Culturally Proficient Learning Communities: Confronting Inequities Through Collaborative Curiosity


Delores B. Lindsey, Linda D. Jungwirth, Jarvis V.N.C. Pahl & Randall B. Lindsey

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  • Dedication

    In memory of my parents, Vic and Lois Broom, for their many years of community service.


    To Gary, my husband, for bringing joy and balance to our lives, while continually nurturing and supporting my personal and professional learning.


    To Momma and Daddy, who valued education so much that they sent themselves and their five children to university, creating and opening doors to the future for each of us.


    To Harry Babbitt for his showing me the way.



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    Professional learning communities (PLCs) are everywhere—at least, that is, if one is to believe the nomenclature that many educational organizations are wearing. Some of these groups of educators meet as grade-level teams or as subject-matter departments in their schools to plan for next week's activities, some meet to divide and share the managerial tasks that accompany teaching. Some meet to devise and carry out collaborative projects. Some just meet, without identification of an agenda or any expectations for what will take place in the meeting. There are widespread operational variations or patterns that characterize PLCs. This is not unusual when a new idea or concept hits the streets.

    While such variations are commonplace, they do not meet the research-based attributes that qualify a group as a PLC or the sense-making definition that the words of the PLC provide:

    • Professional = Who. Those in the school or district (or other organization) who share a codified body of knowledge, who operate with a specific code of ethics, and who are certified to engage in the work of the profession (e.g., teaching and learning).
    • Learning = Why. The purpose is to enhance and extend the learning of the membership in order to be more effective in its work with students.
    • Community = How. The membership of the particular group convenes itself, using democratic principles, for a specific and shared purpose.

    This is an initial criterion that may be applied to ascertain if a community, or group, may be identified as an authentic PLC.

    here comes a new variation of PLC that meets the three-word definition and also operates in concert with the five components identified in the research that qualify an effective PLC. These components are

    • shared beliefs, values, and vision, where the prominent attention on and value of student learning guides the community in its work;
    • shared and supportive leadership, exemplified by the sharing of power, authority, and decision making by all members;
    • supportive conditions that include structural factors, such as time, space, resources, policies; and relational factors that support high regard and respect across the membership and, in addition, caring attitudes, openness, and truth telling;
    • intentional collective learning and its application, where the community determines what it needs to learn in relationship with student needs, and how they will learn it; and
    • shared personal practice, as community members give and receive feedback on their practice, leading to individual and organizational improvement.

    The PLC of attention in this book comes with a focus tailored to support the community in its study of a specific topic—a topic that the participants themselves (as is typical of an authentic PLC) have determined is essential for their knowledge, understanding, and skills so that they teach effectively and all students learn well. This is the culturally proficient learning community, whose genesis and development have been thoughtfully supported and encouraged by scholar/practitioners Lindsey, Jungwirth, Pahl, and Lindsey.

    The members of these PLCs understand that the purpose of schools is student learning and that student learning is most significantly influenced by quality teaching. Further, they recognize and acknowledge that quality teaching is enhanced and expanded by continuous professional learning, and that this adult learning is most productive in PLC settings or environments.

    While the original PLC concept never intended to dictate the content or attention of a PLC, indicating a community-specific focus appears quite appropriate. The focus on culture, in this case, makes abundant good sense given the urgent need for professional staff to serve an increasingly diverse student body. Because this area has not typically been well examined by classroom professionals, it is timely to have a product that can aid in such an exploration.

    Our nation has, generally, determined that its educational system will comprehensively support students across all social and economic strata and address the specific learning needs of all students inclusive of their cultural or linguistic backgrounds. Further, our well meaning educators bring to the classroom their own self-defining cultural attributes, as well as their prejudices and biases. How to accommodate for the frequently wide variation in values and beliefs present and operational in classrooms?

    The work suggested by authors Lindsey, Jungwirth, Pahl, and Lindsey addresses this challenge. They enlighten us about the need for exploring issues of culture in our schools. They provide us the opportunities to resolve the issues. Their volume guides us in looking with sensitivity, first to ourselves, so that we gain understanding and bring meaning to our own typically hidden realities. Then, with compassion, their work directs our learning to the cultural descriptors of students, their families, and others. The authors powerfully persuade us that we will become more complete human beings as well as educators when we have unveiled the elephant in the room and addressed our hidden issues of cultural differences with honesty and candor—and openness to transparency and change.

    The authors argue, and rightly so, that the self-organizing, shared decision making, and supportive environment of the professional learning community is the setting in which a school staff can come to grips most productively with the cultural diversity of staff and students.

    In the regular and frequent meetings of the school's staff, this community of professional learners invests in continuous study, conducted in a variety of modes, determined by the members. As they dialogue, discuss, and debate cultural topics about which they decide to study, their learning circle activities contribute to the members' feelings of acceptance, respect, and trust. The alliance of PLC structure and its habits of mind with the staff's goals of Cultural Proficiency results over time in goal attainment as members grow in their regard and caring for each other and in their undeviating focus on benefits for students.

    Cultural Proficiency and professional learning community—a very sound union with profoundly important messages from Lindsey, Jungwirth, Pahl, and Lindsey

    Shirley M.Hord, PhD, Scholar Laureate National Staff Development Council, March, 2009


    Beware! This book is intended to disturb schools. This is a book of questions, not answers. Our questions are designed to prompt your best thinking about ways to serve the needs of all students in our PK–12 schools. We provide stories, tools, and strategies to help transform your thinking and behaviors to disturb the current environment in which you and other community members focus your work. The bottom line is student success. The responsibility for student achievement rests with educators engaged with community members focused on ways to better serve our students. If educating all students is neither your interest nor your responsibility, then you can stop reading, now, and donate this book to your school's professional library. We are not suggesting your current thinking is wrong; we are suggesting that you, the reader, examine your current practice and be willing to think about this question:

    In what ways might I think and behave with a community of learners to insure that all students perform at levels higher than ever before?

    And this one:

    What question will it take to shake up my thinking?

    The disturbance for which we shamelessly advocate and intentionally practice is one approach to changing how educators do business in schools. We propose that educators working in and with communities of co-learners who view diversity and difference as assets and opportunities rather than deficits and disadvantages have greater opportunities to improve teaching and learning than those who work alone or in isolation from the larger school community.

    The purpose of this book is to provide a lens through which to examine the goals, the intentions, and the progress of learning communities to which you belong or wish to develop. Cultural Proficiency is a frame through which team or group members view the context of their work. Cultural Proficiency is an inside-out approach for effective cross-cultural interactions. In other words, members of culturally proficient learning communities are willing to explore and assess their knowledge about the diversity of their communities, recognize the assumptions one makes about the cultural groups within their communities, and become more informed in order to be a more effective educator.

    School leaders today are looking to professional learning communities (PLCs) as the answer to many of their questions about student achievement and school improvement. This urgency and rush toward implementing or imposing professional learning communities might cause one to ask, “If PLC is the answer, what was the question?” Many school leaders have discovered that declaring a team, or group, or entire school a PLC does not a professional learning community make. As Roland Barth (1991) said,

    We can work to change the embedded structures so that our schools become more hospitable places for student and adult learning. But little will really change unless we change ourselves. (p. 128)

    Changing our attitudes, our beliefs, our behaviors, and ourselves is hard work. An easier approach is to find fault in others, assign blame, declare the work too hard, close our classroom door, and move on to something else. The metaphors of voice, song, and choir provide a way to represent the attitudes and behaviors of educators in today's context. Some schools are filled with voices who blame some teachers, some students, their parents, the school district, or current mandated programs for the low achievement scores of some students. While these voices may be loud singers of discontent these days, other voices sing in harmony about community-centered successes in reaching clearly focused goals for improved student achievement. This choir of community voices is the choir we invite you to join. Our choir members learn and practice the individual skills necessary to be a contributing member of the larger group. Our choir rehearses as a single unit focused on improving our performance. And ultimately, we perform in ways that honor our diversity and support our entire community. Our rehearsals and our performances disturb the silence and the discord in ways that invite, encourage, and challenge others to join our community choir.

    This book integrates the four Tools of Cultural Proficiency with the tenets of professional learning communities. We provide protocols, activities, and rubrics to convene conversations about the intersection of race, ethnicity, gender, social class, sexual orientation and identity, faith, and ableness with the disparities in student achievement. The authors believe the language, the tools, and the practices of Cultural Proficiency are missing from the current literature and practices of professional learning communities. This book proposes to address this omission by explicitly framing the work of learning communities through the lens of Cultural Proficiency.

    Cultural Proficiency is a mind-set, a worldview through which to examine our beliefs, values, assumptions, and behaviors. This book defines and describes culture in its broadest sense. Culture is inclusive of and involves more than ethnic or racial differences. Culture is the set of practices and beliefs that is shared with members of a particular group and that distinguishes one group from others (Lindsey, Nuri Robins, & Terrell, 2003, p. 14). Culture includes shared characteristics of human description, including race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation and identity, faith, spirituality, ableness, geography, ancestry, language, history, occupation, and affiliations.

    Readers and the cowriters of this book are members of various and diverse cultural groups, and we may hold several cultural aspects in common. For example, we bring our experiences as school leaders and our work toward creating equitable schools to this writing so we may better serve the needs of all students. We have written this book for school leaders who hold a passion for equity through collaborative community development. We define school leaders as teacher leaders, site and district office administrators, counselors, staff members, parents, and other community partners. We recognize that it takes both formal and informal leaders to achieve the learning goals we set for our students and ourselves. We invite you to keep your leadership role(s) in mind as you read this book. Welcome to our journey toward culturally proficient practices.

    Parts I, II, and III of this book describe the chapters' contents and offer transitions and connections for the reader. Each chapter opens with an epigraph for the reader's reflection. The chapters are formatted for the reader to get centered with prompts for thinking, go deeper with descriptions and tools, and reflect using a series of questions designed to guide the inside-out approach for culturally proficient practices.

    Chapters 1 through 3 introduce the four Tools for Cultural Proficiency, explore the history of inequity in schools, review the current emphasis on professional learning communities, present a framework for integrating the two concepts, provide a new protocol called breakthrough questions, and demonstrate the practical aspects of culturally proficient learning communities through the context of the Maple View community. Chapters 4 through 9 provide voices from the field to give context and application of the tools for creating and sustaining culturally proficient learning communities.

    Finally, Chapter 10 offers you an invitation for deeper thinking in order to surface your assumptions about learning communities and how those assumptions influence student achievement. The chapter offers protocols and activities to support your learning. The book concludes with a call to action.


    This book is best used when in community with others. Once the community is engaged, the system of schooling as you know it will forever be curious, disturbed, and changed.

    Strong warning? We mean it to be. The authors of this book intend to shake up your thinking and disturb current systems of inequity. We invite you to join us in our journey toward equity for all students through collective curiosity.


    Delores, Linda, Jarvis, and Randy greatly appreciate each other as coauthors, co-learners, and friends. We are deeply grateful for the support and encouragement of our families, friends, and colleagues—who serve as our learning communities. Jarvis acknowledges her family: “My dad, John C. Calvin, Jr., who had the determination to take a giant step out of poverty; to my mother, Callie Mae Loche Calvin, who knew before she was 10 years old that the way out of not knowing was through her love of reading about the world; to my uncle, Leroy Loche, for his gift to me to travel afar. It is because of the coauthors of this book, along with my husband, Ron Hans, my children, Mothusi and Leloba, and their curiosity and desire to experience the wonders of the world, and my sister and brother, Thelma and John III, that I believe.”

    We acknowledge the encouragement and support of our acquisitions editor, Dan Alpert, at Corwin. As is the case in all our books and presentations about Cultural Proficiency, we acknowledge the foundational work of Terry Cross, Kikanza Nuri Robins, Ray Terrell, and our coauthor, Randy Lindsey. We offer special appreciation to Shirley Hord for her ongoing contribution to the development of learning communities.

    We are grateful to the students, teachers, counselors, administrators, staff members, parents, and community partners of many school districts and county offices of education for their commitment to creating and sustaining culturally proficient learning communities. Their real stories of successes and challenges are told through the characters in our composite vignettes of Maple View School District. We wish to express our special thanks to the following: Orange County Department of Education, Instructional Services Division; San Marcos Elementary School; Willow Grove Elementary School; Wichita, Kansas School District; Tahoe Elementary School, Sacramento, California; and the parents, students, and administrators in Fontana, Moreno Valley, San Jacinto, and Rialto school districts. For the honesty from teachers and administrators, we would also like to thank the following secondary schools: A. B. Miller, Chaffey, Eisenhower, Fontana, Lake Elsinore, San Gorgonio, Serrano, Silverado, Redlands, Don Lugo, Seepapitso Secondary in Botswana, Kolb, Kucera, and especially, Victor Valley and Palm Springs High Schools. We also offer our thanks to Etiwanda Elementary School District; elementary schools in Rialto Unified School District, including Bemis, Boyd, Dollahan, Dunn, Fitzgerald, Henry, Kelly, Morris, and Trapp; Moreno Valley Unified School District's Sunneymead Elementary; The Center for the Advancement of Small Learning Environments (CASLE) at the San Bernardino County Superintendent of Schools; University of California, Los Angeles' School Management Program; University of Botswana's English and History Departments, and professors who had the courage to be the difference. We thank the individuals who misunderstood our intentions for a deeper cause. We thank our friends on the six continents traveled. Without you, our efforts would indeed be minimized. It is from all of you that our greatest learning occurred.

    This book has been a journey of purpose and passion. We acknowledge our individual and collective commitment of time and energy and our willingness to stay true to the book we wanted to write from the very beginning.

    About the Authors

    Delores B. Lindsey, PhD, is Associate Professor of Educational Administration at California State University San Marcos in San Marcos, California. She is coauthor of three Corwin publications, Culturally Proficient Instruction: A Guide for People Who Teach, (2002, 2006), the multimedia kit by the same name, and Culturally Proficient Coaching: Supporting Educators to Create Equitable Schools (2007). Delores is a former middle grades and high school teacher, middle grades site administrator, and county office of education administrator. As a professor, she serves schools, districts, and county offices as Cognitive Coach Training Associate, Adaptive Schools Associate, and as a consultant to develop culturally proficient educators. Delores' favorite roles are that of “Mimi” to her grandchildren and “Dr. Punkin” to her husband, Randy.

    Linda D. Jungwirth, EdD, is President of Convening Conversations, Inc., a company devoted to leading educators in courageous conversations and professional development to achieve equity and success for all students. Linda helps schools, districts, and county superintendent offices enhance their professional development with an emphasis on instructional effectiveness, cognitive coaching, and culturally proficient learning communities. As adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, she inspires educators to become culturally proficient leaders and innovators. Linda received the 2008 Association of California School Administrators (ACSA) Wilson A. Grace Award for her ideals of tolerance, compassion, and professional leadership, and as a leader who motivates and inspires personal and professional growth in others. Linda's favorite place is a beautiful mountainside in central Colorado. She loves golfing and hiking with her husband, Gary, who provides balance and constant support for her many endeavors.

    Jarvis V. N. C. Pahl, EdD, is Executive Director of Pahl Business & Educational Consortium (PBEC). She taught biology and microbiology in California, Maryland, Connecticut, and Brazil. She also taught while in the Peace Corps and in Botswana, Africa. As a school administrator, she worked in California high schools and school districts. She was a member of the Graduate School of Education's School Management Program at the University of California in Los Angeles. She has traveled in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America, South America, Antarctica, and the Arctic Circle. She speaks Portuguese, some Setswana (the language of Botswana), and Spanish. As a consultant, she has designed, planned, and facilitated hundreds of learning experiences for parent groups, students, teachers, administrators, blended groups of educators, parents, students, and individuals from the business world. She believes individuals have a gene for leadership in their area of specialty. Jarvis and her traveling companions, her husband and their daughter and mother (when they are available), have every intention of taking time to travel to that one continent not yet traveled, Australia. She enjoys getting people together to have fun with games that result in laughter and bringing out “the other side” we rarely experience, especially in her ninety-year-old mother who found out how to laugh when she was eighty.

    Randall B. Lindsey, PhD, is Emeritus Professor, California State University Los Angeles. He is coauthor of six Cultural Proficiency books and a multimedia kit. He is coauthor with Franklin and Brenda CampbellJones of The Cultural Proficiency Journey: Moving Beyond Our Barriers Toward Profound School Change (publication scheduled for summer 2009). Randy is a former high school history teacher, school administrator, and staff developer on issues of school desegregation and equity. He consults and coaches school districts and universities as they develop culturally proficient leaders. Randy spends his spare time cultivating an herb garden in his San Diego County home. The herbs enrich his cooking and the garden helps Delores and him stay connected to the vital gift of life they enjoy.

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    Corwin: A SAGE Company

    The Corwin logo—a raven striding across an open book—represents the union of courage and learning. Corwin is committed to improving education for all learners by publishing books and other professional development resources for those serving the field of PreK—12 education. By providing practical, hands-on materials, Corwin continues to carry out the promise of its motto: “Helping Educators Do TheirWork Better.”

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