Culturally Relevant Education in a Polarized World

Why culturally relevant education is important, and how Chicago’s GCE Lab School builds and supports its diverse curriculum.

Parents of high school students want to know that their kids are engaged in learning that is both enriching and applicable to the real world so they can best prepare for college and career. Teachers know that students are more invested and work better when their coursework is relevant. At GCE Lab School, an independent high school in Chicago’s Loop, students thrive in a learning environment that challenges them with culturally relevant education — and this is important more now than ever before.

A concept coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1995, culturally relevant pedagogy empowers students by providing opportunities to better relate to their learning materials by focusing on issues that are applicable to their lives. This is a sure-fire way to get students to care about their education. And, it’s an effective way to boost achievement, too. When students are invested in their education, their performance improves. This, in turn, allows schools and teachers to set the bar higher.

At GCE Lab School, strong relationships make this possible, says Sharon Holmes, Dean of Students and Humanities Teacher. “The cornerstone of the educational philosophy of GCE is relationships,” she says. “We take our relationships with our students seriously. Our educational practice dictates that we ‘see’ our students.” When students are seen, heard, and recognized as unique individuals with unique needs, they’re more likely to rise to their academic challenges.

“We hold high expectations for all of our students and believe that they can accomplish the goals that we have set for them,” Holmes says.

The social justice component

Also referred to as “culturally responsive education,” this teaching method allows for students to uphold their own cultures while also developing critical skills that challenge social injustice. To compare cultural pedagogy to traditional ways, a literature teacher might use the works of a wide variety of authors around the globe, rather than the texts written by predominantly white authors.

“Culturally relevant education seeks to validate all of our students’ cultural heritages without placing them in competition with one another,” says Holmes, adding that an educator’s duty is to “help students learn to appreciate other cultures, ideas, and beliefs if we are to bridge the divides.”

Not only can this be eye-opening for students, but this method can help classes of diverse students connect with their schoolwork. All students should be able to see a bit of themselves in their coursework, and with this teaching method, they can. By making learning relevant, students can get the education they are all entitled to.

Strengthening relationships and understanding

Culturally relevant education should enlighten students about more cultures than their own, making it easier for students to form relationships in and out of school. It also gives students opportunities to explore interests that they otherwise would not have.

Teachers at GCE Lab School, says Holmes, emphasize academics, but also place a “premium on the social-emotional growth of our students.” Through a variety of heritage pride events celebrated at GCE — including Hispanic Heritage Month, Indigenous People’s Day, National Coming Out Day, Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and many others — students deepen their own understanding of diverse cultures while strengthening their own affinities. This attention toward developing a greater sense of belonging can reinforce a student’s success, which can in turn allow them to feel more in control of their future.

And this sense of ownership begins in high school. At GCE, students are encouraged to build agency in their own education and influence what they study. “We have community meetings and circles where students share what is important to them in regards to their cultures,” Holmes explains. “Our curriculum allows us to dig deep into subject matter and gives them voice into the curriculum.”

At a time in history when racial and cultural groups grapple with elements of history and fears that elevating one group’s voice means diminishing another’s, students at GCE learn to balance their perspectives through culturally relevant teaching. This, Holmes says, is necessary in order to reduce societal divisions and build future citizens who can see past differences in pursuit of solutions.

“We believe that we do an excellent job of engaging our students in the issues of the day.  Because we are intentional about using cooperative learning in our class, we have students who learn how to interact with others who have different backgrounds than themselves,” she says. “This goes back to helping to bridge divides that are threatening society.  It is easier to see different sides of an argument when there is a personal connection.”

When that personal connection is present, equity is elevated.

“Throughout all of this is the thread of equity,” Holmes says. “No voice has more value than another’s when we are working together to find solutions.”

Ultimately, GCE graduates are better prepared for the challenges of college and career because they have learned in an environment that honors and respects diversity and embraces a culturally relevant curriculum.

“I think the students at GCE benefit greatly when leaving our school because they have been in a place that is diverse and honors diversity,” says Holmes. “They have a broader degree of exposure and exposure is key.”

Learn more about GCE Lab School and discover the new Loop campus at gcelabschool.org.

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