Award-winning educator Erica Buddington isn’t one to follow tradition—especially when it comes to classroom learning. When she remixed rapper Cardi B’s hit song ‘Bodak Yellow’ to summarize a geography lesson, not only did the video go viral but Buddington’s efforts landed her on the Steve Harvey Show along with her students and mogul Sean ‘P. Diddy’ Combs. “The song was actually a part of a larger geography lesson, where my 6th graders learned the difference between the Mercator and Peters’ projections,” said Buddington. “To teach other subjects like religion, I may use a clip from Mulan to emphasize ancestor worship when we’re studying world religions. I also might use Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” with a group of seniors that are having difficulty writing narratives.”
While Buddington is committed to delivering culturally relevant teaching, she wants to make it clear—this method goes deeper than using popular songs to teach. “Cultural relevancy and responsiveness are not a list of strategies,” says Buddington. It’s not a revamped song. It requires trust and youth-centered activities, knowing your students’ strengths and shortcomings as well as their learning styles and interests outside of the classroom. It also requires you giving them permission to take ownership of their learning.”
Recently, Buddington won $18,000 at WeWork’s Creator Awards to help her grow The Langston League, a company she founded to address educational and opportunistic inequalities in at-promise neighborhoods. Plus, beyond her trailblazing role in education, Buddington is an author and HBO Def Poet and poetry slam champion.
We caught up with Buddington, a teacher at Capital Preparatory Harlem School to get some insight into how she applies the culturally relevant model in the classroom.
Why choose culturally relevant teaching versus a traditional educational setting?
“I tracked my data and my students’ scores jumped whenever we utilized a narrative that pertained to their diaspora, had peer-to-peer teaching, Socratic discussions, debates, and there were mixed media involved, “says Buddington.” Initially, there was a scripted curriculum but when I saw my data I refused to follow it. My administrators realized this mid-year and they said, “Whatever you’re doing it’s working, keep doing it.” Administrators haven’t always been open to my techniques, but I was an ask-for-forgiveness-later kind of educator.”
The classroom belongs to my students. Here’s an example:
On Thursdays, I don’t teach. My students teach the class. I’ve designed a mini-curriculum to teach students instructional strategies and take ownership of what they and their peers are learning.
They’re reading Teach Like a Champion and every Wednesday evening, we have “Assistant Historian and Assistant Scribe” meetings. From 3-5 p.m., students debate the lesson I’ve created.
- “Does it have enough media?”
- “Will it captivate the class?”
- “What cultural references can we use?”
Recently, they were teaching Greek Polytheism and they have 30 of their peers engaged. They’re modeling annotating.
I find that this model creates a culture of error. I tell student assistants to expect error, withhold the answer, manage your tell, and praise risk-taking. Scholars are less afraid to answer questions and take risks when their peers are in front of the room.
Students are constantly checking in on their GPA: “Is my grade high enough to lead class yet?! What can I do to get it there?”
This is the way learning should be: a conversation, a yearning, a how-do-I-get-there.