The Complexities of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Case Study of Two Secondary Mathematics Teachers and Their ESOL Students

By Leonard, Jacqueline; Napp, Carolina et al. | High School Journal, November-December 2009 | Go to article overview

The Complexities of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: A Case Study of Two Secondary Mathematics Teachers and Their ESOL Students


Leonard, Jacqueline, Napp, Carolina, Adeleke, Shade, High School Journal


Culturally relevant pedagogy is not well understood as an instructional strategy in the mathematics classroom. This study reveals the challenges two teachers faced when they implemented a pilot project with ninth and tenth grade ESOL students. The task they envisioned as culturally relevant did not capture their ESOL students' interests; rather, it caused both teachers and students to wrestle with tensions around cultural relevance. The major finding of this study is teachers' beliefs and identities are complicated with CRP. Specifically, it changed two teachers' beliefs about teaching mathematics and their role in the mathematics classroom. It also informed the teacher-researcher about the needs of teachers prior to implementing CRP. Although the task allowed ESOL students to acquire specific knowledge and to develop critical consciousness, it did little to enhance their cultural competence. Understanding the nuances of CRP will help teachers to better operationalize it (Morrison, Robbins, & Rose, 2008).

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Culturally relevant teaching has emerged as a pedagogical technique to "draw meaningfully on the cultures, languages, and experiences that students bring to classrooms to increase engagement and academic achievement for students of color" (Dutro, Kazemi, Balf, & Lin, 2008, p. 271). The hallmarks of culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP), which emerged from Ladson-Billings' (1994) observations of expert teachers of African American students in the field, are academic success, cultural competence, and critical consciousness. However, enactment of CRP in the mathematics classroom is complex and may contradict teachers' beliefs and assumptions about the nature of mathematics, how it should be taught, and the teacher's role and identity as these relate to teaching underserved students.

The purpose of this paper is three-fold: (1) to provide salient examples of what CRP is and is not; (2) to help teachers realize the nuances of implementing CRP; and (3) to help teachers understand how their beliefs about culture, schooling, and the nature of mathematics influences their identity development and practice of CRP. Mathematics is not a cultural and should be not divorced from the everyday experiences of students (Leonard, 2008). However, finding appropriate examples of culturally relevant teaching in practice has been described as "capturing lightning in a bottle" (Ladson-Billings, as cited in Gutstein, Lipman, Hernandez, & de los Reyes, 1997, p. 725). Few mathematics teachers know and understand what CRP is and how it might be enacted in the mathematics classroom (Leonard, 2008; Gutstein et al., 1997).

Ladson-Billings (1995a) defines culturally relevant teaching as "a pedagogy of opposition not unlike critical pedagogy but specifically committed to collective, not merely individual, empowerment" (p. 160). Critical pedagogy and critical race theory stem from the work of Paulo Freire (2006) and Derrick Bell (1987), respectively, who examined how power and position in society are influenced by class and race. Schooling in the U.S. and elsewhere is very much a racialized experience. Race is the "inescapable paradigm through which children locate themselves and others" (Dutro et al., 2008). When it comes to teaching mathematics to children of diverse backgrounds, their social realities should not be ignored (Martin, 2007 & 2009). It is important for teachers to understand the complexity of race, culture, and identity when they engage in CRP. For teachers of black (1) children, then, CRP means developing new classroom norms, behaviors, and performance standards. Moreover, the context for learning and achieving in mathematics should reflect black students' identities as black students (Martin, 2007).

Getting teachers of black children to reconceptualize how they construct their classroom norms requires them to revaluate their beliefs about these students. Teachers' beliefs and views of themselves and their students relative to their places and positions within society influence their identity as well as their instruction (Gonzalez, 2009). …

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