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Culture, Relevance, and Schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground

reviewed by Shannon Audley-Piotrowski - March 22, 2013

coverTitle: Culture, Relevance, and Schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground
Author(s): Lisa Scherff & Karen Spector (eds.)
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham
ISBN: 1607098881, Pages: 176, Year: 2011
Search for book at Amazon.com

What does it mean to be culturally relevant in the field of education? Ladson-Billings (1995) made the case that culturally relevant pedagogy must go beyond ‘good pedagogy’ and integrate culture into sound educational practice. Culture, Relevance, and Schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground pushes the boundaries of what it means to be culturally relevant in two ways: it expands ‘culturally relevant pedagogy’ to include culturally relevant practices and reconsiders the traditional meaning of  ‘culturally relevant.’

To create a coherent place for the diverse chapters in this edition, editors Scherff and Spector situate the contributions in a hybrid or third space, “ a leaky space that spills over into neighboring territory and welcomes overflow from adjacent domains” (p. 2). By using language that creates and dismantles walls, intersections, and borders, Scherff and Spector attempt to organically represent the complexities of culturally relevant pedagogy without reducing them to the traditional dichotomies of pedagogy versus culture.

This book is organized into seven diverse chapters. In each chapter the contributing authors address culturally relevant schooling from an ‘uncommon perspective’ that ranges from teacher-parent partnerships in Chapter One, spiritualities in Chapter Four, and professional development in Chapter Six. Most chapters successfully extend culturally relevant pedagogy to insightful hybrid-spaces and push the three-dimensional boundaries of what it means to be culturally relevant.  

In the opening vignette, for example, Kenan creates boundaries about what culture is and is not. He argues, and rightly so, that culture is not about race, ethnicity, or geography, but about personal experiences and community practices. Culturally relevant pedagogy applies to all students, even white-middle class ones. In order to include the cultural practices of all students, Kenan suggests that culturally relevant pedagogy in schools must come from (and be co-constructed with) students’ personal experiences and their communities of origin. It is from this standpoint, the necessity of creating overlap among schooling, students, and communities, which each subsequent chapter follows.  

Chapter One examines traditional cultural relevancy by showcasing what is termed a “hybrid-community of practice” between parents and teachers. In this example, parents and teachers work together to co-construct a classroom science curriculum. Barton and Drake refer to this practice as a “collective culturally relevant pedagogy” (p. 15) and their vivid examples showcase how learning is enriched for all—children, teachers, and parents—when parents and teachers work together to shape a curriculum that both school and home communities value. This chapter suggests that culturally responsive teaching is not enculturation but instead builds from a teacher-parent engagement that empowers all parties to value the multiple links between school and the communities that the schools serve.

Chapter Two examines the third space of culturally relevant practice through two-dimensional photography. In this chapter, what it means to be culturally relevant focuses on understanding and incorporating students’ own personal experiences that encompass how and why school matters. Zenkov suggests that students have not given up on school per se, but are waiting for curriculum, pedagogies, and structure that will reflect their complex, real world needs. In the end, Zenkov argues that it is the practice of student inquiry that is culturally relevant, and educators need to consider student experiences and opinions when making decisions about curriculum, pedagogy, and school structure.

Chapter Three examines the much-needed hybrid space of cultural relevance and “critical pedagogy” (p. 70). In this chapter, Aguilera-Black Bear considers her own account of working with Native youth and discusses specific programs where academic identity was fostered through community service. Here, cultural relevance must promote “intellectual spaces” (p. 66) where students are able to navigate through issues of power and cultural dominance present in mainstream schools while positively impacting and preserving their own indigenous community practices.

Chapters Four and Five do not examine traditional intersections or overlaps of school and community, but instead re-examine both elements of culture and culturally relevant content. In Chapter Four, Norton suggests that spirituality is not only an aspect of culture, but should be made “more visible” (p. 85) in culturally responsive pedagogies as children commonly use spiritualties to interpret texts. In Chapter Five, Newman, Albright, and King-White critically reflect on pedagogies that are constructed through or around the “healthy body.” Unlike the other chapters, which focus on K-12, this chapter focuses on Higher Education’s transition from physical education to a research based kinesiology, which has transformed the human body into an abstract and “institutional profitability” (p. 103). Newman and his co-authors refer to this as a “border” kinesiology and insist that the relevant pedagogical space is about the presentation of the content curriculum. Both of these chapters truly try to push the boundaries of cultural relevance, but in doing so build up walls, as Spector and Scherff suggest in the introduction, that may result in some readers feeling  “wall[ed] out” (p. 1).

Chapter Six examines culturally relevant pedagogy at a new and refreshing intersection: professional development. West coins the term “culturally relevant professional development” (CRPD) as an alternate to traditional staff development. In CRPD, teachers meet not to discuss instructional-based problems, but problems whose core issues are steeped in race and poverty. The teachers involved in CRPD reported that this approach allowed them to see themselves as both professionals and to be a part of activities that that are relevant to their unique cultural needs. This chapter successfully argues that teachers too need their professional development to be culturally relevant.

Chapter Seven again examines the importance of “critical pedagogy” but from a Freireian perspective. Mantero focuses on providing children with the necessary voice by revisiting in-school language policies and practices and integrating the home and school context to create hopeful learners. Unlike the previous contributors, Mantero focuses on theory, rather than personal examples or research, to re-scaffold culturally relevant practices.

This text provides an excellent introduction for readers who are interested in experiencing culturally relevant pedagogy in action rather than in theory. The contributions are thoughtful and offer a third space for bridging the gaps among schools, students, and communities. More so, this book reimagines what it means to be culturally relevant, and provides the material insight necessary for building up, tearing down, and reconfiguring culturally relevant pedagogy.  


Aguilera-Black Bear, D. E. (2011). Expanding notions of culturally responsive education with urban Native youth: Culturally relevant pedagogy for equity and justice. In L. Scherff & K. Spector (Eds.), Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground (pp. 65-84). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Barton, A. C., & Drake, C. (2011). Collective cultural relevancy through experience. In L. Scherff & K. Spector (Eds.), Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground (pp. 11-38). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Ladson-Billings, G.J. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, 34, 3, 159-165.

Scherff, L., & Spector, K. (2011). Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Newman, J. I., Albright, C., & King-White, R. (2011). Staying fat: moving past the exercise-industrial-complex. In L. Scherff & K. Spector (Eds.), Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground (pp. 103-124). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Norton, N. E. L. (2011). Weaving spiritualties into culturally responsive pedagogies. In L. Scherff & K. Spector (Eds.), Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground (pp. 85-102). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

West, C. V. (2011). Putting “culturally relevant” into professional development. In L. Scherff & K. Spector (Eds.), Culture, relevance, and schooling: Exploring Uncommon Ground (pp. 125-140). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 22, 2013
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 17065, Date Accessed: 1/23/2022 11:34:49 AM

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About the Author
  • Shannon Audley-Piotrowski
    Smith College
    E-mail Author
    SHANNON R. AUDLEY-PIOTROWSKI is an Assistant Professor of Education and Child Study at Smith College and a former high school science teacher. Her research focuses on children’s social and moral development at the intersection of culture, experiences of respect, and understanding respect in teacher-student relationships.
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