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Why aren’t all students engaged? Through my research, I’ve come to find that the path to academic equity is student engagement via culturally relevant instruction. With this in mind, I am often asked the foundational question- “What is culturally relevant instruction?”


There are three aspects that need to be present in a culturally responsive classroom:

  1. Increased representation: Wherever we choose to focus, whether it’s a representation of cultures, a representation of races, or a representation of different nationalities, there needs to be more representation in the classroom. 
  2. Increased intercultural understanding: We must strive to create a classroom where students see themselves in terms of representation and are also able to learn about others. 
  3. Student voice: We must be responsive to individual students. Every student has their own unique cultural mix– and we want to recognize and respect this mix.  

About 25 years ago, my colleague Gloria Ladson-Billings similarly described three components of culturally relevant pedagogy- 1) academic excellence, 2) cultural competence, and 3) critical consciousness. There is a real similarity in how we frame our thinking– essentially, instruction that increases academic achievement but also helps students to be more informed and attune participants in our global community. Now more than ever, we recognize that both are important.  We want students to have increased academic skills but we also want them to understand and have confidence in themselves and to see others as fully human. 

I recently shared a white paper on Cultural Responsiveness, in which I speak to the importance of starting with engagement. I often start my work with two research-based assumptions before working with young people:  

  1. All kids want to succeed, and if success is possible they will choose success. 
  2. They are able to succeed. 

When we think about why students are engaged or not we need to think about why students who want to succeed and can succeed still fail.  It is a really important way to frame the question and it moves away from some deficit assumptions to get to the root of the problem. 

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Below I identify five reasons why I think students lack engagement. Note that the answer to how we engage them lies within the reasons they are disengaged. 

  1. Students lack confidence: If they don’t see themselves as being able to do what is asked, it is human nature to avoid failure. You may not want to try something if you don’t think you are going to be successful.
  2. Lack of perceived relevance: If there is not a real desire to be involved in an activity or you don’t see how it is going to help you now or in the future, it is really hard to be engaged.
  3. Lack of quality text: We should strive to find texts that speak to students and that are entertaining. I don’t mean that we need to always select texts that were written in the last five days or written by someone in the neighborhood.  It can be a fifteenth-century text as long as it is exciting. We’re always trying to find texts that speak to young people and that excite them.
  4. Lack of a feeling of belonging: The classroom environment requires everyone to be vulnerable and to take risks. If you don’t feel like you are part of the classroom, it is hard to be engaged and to put yourself out there. 
  5. Lack of connection to the real world: Give them a sense of why it is important and relevant to their life. If there is no connection it’s hard to be engaged. 

The answer to how to increase engagement is to increase student confidence. How can we help students know that we see them as geniuses and that we see them as people who are really capable? In her book Cultivating Genuis my colleague Golday Muhammad posits-  “How do we help students know that we hold them to high expectations because we see them as people who are capable of doing a great deal?” 

The relevance question is really where much of my research resides. When we ask students what they would like to do, what they are passionate about- when we observe them carefully and think about how we can wrap the transmission of academic skills into the asking and answering of questions that are really meaningful to students then we are making positive progress. We also always have to be on the hunt for texts that are well-written and that speak to students and tackle eternal questions and challenges. 

We definitely want to make sure our classrooms are inclusive across all domains and that students feel like they should be there, that people want them there, and that the classroom is lacking when they are not there. One of my favorite questions to ask students is  “How do you want to change the world this year?” and I ask them to answer what they can do right now, not when they are 38 years old with a mortgage and children! 

When we do those things collectively students lean into their learning and their passions and emotions come out. Then, it is a much freer and easier environment to deal with the daily rigor of literacy education.

Download Dr. Morrell’s latest white paper here > Cultural Responsiveness and Engagement in Classrooms

Request free digital samples from the myView and myPerspectives K-12 literacy solutions today >

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Ernest Morrell

Ernest Morrell

Literacy Author & Professor

Note: Fresh Ideas for Teaching blog contributors have been compensated for sharing personal teaching experiences on our blog. The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.