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Practicing What We Teach: How Culturally Responsive Literacy Classrooms Make a Difference

reviewed by Festus E. Obiakor - September 06, 2011

coverTitle: Practicing What We Teach: How Culturally Responsive Literacy Classrooms Make a Difference
Author(s): Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt and Althier M. Lazar
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807752207, Pages: 288, Year: 2011
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In Practicing What We Teach: How Culturally Responsive Literacy Classrooms Make a Difference, Patricia Ruggiano Schmidt and Althier M. Lazar present an excellent rationale for responding to culture and language in today’s changing classrooms in the United States of America. They address issues of power, privilege, and marginalization in literacy and language instructional programming from Pre-K to post-secondary levels. In addition, they recognize that voices of marginalized culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD) learners are rarely or never heard in educational programs even though these voices are visibly predominant in the population of students in most urban schools (Williams, 2010). While Schmidt and Lazar do not underestimate the intensity of the jobs done by teachers and service providers to maximize the potential of their CLD learners, they make a case for reducing apparent dilemmas of misidentification, misassessment, miscategorization, misplacement, and misinstruction in working with CLD learners. In fact, they suggest literacy and/or language programming that takes advantage of the energies of students, parents, teachers, community members, and government agencies.

Practicing What We Teach is well written and well organized. To achieve the goal of this book, Schmidt and Lazar invited different contributors to share their experiences and perspectives on literacy and language enhancement strategies. The Foreword by Patricia Edwards presents the exciting force of the book—Edwards was right when she noted that “the great challenge we face today is how to serve students whose literacy and language backgrounds are at odds with the literacy practices valued in schools” (p. ix). In the Preface, Lee Gunderson adds that, “the state of teaching and learning in schools in the United States is in crisis point. Schools increasingly fail to provide students with the teaching and learning they require for achieving and prospering in our competitive society” (p. xvi). Recognizing these imperatives calls for new ways of thinking, teaching, learning, and service delivery in today’s classrooms and schools as outlined by the book. These new ways will prevent disproportionate placement of CLD students in programs (e.g., special education programs) that do not serve them well. Surely, ignoring students’ languages is like ignoring their cultures; and ignoring their cultures is like ignoring their humanities. Logically, when one’s humanity is ignored, his or her sacred existence as a human being becomes devalued. When students feel devalued, they drop out of school, engage in anti-social behaviors, become societal problems, commit crimes, and find themselves in jail. In other words, this book’s main premise is to reiterate the fact that it is mutually beneficial to educate all learners instead of engaging in practices that directly or indirectly get rid of them in our schools. In his classic work, DeBruyn (1984) warned that:

If we adopt a “get rid of” attitude, we violate a basic tenet of education: that each student is an individual, and that our instruction and curriculum must try to make allowances for individual differences. Regardless of our feelings, we cannot discount this tenet. That’s why it’s dangerous to adopt a practice that amounts to saying, “Get the uninterested, unmotivated, and ill-behaved out of school to keep them from interfering with those who want to learn.” In truth, this is an easy way out. And teaching all students is not easy. Yet, it remains our challenge. (p. 1)

This book has 18 chapters and is divided into five parts: Part 1 focuses on the need for culturally responsive literacy teachers; Part 2 discusses how curriculum can be student-centered; Part 3 emphasizes how to build relationships with students and caregivers; Part 4 describes how to build on students’ linguistic strengths; and Part 5 explains how to become a culturally responsive literacy teacher and service provider. The chapters have captivating titles and contain a knowledge base that is intensive and comprehensive. For instance, Chapter 1 argues that many teachers come from the “culture of power” while their students represent “the culturally marginalized.” As a result, it is important that teachers and service providers use culturally responsive literacy and language strategies to work with their CLD students. Chapters 2-6 focus on recognizing that students are central participants in the teaching-learning process. Though it is common knowledge that voices of CLD parents and community members are not heard in our classrooms and schools, Chapters 7-10 address how these voices can be empowered in curriculum and instruction. More often than not, students’ linguistic strengths are downplayed and/or ignored. Chapters 11-14 discuss how these potential strengths can be maximized. The critical question then becomes, how prepared are teachers and service providers, especially in literacy and language instructions? Chapters 15-18 provide solutions that can shift teacher preparation paradigms at institutional levels.

Practicing What We Teach is a book that should be on the reading list of teachers, service providers, teacher educators, researchers, program planners, school reformers, linguists, and multiculturalists. Simply put, it is a book for professionals who want to make a difference in the lives of their students, especially those who are at risk of being devalued and miseducated because of their cultural, linguistic, and socio-economic differences. This is a book that challenges us to foreshadow the future, not just the future of our students but also the future of our society and nation. Recent emphases on assessment, accountability, and teacher quality call for paradigm shifts on how we operate in our classrooms and schools. Clearly, this book encapsulates the fact that our one-dimensional use of the White culture of power to define how “good” or “bad” a student, classroom, or school is must be revisited. While this idea is not new (Obiakor, 2001, 2008), it is critical that teachers and service providers desist from labeling students because they have linguistic and learning styles that differ from the norms. Additionally, these professionals should focus their energies on knowing who they are and who their students are, learning the facts when they are in doubt, changing their thinking, using resource persons such as parents, building self-concepts, making the right choices, and continuing to learn. In Practicing What We Teach, Schmidt and Lazar appreciate these challenges; however, they are optimistic that using culturally responsive literacy and language will enrich the cultural mix in which our great nation takes pride.


DeBruyn, R. L. (1984, April 16). Upholding the tenets of education. The Master Teacher, 15(32), 1.

Obiakor, F. E. (2001). It even happens in “good” schools: Responding to cultural diversity in today’s classrooms. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Obiakor, F. E. (2008). The eight-step approach to multicultural learning and teaching (3rd ed.). Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt.

Williams, G.L. (2010). Educating urban learners: The special issue. Multicultural Learning and Teaching, 5(2), 1-3.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: September 06, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16536, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 5:16:07 AM

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About the Author
  • Festus Obiakor
    University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
    E-mail Author
    FESTUS E. OBIAKOR, Ph.D., is Professor, Department of Exceptional Education, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His research interests are in self-concept development, multicultural psychology and special education, educational reform and innovation, and international special education. He has consistently advocated the comprehensive support model (CSM) to bring together the energies of students, families, educational professionals, communities, and government agencies. He is the author of more than 150 publications, including books, chapters, and articles; and he is a frequently invited speaker to many institutions, organizations, and conferences. He serves on the editorial boards of many reputable refereed journals, including Multicultural Learning and Teaching in which he currently serves as co-founding and co-executive editor.
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