Teach Us! Honoring Student Voices and Cultures

By Phil Kitchel posted 06-01-2022 10:00 AM

Today’s bloggers are Renee R. Moran, an Associate Professor of literacy education at East Tennessee State University; Natalia A. Ward, an Assistant Professor of literacy and second language education at East Tennessee State University; Jason D. DeHart, an Assistant Professor of reading education at Appalachian State University; Shuling Yang, an Assistant Professor of literacy education at East Tennessee State University; and Monica T. Billen, an Associate Professor at California State University, Fresno. Their article, “Flipping the Script of ‘Official Knowledge’ Through Multimodal Composition,” appears in the April 2022 issue of the Kappa Delta Pi Record. Get free access to the article through the month of June.

“I felt proud to share something that is special from my family with my friends in class,” declared third-grader Andrew when his teacher asked him about sharing his Teach Us Project with the class.

As educators, we know what we believe in. We believe in the power of school, family, and community partnerships. We believe that all students’ voices should be included, and their cultures honored. We believe in looking through the lens of an asset-based perspective in which we highlight the strengths a student and his or her family can bring to the table rather than just focusing on the gaps or what is missing.

But we often find ourselves bogged down by factors that we have little control over—standardized testing and scheduling and bandwagon curricula. From this perspective, it is not the why that we are missing; it is the how. How do we find time to build the school–home connection in authentic ways? How do we create learning activities that honor student voices and cultures in ways that can fit seamlessly into the foundational pieces of our literacy instruction?

We believe the Teach Us Project, a multimodal approach designed to invite families to share a cherished practice, artifact, activity, or skill, is one means of achieving this goal. We would like to share Andrew’s Teach Us Project as one example of how to show students a broader definition of text and push for a shift in what counts as official knowledge in the classroom.

Through this project, we learned that Andrew’s family had lived in the Appalachian Mountains since the early 1800s, when his ancestors settled there, and that farming had been a vital part of their lives for generations. Andrew chose to interview his grandpa about his garden and what gardening meant to their family. As Andrew shared with the class, the green bean seed, called a Little Greasy, had been passed down in his family since the early 1900s. His grandpa described the intricate processes required to have a successful green bean crop, including tilling the land, digging the posts, planting the seeds, weeding, and harvesting the crop.

Andrew brought in artifacts to share with his peers, including the dried bean seeds that would be frozen and stored for next year’s planting and the pressure cooker that had been passed down in his family. Andrew’s mom noted that you could find an identical pressure cooker in the state’s museum of natural history. Andrew brought in a few cans of beans and explained to his classmates the process of using the pressure cooker and canning the beans, which could then be stored and used for several years afterward. The third-grade class enjoyed sampling some of the green beans. We saw some students make connections to their own families as we heard comments such as, “My granny makes these, too!” For others in the class, the notion of gardening and preserving food was an entirely new concept, and it opened dialogue about the ways our food system has changed and the pros and cons of these adaptations.

Andrew chose to do a LEGO StoryVisualizer to display his final project. He took pictures of the garden at different phases and added captions and speech bubbles to illustrate each photograph. In this way, Andrew applied integrated literacy and technology to create a brand-new text that illustrated an aspect of his family’s cultural history. When asked what he liked best about the project, he noted, “I learned a lot from interviewing my grandpa.” Likewise, Andrew’s mom described the experience as a positive one that helped her feel more connected to the classroom and to feel as if her family had something to contribute.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy builds on the belief that schools must “systematically include student culture in the classroom as authorized or official knowledge” (Ladson-Billings, 1995, p. 483). In its recent reiteration, culturally sustaining pedagogy emphasizes the complexity, beauty, and nuance of cultural practices students grow up with in their communities and prioritizes “cultural, linguistic, and literate pluralism as part of schooling for racial justice and positive social transformation” (Paris & Alim, 2017, p. 13). We know that to understand students’ unique strengths, teachers need to create intentional opportunities within the classroom for learning and celebrating differences. We believe that we can only sustain what we know and love. Projects like Teach Us show promise for establishing classrooms as spaces where students, teachers, and families meet to see culture and language as a collection of evolving practices that are complex, meaningful, and empowering.


Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. Teachers College Press.