Culturally Responsive Teaching

Book Review: Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education

Culturally responsive teaching has been a part of the instructional practice conversation for over two decades, but it seems to have become a particular topic for discussion this year. Perhaps that’s because our year of distance learning has created a sense of unprecedented opportunity to reimagine what education is supposed to be. Or perhaps the events in the summer of 2020, the death of George Floyd and others and the aftermath, remind us that we still have a long way to go toward achieving equity in our society.

The premise of a culturally responsive approach is to use students’ cultural references as a basis for instruction, thereby enabling students to construct new understanding based on what they already know. The most compelling argument in its favor is its effectiveness.  As one of the many music teachers whose voices are represented in Vicki Lind’s and Connie McCoy’s excellent book, Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: from Understanding to Application observes, “it’s just good teaching.”

Engaging children on their own cultural ground, however, raises more complex questions — is it appropriate for teachers to use classroom instruction to advocate for social justice, and, if so, to what extent? What are the ramifications for a teacher, who does not share a student’s heritage, appropriating aspects of that student’s culture for instructional use?

In many schools in many parts of the country, social justice is inextricably linked to the curriculum. But in other teaching environments, the path and the politics are less clear.   We have only to observe the breathless reports, in conservative media, of schools becoming “re-education camps” to know that these efforts to use classrooms to advocate for social change in more overtly activist ways are viewed with mistrust and misunderstanding by some.

This is where Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education; from Understanding to Application is a useful reference. It looks to have been written as a textbook to accompany a college methods course (it even has review questions at the end of each chapter). As such, it provides a concise and accessible, but by no means superficial, overview of the history and the politics of culturally responsive teaching in a way that is free of politics itself. The overall perspective of the book is summarized in the opening line:

“A fundamental premise of teaching is that students are unique in the ways that they learn. It is one of the reasons that designing instruction that incorporates a variety of strategies and approaches in order to meet the needs of diverse learning styles is a fairly common practice amongst teachers (p. 1).”

In the first part of Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education, subtitled “Understanding”, authors Dr. Vicki Lind and Dr. Constance McCoy review the development of culturally responsive teaching, beginning with the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown vs. Board of Education. It was this ruling that resulted in the gradual desegregation of schools and was accompanied by a growing awareness among educators and social scientists that students of color often had different modes of learning and social norms that were not reflected in the curriculum and in teaching practices.

Also discussed are the voices that emerged during the 1970’s and 80’s, including that of Brazilian educator Paolo Friere, whose enormously influential 1970 book Pedagogy of the Oppressed challenged the “banking model” of education in which students were viewed as empty “accounts” into which knowledge was “deposited.” Friere argued instead that teaching needed to focus on the emancipation of students’ minds through the development of critical consciousness (conscientização). The call for teachers to avoid simply extending the culture of the dominant group led to a number of more inclusive pedagogical frameworks, including Gloria Ladson-Billings’ culturally relevant pedagogy.  Friere’s insistence that teaching is a political act that cannot be separated from pedagogy, however, insured that all subsequent discussions of teaching in more culturally responsive ways are inextricably linked to the larger questions of social justice and a teacher’s responsibility to see social justice done.

In music education one of the paradoxes of culturally responsive teaching is that, while we strive to teach music in a way that honors the music and music making practices of students’ cultures in an authentic way, music teachers, particularly in elementary schools, are, by and large, female, white, and middle class. Addressing this disparity, according to Lind and McCoy, begins with teachers engaging in critical self-reflection, with a particular focus on one’s biases.  It is not enough to adapt content.  Teachers must also be prepared to reevaluate, even abandon, their most longstanding and cherished practices. And because the cultural makeup of the classroom changes constantly, that process of self-evaluation must be ongoing — not an undertaking that is easy for teachers who are accustomed to saying, “I got this,” but an essential one.

Section II of Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education seeks to apply the understanding developed in Section I with a series of vignettes describing teaching situations where these principles come into play. There is always a danger that vignettes such as these, fictionalized composites, not real-life examples, will seem contrived and, consequently, less resonant. However, Lind and McCoy do a thoughtful job of illustrating the points they are trying to make by keeping their examples focused on familiar classroom scenarios. And each vignette is supported by the testimonials of actual teachers, suggested strategies for implementation, and, again, discussion questions.

The final chapter offers a vision for a transformed music education system in American schools using cultural responsiveness to make music classrooms “a rich and vibrant reflection of our humanness (p. 131).” To achieve this lovely idea, Lind and McCoy write, we must begin by disrupting the self-perpetuating cycle of traditional music education centered on Eurocentric music ideas, including a conception of musicianship that focuses on the quality of the music being made instead of the quality of the experience of music making. The scope of what is considered repertoire must also expand, not only because utilizing music students already know something about is more likely to interest them, but because the relentless focus on European classical repertoire sends the message, to students who are not able or willing to embrace it, that they are not musical.

As Lind and McCoy point out, these changes must occur at all levels of the music education system, including national teaching organizations and, especially, university music education programs. One-day workshops and other forms of “superficial” exposure to diversity are not enough; training programs of all types need to be redesigned to focus more on instructing teachers and teaching candidates how to teach in culturally responsive ways.  The process of ongoing re-evaluation, that individual teachers must undertake, is one that these programs must also embrace.

In the end, though, it comes down to individual teachers and the choices they make, the questions they ask themselves, and their willingness to offer and receive constructive feedback from colleagues. Those conversations can be challenging at times, particularly when they take place between teachers of different generations, cultural groups, and teaching situations, but they are the conversations we must engage in for our students’ sake. In those discussions, Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education: from Understanding to Application provides a highly recommended point of reference.

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Richard Lawton

Richard Lawton

Richard Lawton is the general music teacher at The Westland School, an independent elementary school in Los Angeles, an adjunct faculty member at California State University, East Bay in Hayward, CA, and the recorder instructor in the Los Angeles County Orff Course. Richard is a past presenter at numerous state and national conferences, a former member of the Orff Echo and current member of the General Music Today editorial boards and the 2018 California Music Educators Association General Music Teacher of the Year.

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