1. Pick the model best suited for your students

When choosing the model of blended learning for your school, it is important to be familiar with all the options out there. Why are you choosing blended learning? What goals will it help achieve? We suggest reading Blended for an in-depth understanding of each model and its purpose. Or check out our taxonomy.

When thinking about each model, make sure to think specifically about your own students in keeping with culturally relevant teaching. Ask yourself, “How will my students learn best?” “What might be engaging for them?” “What is my goal for them?” For example, if your students seem to have short attention spans and would benefit from structured support from teachers, a model such as Station Rotation might be best for you. If your goal is to develop independence among students through personalized learning, a Flex model might be ideal.

Principal Daniel Crisipino and a team of teachers at John Barry Elementary School encourage deep investigation of each of the models, which they spent years doing before implementing their version of Station Rotation. “Go visit schools around you who are doing blended learning and see what they do. See what kinds of problems they’re having and see what they’re doing well. Do your research.” To find schools serving students in similar communities near you or like you who are implementing various blended-learning models, check out the BLU Directory.

  1. Investigate various content for relatability 

All educational softwares are different. They’re designed by people, after all, and may carry with them implicit biases. When choosing a learning platform, it will be important to make the following considerations.

Consider how your students will relate to the material on the platform. Does the material speak to your population of students? Are there examples with students from diverse ethnic, racial, religious, and language backgrounds? 

Consider age appropriateness. Rebecca Hartmann, teacher and teacher leader at Nativity of Mary School in Bloomington, MN, warns, “Some programs claim to be for grades K-5, but then you realize they’re these babyish monsters that don’t grow with the children. Fourth- and fifth-graders will want nothing to do with that.”

Consider if the material is editable. If there are voices or representations missing in the content of the software you like, can it be changed? Can you take out and add in lessons, videos, or assignments? Within the Summit Platform, for example, teachers can modify students’ assignments according to what is relatable for their students. Teachers at (MS)² added Sharon Flake’s The Skin I’m In to their Summit curriculum so that students could see African American middle schoolers struggling with self-confidence reflected in their assignments. 

Finally, consider language access. If your school is linguistically diverse, take into account the languages that might be advantageous to have in the platform. Some programs such as Moodle and Canvas have language-learning integrated as part of the app. Other programs, such as English Launchpad, are specifically designed for English Language Learners, and can provide translation and grammar support for students. 

  1. Consider access to technology

Being culturally responsive requires realistic thinking about what challenges students might face to access their education. Blended learning requires access to technology. What will this look like for your students? Will the technology be necessary only at school, or at home as well? What kind of technology will they need? 

Some schools using blended learning have required that students have access to some type of technology at home, such as a computer or iPad. Some schools, knowing that resources are limited for students, have decided to supply technology for students at home, as well as in school. Procope’s school has turned to this two-to-one solution. Furthermore, her school uses a service called Kajeet to provide WiFi access to homeless students who may not have access otherwise. 

Having this technology is often expensive, which may be prohibitive for schools with limited funding. Think about whether your school is willing to spend extra for a more expensive technology that might need less maintenance, or if it prefers to keep costs low initially and spend the time and money required for maintenance later on? Consider also how your school could qualify for state and federal grant funding.

Lastly, consider how you will keep maintenance costs to a minimum. Schools like (MS)² have taken precautionary measures to protect their technology. Their iPads are protected through rugged Gorilla cases, and students use smart keyboards, whose keys can’t be picked off by fidgety kids. Consider how you might teach your students, even young ones, routines and procedures for taking care of their devices. Teachers at John Barry Elementary School have taught students, even Kindergarteners, how careful they need to be when they handle their Chromebooks and how to charge them at the end of every day. 

  1. Communicate with the school community

An essential part of culturally responsive teaching practices is maintaining home-to-school connections. Throughout the implementation process of a blended model, parents should remain active in their child’s education. Principal Norma Osuna of Ysleta Elementary School in El Paso, makes sure that parents feel included in the transition into blended learning and that parents are able to see the benefits of blended learning with their own eyes. “During family engagement night, we actually hand the parents a folder with data showing their child’s strengths and areas for improvement [from the LMS]. We give them strategies for helping their students because we want them to feel empowered and engaged. We know that the way to keep parents engaged in their child’s education is to give them the tools they need to be a part of their child’s learning.”

Teachers at John Barry Elementary recount that when their blended-learning initiative started, parents thought that students would be staring at a screen all day in school, and they were concerned. Showing parents that technology can be a force for good may take significant educational efforts and a major mindset shift for parents. To help reveal the potential benefits of the technology involved in blended learning, plan educational events for parents that help them to understand how their child will experience the technology. If necessary, provide materials for parents in multiple languages. Explain to them the benefits of personalized and competency-based education, and help them to realize that school is not the same as it was for them. Helping parents to understand the new model will help them to stay involved in the school community and in their children’s education.

When serving parents from diverse backgrounds, it is also important to listen to their concerns and consider what barriers might be difficult for them to overcome. Is language an issue? Are they concerned their child will fall behind? Listen carefully and explore possible solutions to those barriers. 

  1. Be patient

Lastly, be patient. Creating change is always difficult, and there may be issues along the way. The typical challenges in blended-learning implementation, such as students not understanding their responsibilities, parents being misinformed, and technology not performing as it should, might be exacerbated when working with a culturally responsive lens. But using culturally responsive teaching practices, Procope says, is crucial. “Children need to know that you know them and you care about them. When they recognize that you care, they’re going to do whatever they have to do to do well in the classroom.” 

For blended-learning design support, check out our design guide. For more resources on culturally responsive teaching, visit here.

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