Exploring Equity Through Culturally Relevant and Responsive Pedagogy

Division(s): Intermediate, Senior
Level(s): Grade 9, Grade 10, Grade 11, Grade 12

We sought to understand and address issues related to equity in the classroom through sharing academic resources and lived experiences, offering professional development and hearing student voices in order to improve staff capacity.

At Woodroffe High School, we are fortunate to have a wide range of diversities in our students’ ethnicities, race, faith, family structures, socio-economic status, as well as sexual orientation. We are also a centre that provides ELD support for students who are newcomers to Canada. Through this collaborative project, we aim to improve our understanding of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy so that we may enhance the well-being of our teachers and our students. In the “culturally responsive pedagogy” document published by the Ontario Ministry of Education, one strategy recommended that teachers “use inquiry-based approaches…[and] support students in making decisions about their learning that integrate who they are and what they already know with their home and community experiences” (p.6). However, details about the implementation of these strategies rely on the lived experiences (and reflection on experiences) of us as teachers.

We had five very ambitious goals in this project. First, we sought to better understand the concepts related to culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. Second, we explored what equity means to our PLC, to other staff members, to our students and to our communities. Third, we researched and explored strategies and programming that may contribute to an improvement of equity in the school community. Fourth, we sought to understand pedagogical strategies that would also work toward equity and social justice within our classrooms. Lastly, we worked on improving our own practices and implementing strategies that we have explored.

Team Members

  • Jimmy Pai

    Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

  • Idil Abdulkadir

    Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

  • Eleanor O'Connor

    Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

  • Isabelle St-Amour

    Ottawa-Carleton District School Board

Professional Learning Goals

We had five very ambitious goals in this project. First, we sought to better understand the concepts related to culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. Second, we explored what equity means to our PLC, to other staff members, to our students and to our communities. Third, we researched and explored strategies and programming that may contribute to an improvement of equity in the school community. Fourth, we sought to understand pedagogical strategies that would also work toward equity and social justice within our classrooms. Lastly, we worked on improving our own practices and implementing strategies that we have explored. We briefly explore how we have achieved each goal in the following list:

  1. We familiarized ourselves with the concepts of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy through professional reading and interviews conducted with other teachers in our school.
  2. We crafted a set of questions with which to interview some of our most vulnerable students so that we could hear the student voice and better understand specific equity issues present in our school community.
  3. We conducted interviews with interested staff members at our school to learn about their existing best practices with regards to equity. We have been reflecting on these with respect to our own current practices, and continue to adapt and adopt best practices into our own classrooms.
  4. We have collected content and begun the organization of tools which will provide ongoing support for teachers to implement culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. We expect to be ready share them with our colleagues early next fall to start the new school year.
  5. We have actively sought out the practices of teachers in our subject areas (mostly mathematics), as well as in other subject areas. We have arranged for a workshop to be held here at the school for teachers in a wide variety of subject areas.

Activities and Resources

Our goals were ambitious, to say the very least. Not only did we set out to tackle critical pedagogy, we also wanted to deeply understand and tackle issues of equity within our school community, not to mention the concept of equity is broad and many branches are worthy of discussion in their own right. Our group had a total of 10 official meetings to discuss items included in this project, as well as several informal meetings during lunch and after school. This was only possible because we were very frugal with release time, and we also donated our own preps, as well as time over the March break, in order to collaborate on the many aspects of our project.

In preparation for our first meeting in mid-December, we began by exploring several resources that supported our ability to effectively think about, and implement, culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. These resources included the Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy Initiative (2015) from the collaborative team of teachers from TDSB, HDSB, as well as researchers from University of Toronto and the Ontario Ministry of Education. It also involved the reading of Culturally Responsive Pedagogy monograph (2013). We also read several research articles, as well as work from the Math Knowledge Network (MKN) in preparation for this initial December discussion meeting.  

During that meeting, we felt that in order to adequately discuss pedagogy, we needed to begin with better understanding the concept of equity.  We shared our varied experiences with students, with institutions, with school clubs and initiatives, as well as with forums such as the indigenous youth conference and the rainbow youth conference.   

Since we sought depth, and not simply breadth, we decided to focus on racialized student experiences and racism as a particular topic of equity. We decided to read Tatum’s work (1992, 2017) in preparation for subsequent meetings. The book and article was extremely helpful in framing the definition of equity – and specifically the definition of racism.

We arranged meetings with Pathways to Education Ottawa, in order to listen to some of their experiences. We subsequently collaborated on a project that invited youths to share their experiences and struggles in student focus groups. Since the members of Pathways to Education have already established a positive rapport in a non-school environment, we decided it would provide a more comfortable environment for students to honestly elaborate on their thoughts without fear of repercussions. These ongoing focus groups are powerful resources for both our PLC as well as the students. Where we have become more informed about student perspectives of equity in our schools, students have begun to feel more empowered and have a better sense of belonging.

At the same time, we also conducted teacher surveys to better understand teacher perspectives on equity in our school community. In order to begin move from theory toward practice, we invited several staff members to have interviews with us about their practice. These interviews helped us deeply explore practices that they believe to have been helpful toward matters of equity and social justice. Typically, discussions about pedagogy stop at merely the lesson planning. However, we recognized that recipes are meaningless without the chef. In order to better understand effective pedagogy, we needed to move beyond the planning and deeply explore the implementation. As a result, our conversations during the interview focused on “how did you teach what you teach?” and “why do you believe those particular moves were helpful in supporting equity or student understanding of social justice?” instead of simply “what resources and lesson plans do you use?”. We aimed to move beyond the “labels” of “excellent lessons” and toward a better understanding of “why certain implementations for certain teachers with a certain group of students are more productive and effective than others.”

These interviews were helpful for our project in many ways. First, our discussions were rich and enlightening. The conversations illuminated the complexity inherent within topics of equity, social justice and pedagogy. Second, these conversations not only helped us, the interviewers, it also provided opportunities for teacher interviewees to reflect on their practice and to explore different ideas with us. This collaborative exchange was invaluable, and also built stronger relationships between staff members.

Finally, as part of our activities, we audited a class at Carleton University. It was a class for graduate students pursuing social work, and the topic was related to Black Feminist Methodologies of Practice and Africentric Social Work. During this audited class, we not only listened to the content of discussion, but we also paid close attention to the different teacher moves that were facilitated, as well as the existent culture of the class. We subsequently began to plan for the professor to facilitate a workshop for our school staff at a future date using our remaining funds.

Unexpected Challenges

One unexpected challenge that we felt was unhelpful, was our initial exploration of data. We explored Trillium information related to grades, demographic information based on Statistics Canada and Realtor.ca, as well as EQAO data for our school. We cross-referenced what we already know from student performances and credit accumulation, with statistical information about families, neighbourhoods and communities.  

We quickly found that these types of quantitative data was insufficient for truly exploring issues related to equity and social justice. We were also wary of the danger of stereotyping students and their lived experiences based solely on quantitative information.

As a result, we stepped back and moved toward authentic conversations with students and staff about equity and social justice.

Enhancing Student Learning and Development

We believe that creating a more equitable classroom and school will directly improve student learning and development. Our efforts to improve equity and equitable practices in our school aim to make students feel safe and understood, and that they are treated fairly by their teachers.

By conducting a student focus group, we were able to collect information about students’ learning and development experiences in our school thus far. We plan to subsequently have conversations with staff about these lived experiences in the hopes of motivating change and subsequently enhance student learning and development. In these student focus groups, we also sought explicit feedback about ways in which teachers can better support their learning and development. These conversations hopefully have empowered students and subsequently enhanced their learning and development.

Through teacher interviews, we hoped to both provide participants to reflect on their practice, as well as be able to share these experiences and expertise with other staff members. By sharing the information, we hope to inspire other staff members to use the resources and strategies shared to create a more equitable and inclusive classroom.

Using Tatum’s Talking About Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroomwe plan on creating and sharing with our colleagues, through a graphic organizer, the stages of racial identity development as well as the white racial identity development. By creating awareness of these development theories, we hope our colleagues will reflect on their own development, understand better the stages of their students, and take this into consideration when interacting with students, as well as through their planning and implementation of their lessons.


We believe we have not had sufficient time to effectively plan for how best to share our experiences. We hope that a future proposal can be accepted so that we can continue to work on this project.

Having stated that, we have established several plans to share our project with other teachers. First, we have continued to informally discuss these ideas with our colleagues. We found this to be an effective, natural and non-threatening way of sharing expertise. Second, we have planned for a workshop where invited speakers will work with interested teachers on culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy. We hope that the session will be effective in helping teachers transform their own practices. Lastly, we have already, and will continue to, share various tidbits of our experiences with the PLC during staff meetings and professional development days. These offer not only formalized expressions of our learning, but also invitations for further conversations.

Project Evaluation

We believe that our project was a success. While our goals were extremely ambitious, we were productive in how we explored both research and practice. All of our actions were very much grounded in the reality of lived experiences, and these lived experiences were vital in enhancing our understanding of equity and pedagogy.

While we would not go as far as claim that our goals were “met” since each project goal was extensive, we do believe that we have made great strides toward each aspect of our project.

With respect to our understanding of culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy, we have all made strides toward a better understanding. We would benefit from more time to further explore more resources that are more subject-specific in order to better understand contextual implementation of these theoretical concepts. We believe that the interviews were particularly illuminating, since these allowed us to have authentic conversations about our teaching practices and about how we might all improve on how we do what we do.

With respect to our understanding of equity, we have made great advances toward exchanging and discussing our collective, and functional, understanding of “equity.” Due to the limitations of time, we were unable to tackle all the possible topics of equity. However, we believe that it was the correct decision to focus specifically on one particular topic of equity, in order to explore the concepts deeply. In our efforts to better understand equity, we created student focus groups with the help of Pathways to Education Ottawa. These student focus groups were uniquely powerful in empowering students and effectively capturing their lived experiences.

With respect to classroom strategies, we felt that we have learned a lot of practical ways of implementing particular lessons. Our interviews with teachers helped not only the interviewers, but also the interviewees to reflect on our teaching practices. We are continuing to work on adapting the discussions into our teaching practices.

With respect to sharing implementations, we believe that we have established several effective ways of having conversations with our colleagues.  Informally, we have continued to have conversations with each other about our teaching practices. Formally, we have established plans to invite Professor Yusra Osman to facilitate a workshop with us.

Finally, with respect to integrating our learnings into our practices, we have each began to transform our practices in different ways. We are continuing to work with these ideas and trying different strategies in order to best serve our students.

It is difficult to quantify our successes. Evidence of success for our project were best captured through anecdotes. One team member noted that she had changed the way that she created student groups in order to tackle the topic of white privilege in a lesson relating to the Great Depression.  She was intentional in creating groups that were diverse, and subsequently allowed for effective discussion. On the similar topic of grouping, another group member found it was effective to create visibly random groups that was different every day. He felt that, over time, this improved students’ ability to work with a large variety of group members. Beyond teacher anecdotes, there have also been positive comments from Pathways to Education Ottawa with whom we worked. The student focus groups and teacher interviews were also both well-received. In many ways, even the existence of the focus group and interviews were invitations for more conversations about equity, which in itself was a huge success.

Resources Used

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy: Towards Equity and Inclusivity in Ontario Schools (35th ed., Secretariat Special Edition, Publication No. 35). (2013). Toronto, ON: Ontario Ministry of Education.

Culturally Responsive and Relevant Pedagogy Initiative. (2015). Retrieved November, 2017, from http://www.cuscrrpinitiative.ca/

Beverly Tatum (1992). Talking about Race, Learning about Racism: The Application of Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom. Harvard Educational Review: April 1992, Vol. 62, No. 1, pp. 1-25.

Tatum, B.D. (2017). Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” And Other Conversations About Race. New York: Basic Books.