Research increasingly shows that the academic performance of students of color often suffers due to cultural differences.
"The education system wasn't set up to transmit our culture; it was intended to transmit the white, English-speaking culture," says Dottie Le Beau, multicultural curriculum specialist for Todd County schools.
Culturally responsive curriculum is a critical element in reversing this trend.
In a study of Native student achievement, researchers from Western Washington University and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory found that students were most successful in learning environments that exhibited the following characteristics:
- Recognition and use of Native American languages
- Knowledge and use of the community's social and political customs
- Lessons connecting new material to students' existing experiences
- Curriculum that recognizes the importance of Native spirituality
- Meaningful interaction between school and community
These characteristics mirror the tenets of culturally responsive curriculum:
- Respect for the legitimacy of different cultures
- Empowering students to value all cultures, not just their own
- Incorporating cultural information into the curriculum, instead of simply adding it on
- Relating new information to students' life experiences
- Teaching to the "whole child" and treating the classroom like a community
- Addressing a spectrum of learning styles
- Maintaining high expectations for student success
Todd County senior Marjorie Lunderman provides a good example. After her family moved from the Rosebud Reservation to Rapid City, S.D., where the Native population is much smaller, Lunderman's grades fell, she became involved with drugs, and she forgot most of her Lakota language. "I felt disconnected from my culture," she says.
Once she moved back to Rosebud, her grades improved, thanks to teachers and family members who helped reintroduce her to Lakota customs. Now, Lunderman participates in sweat lodges and other ceremonies and hopes someday to go to law school.
"Everyone needs to learn more about their heritage," Lunderman says. "That's how we break down stereotypes —and it helps kids like me stay in school."