Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies in Hybrid/Virtual Teaching and Learning Environments

By Zelia Capitão-Tavares and Megan Pattenhouse

At Educator CIRCLS, we’ve been thinking a lot about Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and most recently Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies (CSP). We had the opportunity to talk to teacher Zélia Capitão-Tavares, an HP Teaching Fellow to learn more about what CRT looks like in her classroom and what she learned from the transition to hybrid/virtual teaching. Zélia Capitão-Tavares is a Hybrid Teacher Digital Lead Learner (Elementary Teacher) in Toronto, Ontario. Here is what she shared.

How did you establish alliances in your learning partnerships with students and their families and what did that look like in an online/blended learning environment?

I continue to connect with families on a regular basis. For example, before school starts and after the first week of school I usually call all of my families for 15-minutes. Then, I call again after the first week in case parents have any questions. Since informal drop-ins are not available right now due to strict distancing protocols, I’ve been depending on digital surveys to learn about how parents get their children excited, how families work through challenges with their students, and other details. For example, in one interview, I learned from a parent that their child doesn’t like people touching their shoulder (due to issues with peripheral vision) as it startles them and they prefer not to be touched. This feedback from parents is invaluable as an educator and helps me create stronger partnerships with the student and the family.

I gather information about my students through a survey that includes standard questions like best contact information, preferred name, and also questions like what sparks their interest at home, what strengths do parent(s)/guardian(s) see and how their child overcomes challenges. For example, how do they work through their feelings, making a plan and following through or when a change in schedule happens, how might they react. By beginning to understand a bit about how the student deals with varying situations that may be amplified in a classroom setting (brick & mortar or virtual) I have better insights into how to program whole class or small group instruction. Another aspect of the survey is where parent(s)/guardian(s) share a bit about themselves and if/how they would like to support our class community. For example, would they like to volunteer for class activities, excursions, lead a mini workshop, share a life experience and so on.

How do you create a sense of trust and safety for your students and their families in an online/blended learning environment?

It’s all of the “human parts” with students and you can pick up on social cues face-to-face in a way you can’t when you’re online. This is harder when they’re online. Students are not their true selves when they’re sitting in front of the computer online with the camera off or on (seeing themselves on a screen for a prolonged period of time). In their own home you’re dealing with things beyond your control.

When they’re home, students are highly attuned with what’s going on around them. So, we start with cameras on, then turn them off for the duration of the lesson and wrap up by turning cameras back on. If students want to participate and answer a question they can turn their camera on if they are comfortable. That is working well in my classroom for now, especially because I know they’re giving me a carefully curated show in a way. Consider this since they are hyper aware of what they are sharing because their families are listening, something that is not part of their learning experience in a brick and mortar class setting.

How are you learning more about what would help your students feel safe and trusting from their perspective and experience in an online/blended learning environment?

Continuing to send letters, messages or emails to families and students to continue communicating appreciation, and informing everyone of upcoming class activities or events. One such opportunity was our STEM Kit project where each student had supplies delivered to their homes. In the letter I wrote:

I hope this mystery STEM Kit will bring a new adventure, spark creativity, innovation and that our class community is able to be a part of each other’s learning journey. When possible, join our scheduled class meet-up and drop-in sessions as we explore the mystery STEM Kit through experiential learning at-home. Together we will build our communication, problem solving, decision making and critical thinking skills.

This activity is an opportunity to build students’ global competence, enrich their learning, and social-emotional learning skills. These competencies foster deep learning through engaging experiential learning that incorporates creativity, inquiry, entrepreneurship, collaboration, leadership, communication, global citizenship, character, critical thinking and problem solving.

Example of a message personalized and sent to a student.

This is an example of a message about the STEM kit that I personalized and sent to a student.

How would you manage potential cultural conflicts around respect and trust in an online/blended learning environment?

I have worked through cultural conflicts in the online environment through conversations. When I was guiding students through their ideas and a discussion of Black Lives Matter movements, I knew parents were listening. After the lesson, I got questions from parents including “What do you mean hate is taught?” It’s a different thing when parents are listening to what I’m saying in the moment. In this case, I ended up having another mini-lesson with parents around these same topics. Parents are usually not in the classroom, and not present for these discussions. This was very difficult for me when I started teaching, but with experience, I’ve become very open to welcoming parents into my classroom as visitors. I can see why teachers would find this very challenging because you’re not just communicating with students, you’re communicating with anyone who is in the household.

In my class community, families are always welcome to share their skills and experiences with the students. So parents are used to coming in to share and stay for 15-minutes or half a day. The children really enjoy that and so do the parents.

In our class community we discuss how anti-racist education is not an event as we have ongoing discussions, access to resources and opportunities to ask questions. Throughout our school year we talk about how hate is taught within our environments and how we can engage in discussions with family and friends to acknowledge our privilege and how we must be an ally and speak up (with assistance from an adult as needed). With remote learning or virtual school we began to rely on using digital learning tools more and more to communicate our ideas, share thinking and ask questions.Flipgrid has been an effective tool for students to record responses that are moderated by the teacher. Students appreciate that there is a lot that can still be learned and they can be engaged in discussions happening in the world around us, locally and beyond, while we all practice physical distancing. Being able to find the words to share with family and friends about why they are taking part in local Black Lives Matter protests using digital tools was impactful

Another group that students were able to connect with during the COVID-19 pandemic is the McMurrich LGBTQ Connects Club. This is a student led initiative, and is inclusive for all students who identify as LGBTQ community members and their allies. The club’s purpose is to bring LGBTQ members together to promote awareness of impacting issues and prevent homophobic comments, behaviours and attitudes within the McMurrich community. An opportunity to reimagine the activities that normally happen at school was taking our face-to-face club and going online. This allowed us to provide a safe virtual space for students to share reflections, ask questions, connect and celebrate. Taking on discussions or issues as they arise as teachable moments is an opportunity to rethink practices and social norms to deconstruct the gender dichotomy. Our class community, friends, or however you choose to address your students, we provide a space for students to come together beyond the instructional day.

What routines/rituals have you found useful during distance learning for your student?

The use of digital learning tools for synchronous and/or asynchronous learning provided students with various entry points to share and demonstrate their learning as well as seek support and feedback. I am reminded of the impact of student voice and to advocate for my students by providing varying leadership opportunities. I was able to make use of digital tools like Flipgrid in providing a student with their own Topic (or Group) to support passion projects. One such example is using Flipgrid for students to share their screen and provide a detailed guided tour of each room in the Minecraft challenge, along with a few student designed how-to videos to show building or coding tips.

During the spring of 2020 this looked very different at different times. In wanting to respect the amount of time students are expected to be online, I had 30-minute synchronous meetings per week, and then focused on team meetings. I also had office hours and drop in sessions for students to access as needed. During that time I ended up being very busy and had two breakout rooms one with me and one with our teaching partner, Ms Taisley Isaac. Ongoing connections with families by reaching out at least once per week and sometimes twice per week with a phone call or a socially-distanced home visit. All students had a device even if it was the parents’ phone as they were awaiting a board device to be delivered to their home. During our scheduled or drop-in office hours, I was able to address a few barriers for students by doing things like scribing for them because it was hard for them to type their notes, for example, developing keyboarding skills or typing on their parents’ phone. My students would ask me to type for them and they knew they could have that 1:1 support with me during office hours. At the beginning of this crisis, it was valuable knowing that I already had an existing relationship with my students, but that would change in September 2020 with new students (30+) who I have never met and will need to forge this relationship with them due to pending school closures.