Desperately Seeking: Culturally Relevant Ideas and Innovation in Education

Desperately Seeking: Culturally Relevant Ideas and Innovation in Education


Our cities are growing in diversity at an exponential rate, but our teacher workforce is not. Within the Providence Public School District, nearly 92 percent of students are people of color while the teaching force is almost 80 percent white. Close to 30 percent of Providence students are English Language Learners, and yet most of them are being taught by teachers who don’t speak their native language.

Enter F.E.E.D. (Fellowship of Educators for Equity and Diversity), a nonprofit that aims to attract and retain teachers of color in urban schools across Rhode Island.

Haven’t heard of it? Don’t be surprised. Just days ago, the concept, the team, and the name did not exist. F.E.E.D. was one of five new startups launched during Startup Weekend Education in Providence (SWeduPVD), an event last week hosted by the Highlander Institute in collaboration with 4.0 schools.

These events are weekend hackathons that bring together teams of educators, designers, entrepreneurs, developers and others who are eager to solve problems in education. Each team enters with an idea and, over the course of the weekend, generates interest around that idea while testing the founder’s assumptions and the need for the solution.

Photo credit: Devlo Media

Instead of letting folks create yet another math application or student gradebook add-on, we challenged participants to focus on a timely topic that not enough entrepreneurs are currently tackling: cultural relevance in schools.

Accompanying the push for more personalized learning is an emphasis on increasing student voice and agency in classrooms. But we rarely see novel education technology or human capital innovations built to address this challenge. For students of color in both urban and suburban settings, the content currently being fed to them in the digital age is no different than the eurocentric curriculum of the textbook era.

At a time when students are witnessing black adults and children being murdered on video and social media while pundits and online trolls lash out at black activists, it becomes even more important for our schools to be a safe place to have conversations about race and power. What good is a blended and personalized classroom if students cannot openly discuss issues of equity? We need solutions that empower students to bring their culture, race, and socioeconomic status to classroom projects and discussions. Often, students and teachers feel they can only discuss and confront issues of injustice after the school bell rings.

At SWeduPVD we did not frame this challenge as a “teacher problem” because we see this as an unfair burden to place solely on classroom educators. Most teachers consider themselves ill-equipped to handle intense discussions regarding atrocities such as the Terence Crutcher and Keith Scott murders. These charged conversations are often avoided in board rooms and businesses around the country, and it seems disingenuous to assume that teachers should naturally possess the skills and composure needed to facilitate conversations around these horrific events. Without targeted training many of them rightfully worry that a poorly facilitated conversation on race and violence is worse than no conversation at all.

Photo credit: Devlo Media

There are some incredible resources for educators looking to bring these complex issues into classrooms, including the following:

While these tools are invaluable, we need more solutions that are readily available and easy for teachers to implement.

So how can can entrepreneurs, coders, designers, and educators work together to create classrooms where teachers feel prepared to have conversations about culture, race, power, privilege and equity? We pushed participants to think about best practices for leveraging curriculum, content, assessments, and materials that are culturally relevant for all students. Six passionate teams formed and each attacked the problem from a different angle. They came up with a range of great ideas, including a:

  • mobile urban astronomy lab;
  • student-led professional development organization for teachers;
  • nonprofit to support and retain teachers of color (F.E.E.D.);
  • writing submission tool that anonymizes the student work to prevent grading bias;

The weekend was inspiring and left us at Highlander Institute excited to do more. We have districts and funders here in Rhode Island looking to pilot, purchase and implement new solutions. We plan on supporting all five of the culturally relevant programs and products that were created this weekend through our newly formed Education Innovation Cluster, called EduvateRI.

If you or someone you know is working to bring culturally relevant content or programming to classrooms and schools, please reach out. We want to test and grow your work to meet the needs of our student population. Together, we can develop solutions to deep-rooted social problems that the market hasn't come close to addressing.

Let’s turn our attention to the growing population of students whose voices are seldom heard, and give them the attention and resources they deserve.

Shawn Rubin (@ShawnCRubin) is Chief Education Officer at The Highlander Institute

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