By Sarah Ostergaard
CRT, SEL, DEI, oh my.
Is CRT in our schools? Yes, if you define the acronym CRT to mean Culturally Responsive Teaching.
There seems a misunderstanding that CRT is SEL, and vice versa, that DEI excludes people, and none of it belongs in OUR (not an acronym) schools. Let’s set ourselves straight with facts. What are CRT, SEL, and DEI?
The acronym CRT has at least two meanings: Culturally Responsive Teaching and Critical Race Theory. Critical Race Theory is a theoretical framework involving the history of laws, systems, and organizations within the United States. This CRT might be discussed in graduate courses, for example, such as the nuances of the rights protected by the 1st Amendment vs. the 14th Amendment, the history of voting rights, or the quantitative effects of public policies. It is not a k-12 curriculum. The CRT discussed in this article is Culturally Responsive Teaching, an approach that seeks to help all children in the classroom feel valued and included.
CRT – Culturally Responsive Teaching – is not about racial or gender or any specific identity. Instead, the culturally responsive approach is equitable in that every child feels welcome to contribute to class discussions, every child sees him/herself represented in examples, stories, and visuals, and every child feels included and valued. We all do better when we feel included and valued, even adults. Picture this: your family moves to a new area, or for whatever reason decides to look for a new place of worship. Attending as a guest, how would you feel to be warmly greeted, asked your name, given encouragement to join the group (“please take a seat, I’m glad you’re here”), with music you recognize playing in the background, compared with no greeting, no invitation to join, no warmth, no inclusion? In which scenario would you find yourself more open to really understand the message from the speaker there, and look forward to returning? One of the basic equity practices of culturally responsive teaching is to greet students and correctly pronounce their names and help them feel welcome each and every day. When we feel included and valued, then we feel safe, then we learn and retain information more effectively.
It is easy to confuse SEL with a CRT approach – a Culturally Responsive Teaching approach, that is. The acronym SEL stands for Social, Emotional Learning. The idea is that children are still learning to recognize and control their many emotions so while spending so many hours of the day inside a school building, opportunities arise to help them learn and practice self-management, social awareness, relationship-building, self-awareness, and decision-making skills. Something very much like SEL has been around classrooms for decades, but only relatively recently in education history has had its own name as SEL. Timing-wise, this coincides with the burgeoning of big business driving the education market, with companies selling textbooks, tests, test prep materials, etc. But in its basic form, SEL is a means to help a child learn to manage his/her emotions in a productive way.
SEL and culturally responsive teaching (CRT) are not anathemas to family values; they incorporate the cultures, languages, and histories of the local community into the classroom community. Perhaps one area where CRT (race theory) is confused with CRT (cultural responsiveness) / SEL is that educators help children make sense of the world. Educators do this every day by teaching the course’s standards, and also when current events are confusing. Students in the required U.S. Government course turned to their teacher to help them know what happened at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, and whether they were safe (mine did). Students in the required Economics course ask real-world questions about inflation, why it happens, and what they can do about it (mine did).
Finally, DEI means Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. It incorporates all the above and more, and often is the name given to organizations working to advance policies, procedures, and efforts to include all Americans in our nation’s future success.
Please remember: Teachers, administrators, and staff members want the very best for our community and believe education is the way to improve our children’s lot in life. But yet again, educating children is not easy and community support and understanding are critical to this important mission. It concerns me to see more and more demands heaped upon public schools and their staff while it seems like vocal community members argue. Especially during this election season, let’s look past rhetoric and seek to understand before being understood (S. Covey, 2006).