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An elementary class at Warner Elementary poses for a group photo with a community police officer.
An elementary class at Warner Elementary poses for a group photo with a community police officer.

University of Delaware partnership supports culturally responsive pedagogy

How can K-12 teachers connect their students’ personal, lived experiences to an often mandated, impersonal, and standards-based curriculum? This question becomes even more pressing for teachers who are working in underperforming schools with student populations who have been historically marginalized by traditional curricula.

Elizabeth Soslau, associate professor in the School of Education (SOE) at the University of Delaware (UD), is addressing this need through a research-practice partnership with Need in Deed (NID), a Philadelphia-based education nonprofit, and Warner Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware.

One example of culturally responsive pedagogy is critical service learning, an approach that connects the classroom with the community and helps students see themselves as agents of change. In the NID model, the teacher gradually introduces social issues through nonfiction articles and other multimedia materials, and the class identifies an issue affecting their community. With their teacher and invited community members, who serve as classroom learning partners, students develop a service project and engage in connected classroom activities over the course of an entire school year.

For example, a third-grade class focusing on physical violence in their neighborhood may partner with the local police or a non-profit organization to learn more about anti-violence efforts in their community. The students may host an assembly program for younger school children that teaches anti-violence strategies through skits, role-plays, and the distribution of materials.

“Students at any age care deeply about safety, belonging, and ensuring their basic needs are met. Children are able to recognize others’ needs too—shoes and socks for people without stable shelter, better lighting in their neighborhood park, or an under-resourced afterschool program—and they have really good ideas about how to address these issues,” said Soslau. “Educators need permission to make space in the school day to listen to the students. This model isn’t about giving students voice or empowering them. This is about amplifying the voices students already have and getting out of the way so the students can use their power.”

In addition to practicing their reading, writing, and researching skills through NID’s structured framework, students also develop a sense of identity and agency as capable citizens.

Fostering culturally-responsive pedagogy

In partnership with NID, Soslau and two UD teacher candidates have supported teachers as they learned how to incorporate year-long service projects into their classrooms. In Fall 2018, NID held an intensive, kick-off professional development (PD) institute for participating Warner teachers, followed by three additional NID-provided PD sessions and four peer sharing sessions throughout the school year.

Soslau and SOE doctoral student, Sara Gartland, provided weekly support to Warner teachers through modeled lessons, co-teaching, small group reflection, lesson plan and resource development, and support sessions. Following the Philadelphia-based Teacher Network model developed by NID, Soslau and Gartland also held “Peer Sharing” meetings. During these meetings, Warner teachers reflected on their progress, shared challenges and successes, and supported each other as they planned the next phase of their projects.

“One of the most powerful PD sessions we had focused on how to introduce students to grade-level appropriate information about issues such as racial profiling, homophobia, child abuse, and addiction. The teachers engaged in deep reflection through a series of activities led by NID professional developers around appropriate vocabulary, setting discussion ground rules, approaching triggering topics, and selecting resources,” said Soslau. “At the next ‘Peer Sharing’ session, teachers noted that students were highly engaged and expressed gratitude for the opportunity to openly discuss issues. As one teacher said, ‘we all have a family member or close friend who has been impacted by a social issue, so we were able to share examples from our own lives, which made it safe for children to share too. My students were surprised that they weren’t the only ones affected and I could feel our class community grow closer.’”

Next steps and implications

Soslau’s partnership with the Warner school community and NID will contribute to existing research on culturally responsive pedagogy, help build the capacity for such teaching at Warner Elementary, foster relationships with clinical educators who could model this method for UD elementary teacher education candidates, and continue to build a community-centered teacher preparation program within the SOE.

Previous research has demonstrated that service learning leads to increases in student engagement, acknowledgment of civic responsibility, and the development of critical thinking skills. Previous research on NID’s professional development, in particular, showed that participating teachers had students with fewer suspensions, higher math and reading standardized test scores, greater cognitive ability in the area of discerning causes and sequencing, greater student-teacher trust, and greater concern for others when compared to students of teachers not trained by NID.

Soslau and Gartland are in the process of analyzing data on the implementation and efficacy of the NID training at Warner Elementary. Their preliminary results have shown that teachers highly valued the opportunity to humanize their classrooms and implement a pedagogical framework that allowed them to hone their students’ academic skills while fostering compassion and creativity. Published results will include concrete examples of culturally responsive pedagogy in action, as well as the affordances and informative challenges that either supported or hindered high quality service projects.

In addition, this project has served as a pilot for a community-centered, equity-focused elementary teacher education program in the SOE.

“Two of my elementary teacher education candidates, for which I deliver field instruction, completed their full-year student teaching placement with Warner/NID teachers. Our University of Delaware teacher candidates learned alongside their clinical educators,” said Soslau. “They had the unique opportunity to enhance their own understanding of culturally relevant pedagogy while building application skills centered on connecting classrooms with communities and bridging curricula with students’ lived experiences.”

This research-practice partnership was funded by the UD Partnership for Public Education, the UD Center for the Study of Diversity, and UD’s Delaware Center for Teacher Education.

Along with her colleague and research partner, Dr. Kathleen Riley of West Chester University, Soslau has recently been awarded a Spencer Foundation grant to continue studying NID’s model in Philadelphia public schools.

Article by Jessica Henderson.

Photo courtesy of Warner Elementary, Need in Deed, and Elizabeth Soslau.