Engaging Students with Culturally Responsive Arts Education

Too often, we think of arts education as a luxury in our schools. As someone who’s studied arts education and student engagement for over two decades, I argue that’s not the case. In fact, my research has shown that culturally responsive arts education that fosters relationships and respect between teachers and an increasingly diverse student body is one of the best tools our schools have in engaging and inspiring students.

The Power of Culture Based Arts Education in Communities of Color

I know just how powerful a place-specific, culturally responsive approach to arts education can be because I’ve seen it happen. I began my career as an arts educator in a remote district in northern California. I taught in a small unified school district that bordered one of the geographically largest American Indian reservations in the state. Most of the children from the reservation attended these public schools. I spent my mornings in the elementary school and my afternoons in the high school.

Like many reservations, it was very isolated and economically depressed. I quickly noticed that many of our students began slipping through the cracks, becoming increasingly disengaged with the educational process, starting around fourth or fifth grade. As a white teacher, I began to wonder: “What am I doing wrong and what can we teachers collectively do to improve Native kids’ school success?”

I realized that I needed to embrace the cultures of the kids in my class – and get away from the “deficit model” that looks to blame outside forces like governmental policies or parenting practices for the failings of a school district. I knew we needed to get involved in the community our school served by learning more about how our Native students’ heritage is not monolithic but a rich combination of different cultures with a common reservation experience and history.

Curriculum and Context

We lived and taught in a beautiful place with a troubled history. When the U.S. government in the mid-1850s forcibly moved five neighboring tribes to the ancestral land of perhaps the original Paleo-Indians of California, a unified reservation community of confederated tribes emerged after years of intermarriage. A shared land base and a common lifestyle belied the almost total loss of four heritage languages and amalgamation of six distinct tribal life ways, including artistic production. Many young people from the reservation saw themselves more as members of the broader community of Indigenous North Americans and to a lesser degree affiliates of one of these California tribes.

In time a group of like-minded teachers and I started to build relationships in the local Native community, inviting artists, dancers and musicians into the schools. Though curriculum materials pertaining to contemporary American Indian art and historical crafts were minimal – and most dealt with tribes from other regions of the country – I began to move away from the canon of Western art in my classes. Though the arts and crafts we studied weren’t specifically from their tribal heritage, my students really identified with Indigenous work and became much more engaged. I tried to incorporate American Indian art not only as a vehicle for making and creating, but also as a place for discussion and looking at art and material culture in historical and contemporary Native contexts.

Measuring the Impact of Culturally Responsive Arts Education

Fifteen years into my career, I was ready for a new chapter – and I knew that culturally responsive arts education, particularly in Indigenous North American communities, was something I wanted to continue to explore. I took a sabbatical to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University in California. After living in such an isolated area, it was inspiring to be part of a thriving, multidisciplinary academic community – many of whom shared my belief in the power of culturally responsive education. I was able to engage in great conversation with Indigenous scholars and was exposed to a variety of new literature, all of which led me to think more deeply about social reconstruction, critical multiculturalism, and culturally relevant pedagogy.

After completing my year-long master’s program, I stayed at Stanford for a Ph.D. program. I realized pretty quickly that I was really interested in American Indian education more broadly – and specifically my own observations about how Native kids responded to things I did in arts classrooms. Stanford was a place where I could reach out and find classes in ethnography, art history, sociology and psychology that were really focused on Indigenous peoples in contemporary and historical contexts.

My dissertation project sent me back to where it all began: studying a grant-funded project that had been conducted at my former school district in California shortly after I left for graduate school. It was a two-year arts initiative that was similar to much of what I’d done during my teaching there, and involved bringing in members of the local Native community to help inspire and build relationships between the teachers, artists and students. Though the program had ended, my project involved observation and research to determine whether it had any lasting effects on teachers in the district, Native and white students who participated, and the Indigenous artists who were involved in the schools.

My findings confirmed what I know now is just common sense: schools that embrace the cultures of the kids in their classrooms and try to invite elders, artists, crafters, dancers and musicians who embrace historical and/or contemporary cultural production into the school do a better job engaging students. These outside voices let kids build their own identity as Native people, identify with them as role models, activists, and understand how the arts contribute to cultural continuance. Arts programs such as this provide entry points for students to debunk stereotypes about Indigenous cultures and study how racism and ongoing oppression impact artists and often thwart Native students’ access to equitable arts programing in American schools.

Fostering Conversation and Cultural Connections

After completing my doctorate, I accepted a position in Curriculum and Instruction at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development. It was the perfect place to continue my work, given the state’s large American Indian population and keen interest in education. After a short time at the University, I connected with an Institute on Community Integration (ICI) colleague, Dr. Jean Ness, who had extensive experience working with Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota. We applied for and were awarded two federal grants for successive projects that studied the effects of bringing Ojibwe artists, elders and academics into several schools and the cultural context of integrated arts learning in K-8 classrooms. We were able to partner with two districts in Northern Minnesota with sizeable Native populations that bordered on reservations and a Bureau of Indian Affairs school on one reservation.

The first grant gave us a planning year, in which to really listen to the local community, to see what they felt “culturally responsive arts education” should look like. Time and again, we heard Native parents and community member expressing the desire to have more of their language and culture shared in the schools their children attended. To help meet this need, we helped facilitate two four-year programs designed to increase the cultural competency of 50 mostly white teachers. With local partners we brought in Ojibwe speakers with expertise in a variety of disciplines, starting with two-week summer institutes that were followed up with in-service educational workshops during the year. The training was extremely challenging as teachers were expected to develop culture-based integrated arts opportunities in their classrooms, after working with Indigenous experts and learning firsthand about a cultural other than their own.

Arts Education and Student Engagement

We often hear the term “achievement gap” used in reference to our educational system, but I’d suggest that it’s really an engagement gap. I believe that a dynamic, culturally responsive arts education program can be the single most powerful engine of engagement in our schools. While the programs I’ve worked on have revolved around culture-based arts learning in schools serving Native students, the methods we’ve used to engage students and the larger school community can be a model for teachers working with Minnesota’s Hispanic, Hmong or Somali students as well.

The enthusiasm and creativity that arts education sparks make school a place where students want to be. The more we can incorporate art, music, dance and theatre education that’s specific to the cultures of the students we are teaching, the more effective teaching becomes. The enthusiasm and cultural awareness that a strong arts program engenders in students can also carry over throughout the school day. Culture-based approaches that add an arts component to learning in STEM disciplines, or STEAM for example, can similarly encourage full and equal participation of all students while effectively countering underlying assumptions of power, legitimacy and ethnocentrism that often creep into multicultural lessons.

Because we at the University of Minnesota believe so strongly in equitable access to arts education for all youth across the state, we’ve developed new graduate PK-12 licensure programs for theater and dance teachers in CEHD. In doing so we hope to mitigate teacher shortages in these fields in the Twin Cities and statewide. Our proposals are now under review at the Minnesota Board of Teaching, and if approved will permit enrolling multidisciplinary cohorts of dance, theatre and visual arts teacher candidates in the reimagined Arts in Education program in Curriculum and Instruction. By preparing more qualified arts teachers – and giving them the tools to work together to create culturally responsive curriculums – our aim is to encourage culture-based teaching that leads to transformative thinking about race, power and injustice.

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James Bequette, Ph.D.

About the Author

James Bequette, Ph.D.

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