Can blended learning be culturally responsive?

July 11, 2019 | by Kenzie Chin

In today’s classrooms, students are no longer considered “empty vessels.” Educators recognize that they are already full, and have a lot to offer. This is the core assumption embedded within culturally responsive teaching”, which has become a rising priority in schools. In short, the theory of culturally responsive teaching, sometimes called culturally relevant practices (CRP), is a push for educators to value students’ personal experiences, home cultures, and family life as assets to the school community; and adapt curricular materials and instructional methods to the needs of individual students.  

In a blended environment, however, many see a conflict with culturally relevant teaching. Content might be primarily delivered by an online platform, and the platform does not understand students’ home lives, their strengths and weaknesses, or the inherent value they bring to the school community. Moreover, many see the classroom technology component of blended learning as prohibitively expensive and out-of-reach for schools with limited resources and which serve the neediest children. How can blended learning, therefore, square with culturally relevant teaching?

To answer this question, we chatted with the principal of Howard Middle School for Math and Science, Kathryn Procope. (MS)², as it is colloquially called, is a public charter school for grades 6-8 located on the campus of Howard University, a Historically Black College and University in Washington, D.C. Its student population is 95.5% Black and 4.5% Hispanic. Sixty-nine percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. At (MS)², teachers and administrators see culturally responsive practices as integral to the school’s mission of educating all students.  

(MS)² uses a Flex model of blended learning for all grades and in all subject areas. The school sets aside each Monday for a “Teach the Lesson” day, in which teachers deliver face-to-face lessons, similar to a traditional model. For the rest of the week, though, students use resources provided by the Summit Learning platform to reinforce skills from the lesson, with teachers available to assist as needed. When students feel that they have mastered a unit of study, they can request to take the content assessment online, after which they work on projects that use content learned in each unit. 

How to make blended practices culturally responsive

Kenzie Chin: Howard is, in many ways, the birthplace of culturally responsive practices. How does your school use CRP in your blended-learning model?

Kathryn Procope: The first thing that we tackle is the access issue. Often because of the socioeconomic “bucket,” for lack of a better word, that many of our students fall into, access to technology is a challenge. So one of the things that we do as a school is that we send technology home with students. We have some students, particularly our homeless ones, who have WiFi challenges, and we partnered with a company called Kajeet. They provide WiFi units that allow internet access wherever the student needs it, and they can limit access to school-enabled sites.

Also, Summit Learning is a project-based platform, and the projects are editable. So our teachers look at each project and determine, “OK, how does this particular project relate to our students’ lives?” For example, in English class, students were required to write about how they would solve an issue that’s going on in the world today. There was a list of issues the students were allowed to select from. What we found was when students made their selections for their projects, they selected something that was personal to them. One student selected homelessness because she and her family had recently been homeless. Another student selected violence in the community because he had lost his father and his uncle to gun violence. So we assign projects [within Summit] that they can all relate to, that mean something to them. 

Lastly, many of the assignments in the platform are actually already culturally responsive. Summit was birthed in the California area, so many of the students there are coming from Spanish-speaking countries. A lot of the projects in there are about being someone who’s been marginalized. Our kids are able to relate that to their own lives.

KC: How much was thinking about relatability and cultural responsiveness a factor in your choice of Summit or the Flex model?

KP: It was a big part. In the past, we’ve had issues with other curriculums. When you’re doing a math problem about going to the store and buying apples, our kids don’t do that. But when you turn it around and talk about something they actually do use the mathematics for, it connects to them. What I saw in Summit was that the projects were very relatable, or that we could tweak them to make them relatable. 

KC: Do you think that if you had done a different model of blended learning, such as Flipped Classroom or Station Rotation, it would have been as amenable to being culturally responsive?

KP: I think so. I think that making something relatable culturally really just takes time. There are so many resources out there. It’s about taking a moment and knowing who your children are. When you know who your children are, you know what their lives are about. It’s easy to change what you’re teaching or move your curriculum or projects around so that they’re more relatable to students. 

KC: Do you feel like Flex, or blended learning, is as accessible for students of your population as any other students?

KP: In the school, yes. I think the requirements outside of school, no. I think if we didn’t send technology home with our children, they would have difficulty. We’re using iPads, and we use a management software. So we can tell how it’s being used and when it’s being used. 

Communicating with families

KC: Are there additional challenges for families with this school model?

KP: For us, the biggest challenge with parents is getting them away from “What’s the grade?” and toward “What did they learn?” But once they see that the child can actually articulate what they’ve learned, and they see the improvement in standardized test scores, then they say, “OK, that’s fine.”

What we found is that we have to have more family workshop time so that parents understand what it is that their children are doing and how they can access it so they can keep up with it.

One of the nice things about Summit is that it does send parents a text message anytime a student completes a particular focus area, passes a content assessment, or is falling behind in something. Parents get text messages on a daily basis, so even if they don’t know how to log in to Summit, they can be involved in their students’ academic lives. It even gives them exact prompts of how to discuss schoolwork with their children.

Is this model scalable across different school contexts? 

KC: Do you think that a traditional public school would be able to do this Flex model as well as you have?

KP: Sure.

KC: Do you think there would be additional barriers?

KP: I don’t think so. The whole thing is really about mindset. It’s about a teacher mindset, and children feed off us, so if the teacher goes in there thinking “Oh, this is never gonna work,“ and “I hate this,” the kids are going to be the exact same way. It’s about spending time getting the parents involved. It’s about knowing who your children are. And providing the resources to the children that they need.

KC: You’re a  school with 2:1 devices. How do you acquire funding for all the technology?

KP: It comes out of our per-pupil state funding. We get some monetary support from Howard University, we use federal grants. 

It’s interesting. When you manage it well, the technology is really not that expensive. Some schools I know who are doing a similar model use Chromebooks. Chromebooks cost next to nothing. And these days, Apple has recognized that they need to do better as well, and so the iPads that we got are the newer ones, and they’re only $300 [per iPad]. 

Another thing that we found is that from a maintenance perspective, even with the $300, plus Apple Care, we have had less maintenance issues than we have had with anything else.

The biggest issue is that our iPad chargers break all the time. Or sometimes, if a kid can’t find their phone charger, they’ll take it. So we’ve learned to be careful about that.

KC: Why are culturally responsive practices important to you as the principal?

KP: Children, for the most part, don’t like school. And they don’t like it because people are telling them things instead of assuming that they’re bringing knowledge into the building. We’re always filling the glass instead of understanding that the glass is already full. When we know who our students are, we can change what we’re teaching so that it makes sense to them. When students take standardized tests, we believe the reason that a particular demographic doesn’t do well has to do with exposure; it has to do with us understanding what they know and don’t know and then exposing them to those things. 

We have an age of young people who question everything. And they’re technologically savvy. If we don’t change the way we’re teaching them, we’re going to lose them. 

Kenzie Chin is a K-12 education research intern at the Clayton Christensen Institute.

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