Developing Critical Cultural Competence: A Guide for 21st-Century Educators


Jewell E. Cooper, Ye He & Barbara B. Levin

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  • Chapters
  • Front Matter
  • Back Matter
  • Subject Index
  • Dedication

    We would like to dedicate this book to all the students, teachers, and families we have worked with over the years from whom we have learned so much and without whom this book would not be possible. We would also like to thank our own families who continue to support us in doing this work, and acknowledge the contributions of our many colleagues who share our vision for a more equitable environment in our schools.


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    List of Resources

    The following Resources can be accessed at the companion website for Developing Critical Cultural Competence: A Guide for 21st-Century Educators,

    Resource 1.1 Milner's (2010) Conceptual Repertoires About Diversity Resource 1.2 Textbooks Recommended for Learning About Diversity Resource 1.3 Recommended Videos Resource 1.4 Book Club List

    Resource 1.5 Book Club Graphic for Train Go Sorry by Leah Hager Cohen

    Resource 1.6 Debriefing the Game of Monopoly

    Resource 2.1 Suggestions for Leading and Participating in Democratic Discussions

    Resource 2.2 Alternative Autobiographical Sketch

    Resource 2.3 Questions to Help You Develop Your Educational Philosophy

    Resource 2.4 Intercultural Autograph Hunt

    Resource 2.5 Format for Bio-Poem With Sample

    Resource 2.6 Statements for Privilege Walk Activity

    Resource 3.1 Visioning Questions (Hammerness, 2006)

    Resource 3.2 The Personal Theorizing Process

    Resource 3.3 Example of PPT Graphics: The Sky Is the Limit

    Resource 3.4 Example of PPT Graphics: Unearthing Planet PPT

    Resource 3.5 Format of Evaluation of Your PPTs in Action

    Resource 3.6 Sample Analysis of PPTs in Action

    Resource 3.7 Action Research Questions (Hubbard & Power, 2003)

    Resource 3.8 Guidelines for Action Research

    Resource 3.9 Additional Resources to Support Action Research

    Resource 4.1 Ideas for Fact Sheets: Collaboratively Generated by the Group With the Facilitator

    Resource 4.2 Sample Fact Sheets About Venezuela, Scientology, and GAD

    Resource 4.3 Website List of Resources for Fact Sheets

    Resource 4.4 Format for Website Review Handout

    Resource 4.5 Resources for Survey Instruments

    Resource 4.6 Instructions for Interpreting Survey Results

    Resource 5.1 Attending Behavior and Active Listening (Ivey & Ivey, 2007)

    Resource 5.2 Feedback Form for Attending Behavior (adapted From Ivey & Ivey, 2007)

    Resource 5.3 Sample Observation Form

    Resource 5.4 Planning for the ABCs Project

    Resource 7.1 Sample Scenario for Walking a Mile in Another's Shoes: Employment and Transportation

    Resource 7.2 Sample Scenario for Walking a Mile in Another's Shoes: Subsidized Child Care

    Resource 7.3 Sample Scenario for Walking a Mile in Another's Shoes: Crime and Punishment

    Resource 8.1 Activities With Objectives and CBAM Levels for Developing Critical Cultural Competence

    Resource 8.2 Sample Framework for Gap Analysis

    Resource 8.3 Sample Two-Hour Professional Development Session Plan

    Resource 8.4 Sample Plan for a Professional Learning Community (PLC)

    Resource 8.5 Sample Professional Development Series Plan

    Resource 8.6 Pre- and Postsurvey of Development of Critical Cultural Competence

    Resource 8.7 Authors' Favorite Readings and Resources


    ChristineSleeterCalifornia State University Monterey Bay

    Teachers were filing into the cafeteria as my colleague and I were setting up the projector. We had been invited to this racially diverse middle school to help the predominantly White teaching staff confront the “grades gap” (the gap in report card letter grades between White students and students of color, which had been the subject of a newspaper exposé) and to analyze why students of color, on average, not only received lower grades than White students but were also being overreferred for disciplinary action and special education. My colleague and I arrived armed with data for both the school and the school district levels. Our plan was to present the data, invite teachers to consider why there was a racial gap in student outcomes in their school, and then consider strategies to address the gap.

    Within 10 minutes, however, it became apparent that this workshop was not going to go well. While the few Black teachers, along with a handful of White teachers, nodded their heads affirmatively as we talked, several White male teachers sitting near the back of the room, arms folded, glared at us. After we briefly presented the data and then invited discussion, only a few teachers spoke. While some comments focused on what the school could do differently, most characterized the Black students as poorly behaved and their parents as lacking much interest in education. Although my colleague and I expected to hear some deficit thinking from teachers, given that we had been invited to do this workshop, we were unprepared for the wall of hostile silence most of the teachers maintained and the rapidity with which discussion turned into defensive complaints.

    How I wish that Developing Critical Cultural Competence by Cooper, He, and Levin had been available at that time! This story, which is true, repeats itself countless times, with minor variations. Not only have I found myself doing less-than-helpful professional development workshops, over the years, I have also read about and talked with many colleagues who have done the same. Although research on professional development for multicultural education confirms that short-term workshops, like the one discussed previously, are virtually useless and even counterproductive (McDiarmid, 1992), they continue to occur. This is probably largely because while many school leaders recognize diversity and equity problems within their schools and hear about “experts” who seem have solutions, lacking a strategy to engage teachers with core issues around difference and equity, school leaders hope that bringing in an expert will help. Too often missing, however, is a well-conceptualized approach for professional development for cross-cultural competence.

    Research on professional development for multicultural education gives some clues about what does and does not make a positive difference. Professional development projects that are too broad, attempting to rework teachers' worldviews about issues such as race and justice, are often met with resistance and conflict, even if they are ongoing rather than single workshops (Leistyna, 2001; Sleeter, 1992). Inquiry-based professional development that includes critical reflection is much more likely to make an impact on teachers (El-Haj, 2003; Estrada, 2005; Jennings & Smith, 2002; Moss, 2001; Nieto, 2003; Sleeter, 2009). Community-based learning, which is quite underused, can be a powerful form of professional development (Fickel, 2005; Moll & González, 1994).

    What would such professional development look like, especially if it is designed to prompt teachers to grapple with something as emotionally charged as race, racism, and gaps in student outcomes and school experiences? What might it look like if the professional development also addresses a range of forms of diversity including religion, gender equity, sexual orientation, and social class?

    Developing Critical Cultural Competence shows what this kind of professional development looks like, and it provides the tools to make it happen. In this marvelous book, Cooper, He, and Levin lay out a system that begins with teachers unpacking diversity in their lives, and then moving outward to consider their students, their school, and the communities the school serves. The activities in this book, which the authors have used often and refined, are very well conceptualized to engage teachers in learning, thinking, and reflecting about what can be highly emotional and threatening issues. By offering choices and scaffolding sense-making, the activities treat teachers as adults who are capable of learning and looking at problems from different points of view. By offering structured ways to learn from students and communities, the activities help teachers develop their learning strategies, as well as strategies that have the potential to build bridges of ongoing communication among teachers, students, and communities.

    Although this book is written for professional developers, I see it as having a wide audience. For school leaders who see problems related to equity and diversity but aren't sure what to do about them, this book will show a very helpful professional development process. Preservice teacher educators will find many useful resources between these covers; as a preservice teacher educator myself, I have used strategies similar to many of these and have identified others in this book I will relish trying. This book can also be useful to teachers who may not be part of an organized professional development program but who want to understand their students better and are looking for guidance.

    These days, especially, when much teacher professional development (at least, where I live) involves showing teachers how to use curriculum packages and testing systems, Developing Critical Cultural Competence offers a refreshing alternative and an inspiring view of teaching, teachers, students, and the process of learning.


    Why do we need this book?

    With an increasingly diverse population of students in today's schools, and the fact that most teachers remain predominantly White, female, monolingual, and middle class, it is imperative that all educators move beyond simple, declarative knowledge about our students' family and community backgrounds toward a deeper, more critical understanding of the complexities that affect their lives. In fact, this is true no matter who the children are that you are in the business of educating. To improve academic achievement for all students, it is vital that educators develop a more nuanced understanding of themselves as cultural beings and the habit of critical reflection regarding ways of knowing about themselves, their students, their families, and the communities they serve. Looking at data is not enough. We have to know who our students are! Therefore, 21st-century educators need to develop critical cultural competence, a beyond-knowledge understanding based on critical reflection of self, students, families, and communities. With critical cultural competence as a base, educators can finally take appropriate actions to lead the change needed to provide more accessible and equitable learning environments for all students, which ultimately are what is needed to improve academic achievement. We believe this can be accomplished best through ongoing professional development for both new and experienced teachers and administrators, no matter the context in which they teach, which is why we wrote this book for professional developers.

    Furthermore, the Obama administration's proposed blueprint for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) makes this book timely because it reenvisions education with a strong focus on (1) meeting the needs of diverse learners and (2) supporting comprehensive approaches to family engagement, and it includes (3) funding professional development relevant to these topics. In addition to promoting “specific programs designed to involve families and communities and through policies that will empower and engage families,” the Obama administration's proposal “encourages professional development programs to improve teachers' and leaders' skills in working with families” (Department of Education, 2010, p. 3). With this in mind, this book provides professional development personnel with numerous strategies that will strengthen teacher-school-family partnerships to increase student success.

    What is critical cultural competence?

    Critical cultural competence means going well beyond awareness or just knowing about the diversity of students in today's schools. It means developing a deep, nuanced, and complex understanding of diversity and becoming skilled in cross-cultural communication by (1) engaging in private and public opportunities for self-reflection to surface implicit personal biases and assumptions and understanding why they exist; (2) negotiating understanding within and across cultural groups to promote learning; and (3) transforming local educational settings through thoughtful, innovative practices that enhance equity to ensure engagement and achievement. While culturally competent educators reflect on their practices and seek knowledge about their students, families, and communities, educators with critical cultural competence are more considered in their reflections, more innovative in taking action that is meaningful and directly related to motivating and engaging their students, and more collaborative in reforming and transforming their schools' culture to meet the needs of all learners. Further, we believe the ultimate goal of developing critical cultural competence is transforming local educational settings through thoughtful, innovative, and responsive practices that enhance equity in education for all.

    We realize that only by taking a lead role in school and district reform initiatives will educators really achieve critical cultural competence. We also know that many educators are not yet ready to make the kinds of changes needed to educate today's diverse population of students. However, we believe that by wholeheartedly engaging in sustained professional development, as described in this book, they can become educators who are able to meet the needs of today's and tomorrow's diverse learners. Therefore, we offer activities to build a bridge from typical multicultural education provided in the past to more critical cultural competence needed today. Instead of only offering educators what they need to know about cultural diversity, we go beyond knowledge to highlight how educators can identify their beliefs, goals, and visions to acquire usable knowledge about their students' backgrounds and to see their students' families and communities as valuable resources for helping educate them. We hope this book will be the first step in actually facilitating educators to develop critical cultural competence, and we offer many tried-and-tested, in-depth activities toward this end that other books do not. Several of these activities require educators to move physically from their classrooms and schools into their students' home communities so they can learn firsthand about the strengths of the environment in which their students' reside and in which their first education about the world occurs. For some, this will feel daunting, but we have learned that it is a necessary part of building critical cultural competence.

    Who is this book for?

    The audience for this book is primarily professional development staff, including lead teachers, district- and building-level administrators, and emerging teacher leaders who believe more thought and action is needed and who want to engage teachers and administrators in developing their critical cultural competence. Teacher educators looking for activities to push both preservice and inservice teachers' critical reflections about themselves, their students, and the families and communities of their students are another audience for this book.

    How is this book different from other books about diversity and multicultural education?

    Most books about multicultural education and cross-cultural competence describe what educators need to know about a multitude of cultural groups. This book goes beyond knowledge and well beyond addressing multiculturalism in our schools using a limited “heroes and holidays” curriculum to present ways to develop critical cultural competence. We have compiled a multitude of activities that go beyond what is typically offered in most books about multicultural education, making it a useful guide for planning and leading professional development around issues of diversity and critical cultural competence to help today's students achieve their potential.

    Organization and Special Features of this Book

    The approach we take is to provide detailed examples of numerous activities we have used over the years in the three areas we focus on in our work: (1) understanding the self (Chapters 2 and 3), (2) understanding our students (Chapters 4 and 5), and (3) learning from families and the community (Chapters 6 and 7). Chapters 2, 4, and 6 include activities that enhance educators' awareness and understanding about themselves, their students, and the families and communities of their students. In Chapters 3, 5, and 7, we offer additional activities that will extend educators' experiences and critical thinking with the goal of moving them beyond their comfort level by engaging in more critical and transformative thoughts and actions regarding diversity issues. Chapter 1 describes five key concepts recently proposed by Milner (2010) as foundational to the curriculum for all diversity courses or workshops, and revisits many typical approaches for professional development about multicultural education and diversity issues. Chapter 8 includes a discussion of critical cultural competence and its relationship to culturally responsive teaching, and it provides several sample professional development plans to demonstrate how the activities in this book can be used in systematic efforts toward the transformation of school cultures. Measures and indicators for success are also shared for ongoing evaluation of the effectiveness of sustained professional development efforts.

    In Chapters 1 through 7, we include the objective(s) for each activity, instructions for participants, recommended discussion questions for both individual reflection and group discussion, approximate time allotments for completing each activity, and tips for those facilitating the activity based on our personal experiences. In the companion website for this book,, we also provide reproducible resource lists and handouts to support many activities, as well as examples that can serve as models for some of the activities. Throughout the book, you will find web resource icons indicating that a related resource can be found on the website. Additionally, at the end of each chapter, you will find a list of web resources corresponding to that chapter.

    An extensive reference list and an additional list of the authors' favorite resources are also included for professional development leaders who want to go more in-depth. Based on our experiences with the challenges and the impact of preparing teachers to be more critically culturally competent, we also include the voices of teachers who have experienced many of these activities and/or our experience with handling potential issues that facilitators may encounter when using some of the more challenging activities.

    Other special features in this book include questions for reflection and extension by those facilitating professional development geared toward building critical cultural competence in themselves and others, suggestions for how activities can be used most effectively in Professional Learning Communities (PLCs), and ideas for modifying some of the activities for use in online professional development.


    The main reasons why this book will help those engaged in professional development around building critical cultural competence include the following:

    • Professional development is one of the major strategies needed to enhance teachers and administrators' cultural competence if we want them to make the personal connections needed to make their data-driven instructional efforts meaningful and worthwhile.
    • Different from isolated or short-term sessions about diversity issues, in-depth and long-term district or school-based professional development provides the best opportunity for teachers and administrators to “to continually reassess what schooling means in the context of a pluralist society; the relationships between teachers and learners; and attitudes and beliefs about language, culture, and race” (Clair & Adger, 1999, p. 2) within authentic teaching contexts.
    • Most important, what is learned, shared, and discussed in professional development sessions can have immediate application to curriculum design; material selection; instructional planning; and both teachers' and administrators' daily interactions with peers, diverse students, and their families and communities.
    • Finally, professional development efforts to enhance educators' critical cultural competence have the potential to lead to the transformation of school culture and instructional practices that impact both family and community engagement and, ultimately, student achievement.


    Corwin would like to thank the following individuals for taking the time to provide their editorial insight:

    Denise Carlson, Curriculum Consultant

    Heartland Area Education Agency

    Johnston, IA

    Carol Gallegos, Literacy Coach

    Hanford Elementary School District

    Hanford, CA

    Lori Grossman, Academic Trainer/Mentor Program Coordinator

    Houston Independent School District

    HR/Professional Development Services

    Judson Laughter, Assistant Professor of English Education

    Department of Theory and Practice in Teacher Education

    University of Tennessee

    Knoxville, TN

    Bess Scott, Director of Elementary Education

    Lincoln Public Schools

    Lincoln, NE

    About the Authors

    Dr. Jewell E. Cooper is an Associate Professor in the Teacher Education and Higher Education Department at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) where she also serves as the Coordinator of Secondary Teacher Education. She holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Memphis and a Ph.D. in curriculum and teaching from UNCG. Prior to becoming a faculty member at UNCG, she was an Assistant Professor at Bennett College for Women. A middle school language arts teacher, Dr. Cooper also has public school teaching experience in North Carolina, Michigan, and Tennessee.

    Dr. Cooper's research areas include multicultural education, particularly community-based learning and culturally responsive teaching, secondary school reform, and teacher development. She has published several journal articles in national and international journals as well as book chapters in such publications as Leadership and Building Professional Communities; Home, School, and Community Collaboration: Culturally Responsible Family Involvement; and Race, Ethnicity, and Education (vol. 3).

    Dr. Cooper has taught college and university courses in multicultural education, models of teaching and educational psychology. For the past decade, her students have participated in community-based learning. She has conducted professional development related to diverse learners, culturally responsive teaching, inclusive practices, and self-regulated learning for both public and private schools. In 2003, she was awarded the Teaching Excellence Award by the UNCG School of Education, and in 2004, she was awarded the Alumni Teaching Excellence Award by the university.

    Dr. Ye He is an Assistant Professor in the Teacher Education and Higher Education Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG). She holds a PhD in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in teacher education. Before coming to UNCG, she taught English language courses and translation courses in public schools, colleges, and universities in China.

    Dr. He currently serves as the English as a Second Language (ESL) teacher education program coordinator at UNCG and teaches linguistics, ESL methods, and cross-cultural communication courses at the graduate level. As one of the co-PIs on a 5-year, $1.4 million National Professional Development grant, she has been engaged in professional development activities with both faculty at the university level and teachers in K-12 settings. In the last three years, she has delivered over 150 hours of professional development sessions on topics including second language development theories and teaching methods, building cultural backgrounds in lesson preparation and delivery, and other linguistic and cultural diversity issues in teaching and learning.

    Dr. He's research areas include ESL teacher education, diversity and equity in education, teacher beliefs and development, and the application of strength-based theories in teacher preparation. She has published one book and a number of peer-refereed articles on these topics. Her most recent publications include “Collaboration in Professional Development for ELL Content Achievement” in AccELLerate and “Moving Beyond ‘Just Good Teaching': ESL Professional Development for All Teachers” published in Professional Development in Education.

    Dr. Barbara B. Levin began her career in higher education in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction (CUI) at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) in 1993. Prior to attending UC-Berkeley and earning a PhD in Educational Psychology she was an elementary school teacher for 17 years. Her master's degree in curriculum and instruction is from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

    Dr. Levin's research focuses on teacher education, especially understanding how teacher beliefs and teachers' pedagogical understandings develop across their careers. Other research interests include case-based pedagogy, problem-based learning, and teaching and learning with technology. Dr. Levin has published numerous articles in well-respected journals and has also published four books, including a best-selling book with Corwin titled Leading 21st Century Schools: Harnessing Technology for Engagement and Achievement.

    In addition to her teaching and research, Dr. Levin developed and led online professional development with National Board Certified Teachers (NBCTs) around completing teacher action research projects, and has worked with inservice teachers to focus on unit planning using Backward Design (Wiggins & McTighe, 2005) as part of a 5-year, $1.4 million National Professional Development grant called TESOL for ALL, awarded in 2007 by the U.S. Department of Education.

    Dr. Levin was her department's Director of Graduate Studies for eight years, and continues to serve as assistant chair for the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education (formerly CUI). She is completing her eighth year as associate editor for Teacher Education Quarterly, and was awarded the first Mentoring-Advising-Supervising (MAS) Award by the School of Education at UNCG in 2008 for her mentoring of students and faculty members.

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