Preparing Special Educators to Work with Diverse Student Populations: Culturally Responsive Teaching and Its Alignment with the Teaching of Social Studies

Article excerpt


With today's rapidly changing student demographics, which reflect those of our U.S. society, classroom demographics are, accordingly, reflecting more diverse student populations. As a result, respectively, special educators are working with more racially and ethnically diverse student populations who possess a wide range of abilities in their classrooms. In order to meet the needs of these diverse students, special educators need to understand the importance of utilizing culturally and linguistically appropriate and relevant practices. However, on the contrary, teacher preparation programs remain bastions of traditional, Eurocentric models of education, and therefore, special educators may be ill-equipped to provide culturally responsive curriculum and instruction for students who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) and have disabilities. Further, Fuller and Stone contend that classroom teachers regularly face the challenge of dealing with "the instructional range within which the majority of students perform in any one classroom," and they contend that "cultural, socioeconomic, academic, and linguistic diversity has become the norm." (1) With this increasing diversity in mind, special educators need to examine ways to embrace culturally responsive teaching (CRT) methods that meet the needs of diverse students. One subject that may significantly benefit from the impact of CRT is the subject of social studies which is closely aligned with its tenets.

Cultural Incongruities

The diversity found in classrooms can be fodder for a rich mixture of culturally-based learning scaffolds, especially in the social studies classroom. "For the teacher of social studies, this rich mixture of different cultural backgrounds, family languages, and social customs provides fertile ground for the kind of teaching that can make the study of human, geographical, and historical aspects of the world exciting. In such classrooms, individual students' engaged time-on-task and active involvement in classroom learning activities may also vary widely, resulting in the need to create learning environments that are engaging and productive (2)." This is important because many CLD students with disabilities are not engaged academically due to the lack of curriculum and instruction that reflects persons, experiences, and frames of reference that are relevant or reflective of their race/ethnicity and/or cultural and linguistic backgrounds. It, then, becomes a challenge for special educators who teach social studies (or any other subject matter) to motivate and academically engage these students. Providing culturally relevant support systems for students with disabilities will help them succeed academically.

The needs of culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) students may vary from their dominant-cultured peers because of differences in backgrounds, attitudes, values, and/or belief systems. Such, differences can cause incongruities to exist between their home culture and the school's culture (3), and consequently, some CLD students tend to struggle for acceptance and acknowledgement of their strengths within the classroom. This situation becomes even more problematic when special educators interpret cultural and linguistic differences as deficits and use these perceived deficits to make unsound instructional decisions. (4) When this happens, CLD students can easily become outsiders in an existing educational system that is fundamentally developed and implemented, to a large degree, around European American, middle class values and perspectives. (5) So, when we examine the cultural divide between special educators and the students they serve, we must ask the question: How effectively can CLD students' needs be met in classrooms that do not promote, utilize, recognize or value students' culture and language diversities? The answer is: their needs can not be met! Using any monocultural approach to special education services is counter productive to the academic health, well being and future aspirations of children and especially detrimental for children of color. …