In this reflection, I use Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014) concept of remixed Culturally Relevant Pedagogy to analyze a classroom in which I worked as a tutor. I argue why it is necessary for social justice educators to design opportunities for students to disrupt oppressive systems, rather than just give them the oppressor’s tools for social mobility.
In the classroom at the end of a hall—the one with stuffy air and no windows—a multi-colored poster hung under a row of fluorescent lights. The phrase “CLOSING THE GAP” stretched across its center. It was both a process and a goal: the reason the middle-school class for “at-risk” students existed, the reason I served as a tutor in it a few days a week. The grade point average and state test score disparities that students in different racial, socio-economic, and native-language groups were earning disproved the notion that equal instruction is “the great equalizer.” My supervisor told me the solution they envisioned was rooted in Ladson-Billing’s (2008) concept of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy, to “expose their students to the very culture that oppresses them” (p. 36) by providing them with extra instructional scaffolding so that they could access it. While it is true that those words were pulled directly from Ladson Billing’s (2008) theory, focusing only on them resulted in the school employing a partial, simplified, and therefore revised notion Culturally Relevant Pedagogy in the classroom. It worked to perpetuate notions of White, middle-class cultural superiority and situate those oppressed by those notions as having deficits, being dependent on learning the ways of the oppressors to access success.
On a September afternoon, I watched students sign contracts that asked them to promise to go to bed at a specific time, to have a dedicated “silent” study room, to eat a “balanced” diet, to spend twenty-minutes working on homework with their parents each night. There was no consideration as to whether these goals were attainable for families that lived in food deserts, parents who worked at night, or students who lived in studio apartments. There was no acknowledgment of the fact that different cultures carry different views about parents’ involvement in homework, and that difference does not mean one opinion is better than the other. This attempted solution operated on the deficit theory that “children of color [are] victims of pathological lifestyles that hind[er] their ability to benefit from schooling” (Ladson-Billings, 2006 A., p.4). However, to throw “success strategies” at them rooted in mainly the ways that White, middle and upper-class families operate due to years of societal privilege is a false generosity (Freire, 2018). Freire notes that unlike true generosity, which works to ensure the hands of the oppressed “need to be extended less and less in supplication,” false generosity is an “attempt to “soften” the power of the oppressor in deference to the weakness of the oppressed”; it perpetuates an “unjust social order” (p. 2). The curriculum did not help students identify and apply their cultural assets. It was a prescription (Freire, 2018), an act of “transforming the consciousness of the prescribed into one that conforms with the prescriber’s consciousness” (p. 3). It did nothing to liberate or humanize the students.
As Ladson-Billings (2006 A.) notes, terming test-score and GPA disparities between students in socially hegemonic and marginalized groups as “achievement gaps” is misleading. It shifts our focus away from the education debt, or “the foregone schooling resources that we could have (should have) been investing in (primarily) low-income kids” (p. 5). When we consider the education debt, we realize that the false ideas of meritocracy (anyone can succeed if they change their ways to succeed) on which deficit-theories operate will not challenge the oppressive social order; they reinforce it. This is why Culturally Relevant Pedagogy is not merely exposing students “to the very culture that oppresses them,” but also helping them use the tools gained through that exposure to “engage that culture to effect meaningful change” (Ladson-Billings, 2008, p. 36). True Culturally Relevant Pedagogy does not ignore the domain of socio-political consciousness; it helps students “take learning beyond the confines of the classroom using school knowledge and skills to identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems” (Ladson-Billings, 2014, p. 75). Culturally Relevant Pedagogy that is socio-politically conscious is humanizing (Freire, 2018) in the sense that it helps students “eject this [internalized] image [of the oppressor] and replace it with autonomy and responsibility,” as “freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift” (p. 3).
The closest thing I have seen to this “remixed” type of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy was during the teacher panel in our Culture, Schools, and Communities course. The math teacher who presented described how she designed her algebra curriculum around larger societal problems or questions that students wanted to solve: for instance, why does college cost so much? How does school funding based on property taxes reproduce social inequities inside the classroom? The students not only used state-standardized algebra skills (what we might call the “tools of the oppressor”) to answer theses personally relevant, essential questions; they also presented their findings to community members, highlighting problems ignored, ideating solutions, and changing minds. In this, they used their tools to start tearing down the system from the inside out. Their teacher empowered them, gave them independence. She showed true generosity.
What I noticed about the math teacher on the panel’s method was that she not only helped students create essential questions related to their lives, but also related directly to the educational debts (Ladson-Billings, 2006) they were facing in school. As schools reproduce larger societal inequities, looking at social phenomena that extend beyond the classroom walls will not only help students see a purpose for their learning, but better understand how the school structure actively works to marginalize them. Jean Anyon’s Radical Possiblities is a great resource for teachers and students in this process because it connects inequities we can see between urban schools that serve more less-wealthy Students of Color and suburban schools that serve more wealthy White students to the structures of capitialism and whiteness that created and continue to create those wealth gaps and segregate students based on their race, which ultimately impacts their schooling experiences.
Freire, P. (2018). Pedagogy of the oppressed. Bloomsbury Publishing USA.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: aka the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74-84.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2006). From the achievement gap to the education debt: Understanding achievement in US schools. Educational researcher, 35(7), 3-12.
Ladson-Billings, G. (2008). Yes, but how do we do it?”: Practicing culturally relevant pedagogy. City kids, city schools: More reports from the front row, 162-177.