The Right Brain Initiative


Culturally Relevant Teaching with Right Brain

March 29th, 2019 by Ashley Renfrew

Shannon McClure, Right Brain Arts Integration Specialist

After years of experience as a classroom teacher and school administrator, I am so pleased to be on board with The Right Brain Initiative as one of four Arts Integration Specialists working with 25 schools in the Portland area. I have seen the positive impact of Right Brain with my students first hand, and over the years have experienced professional development integrated by teachers as they strive to reach those students that appear to be disengaged. By using strategies and curriculum development through an arts integrated approach, we see an increased level of engagement with all students, particularly those who are from historically underserved populations.

I was drawn to pursue a career in education because I did not have a teacher that looked like me during the course of my K-12 experience in school. As a Black-Biracial student in rural Ohio, I often felt unseen or left out of the cultural experience that was swirling around me in the classroom that was predominantly White. School was uncomfortable for me. It was only at home and with family where I received a cultural training that was significant to my personal development. My parents and older siblings were committed to my education, particularly when it came to human rights and global and familial history. I was supported in being an active child by joining sports teams and dance troupes. My parents also were able to afford drawing classes, which is where I began to see myself as an artist. These experiences, as opposed to those at school, were the experiences that made me feel like a champion and eventually lead me to college and later career. Yet many of our students do not have the level of support that my family was able to provide me at home.

First grade students at View Acres Elementary learn about seed dispersal with Right Brain Teaching Artist Nicole McCall.

School districts have called attention to the opportunity gap that exists for students of color in state and national data, including some of the lowest graduation rates for Black students in the country. As a result, Portland area educators are committed to actively seek ways to deliver a culturally relevant curriculum and increase engagement and achievement for all students. It is not uncommon for students of color to learn best through artistic modes. This is because a creative process engages students in the four tenets of Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT) and Learning. Gloria Ladson-Billings describes CRT as curriculum that includes: 1) Identity development and Self-Reflection; 2) Student Empowerment; 3) Knowledge Construction; and 4) Differentiated Assessment (Villegas, A.M. & and Lucas, T. (2002). Educating culturally responsive teachers. A coherent approach. Albany: State University of New York Press).

The Right Brain Initiative provides teachers with an opportunity to learn approaches to curriculum that meet diverse learners. As an Arts Integration Specialist, I coach and model strategies with class teachers to develop new ways of engaging students. As teachers welcome teaching artists into the classroom, they observe higher levels of engagement with students who often seem checked out when learning through more conventional methods. For example: while conventional science class may look like students silently seated at desks facing the whiteboard, learning how a plant “disburses” their seed through movement set to music engages kinetic learners. Students that may struggle to be still and silent in learning through conventional methods may surprise their teachers with a high level of engagement in full-body learning. In fact, this type of learning is essential for many kinetic learners. Class teachers then have an arts integration tool in their kit for the next time they teach this content, and can begin assess student understanding through culturally relevant, formative assessment.

First grade students at View Acres Elementary use creative movement to understand the mechanics of seed dispersal with Right Brain Teaching Artist Nicole McCall.

I believe that students must experience academic success in order to connect them to their learning and provide them with pathways to the future. This is what I experienced in my youth and what I continue to see throughout my career in education. I have become the teacher that I wish I had when I was a child. Not only that, but I get to support the teaching of others who wish to do the same. When we as professional educators continue to develop our practice to center diversity in both culture and learning styles in our classrooms, we enhance experiences for ALL students.


Ashley Renfrew