The Intersection

Race & Education | Culturally Responsive Pedagogy and the Arts

February 25, 2021

Our panel on culturally responsive pedagogy and the arts examined schools and districts across the country working to confront systemic racism in hiring, policy, and administration. While the need to confront racism in staffing and systems is necessary, education leaders cannot forget the importance of challenging racism in their schools via their main weapon: classroom curriculum and instruction. Often viewed as an add-on, the arts are critically important to the cognitive and emotional development of children. In this webinar, arts education experts discussed what is needed to create responsive curriculum across the arts. Dr. Amelia Kraehe, Associate Professor of Art at the University of Arizona moderated the webinar.

Panelists’ Early Experiences with the Arts

“When I first came here, I had to learn English in middle school, along with everything else.  Breakdancing didn’t require me to speak English perfectly.” 

-Edwin Sorto, Dance, PE, Art and Spanish Teacher of the KIPP DC Promise Academy

Edwin Sorto is an immigrant from El Salvador and a first-generation college graduate. He described how music was a gateway to the English language. The school where he teaches, KIPP DC Promise Academy, serves mostly African American students. Because Latin dances and rhythms were born in Africa, he uses these dances to craft a culturally responsive dance curriculum. Each rhythm and step have a history, and while the seeds of that history are African, the flower and fruit takes students to places like Columbia and Africa, Sorto said.

Shana Tucker talked about her work at Kidznotes, a music for social change organization. As a child she played the cello. She talked about attending a performance at Howard University, and for the first time, seeing performers who looked like her. Tucker described children when they first receive instruments and learn how to play. At that moment, she said, children realize there is no barrier to expressing themselves through music. She found that many of her students come to school mainly because they know they’ll get to learn music with Kidznotes after school.  Teaching music in school is not only exciting for children, but also provides a breeding ground for success.

Rosa Rodriguez-Williams was born in Puerto Rico and lived in a low-income, high-crime community. Because of this, she recognizes the “self” that she brings to her inclusion work within predominantly white spaces. She talked about the importance of identifying oneself when working to create an engaging experience for others. Presentation matters for students, she said. It is important to feel capable and part of a community. Art and art education can be beneficial for students who struggle with academics – it provides an outlet where they can show their talent and cultivate confidence. She noted that when white perspectives are emphasized, the BIPOC experience and cultural understanding are erased.

Rosa Rodriguez-Williams began her time as the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston with a learning and listening tour. She discussed how all institutions are meeting a moment where they need to change their portrayals of history, especially as it centers around white narratives. She suggests that museums and cultural institution staff consider the artifacts, paintings, and other cultural items that are on display, and think through why they are being displayed – what’s the importance? Experts in the arts should reflect on fine art that I being displayed.

Resource Limitations

“We are the front lines of belonging.  We’re creating and curating a space where everybody feels they belong.”

-Rosa Rodriguez-Williams, Senior Director of Belonging and Inclusion at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston

At the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Rosa Rodriguez-Williams emphasized that staff want to create narrative where diversity is a priority. However, in many institutions, one person is tasked with undertaking diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility initiatives. Edwin Sorto echoed the challenges and barriers to schools offering more arts education opportunities. For example, schools may want to include cultural responsiveness in the classroom, but are restricted by funding or teachers. Some schools look for the wrong qualifications in teachers, passing over candidates who may be great teachers, but didn’t perform as well on their teaching exams.

However, it’s the schools with limited resources that may benefit from arts education the most. In schools and districts with limited resources, children can learn to express and appreciate art deeply, and become resilient as they get older. Shana Tucker talked about how Kidznotes is a collaborative space where children can align their hearts, minds, and instruments. She described music as a joy machine that helps children see their world in a creative way, empowering them to make their own choices. She encourages students to bring their life experiences to Kidznotes, so that they may make music based on how they’re feeling at that point in time.

Tucker recalled an experience from her own childhood, in which her stepfather gave her and her sibling a textbook on Black history. She said she didn’t understand why he asked them to learn about Black history at the time, but now realizes that schools don’t always teach students about Black history. She said schools should look at defining a “good curriculum” as one that includes accessible, diverse stories and truth.

Future Art Advocacy

“We have to start looking at it (the arts) as a first thought, not an afterthought that we jam into the schedule.” 

-Shana Tucker, Executive Director of Kidznotes


Shana Tucker shared that at her school, the arts are referred to as “Specials.” Even though the arts help students lead happy, healthy lives and be more confident and creative, they’re often an afterthought. Many studies have revealed that when music is taught to children at an early age and they are exposed consistently, their brains function better.

Tucker went on to discuss the fact that right now in education, students and teachers alike have a hunger and thirst for the arts. She feels that now is the perfect opportunity to start programs to offer those resources. She encourages anyone interested in introducing an art curriculum to a school to approach education leaders with a fully formed thought, one that allows the leaders to fully understand the benefits of the arts. She mentioned that STEAM is often an idea that school leaders can get behind, and also allows for greater incorporation of the arts throughout the curriculum.

Rosa Rodriguez-Williams described how the Museum’s K-12 department is beginning to offer culturally responsive resources for students. As a whole, the museum is focusing de-centering whiteness and asking more questions about who is in the room. The museum wants to honor history and is also excited about pushing the vision forward.

Similar to Tucker, Edwin Sorto noted that usually the arts and dance are an afterthought pushed to the margins of traditional academics. There is an ongoing issue with access to the arts – Black and brown children are frequently denied participation. Engaging all students can improve academic performance across subjects. He also discussed the importance of making connections between students and content during lessons to make them more culturally responsive.

As the panel described, there are many possibilities and information for individuals to advance equity in the arts, and it is imperative to do so.  There is power in an arts education, especially for students of color.

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