Both a recent episode of Morning Edition from NPR and a story that played on 89.3 KPCC visit a dual-language school called Stone Avenue in Riverside, California. Ron Morris, a kindergarten teacher, takes his students through the same subjects that all kids learn (math, spelling, etc.), but teaches them in Spanish, tapping into his learners’ first language and culture.

The day that NPR visits, they are singing a song together in Spanish called “Cielito Lindo.” Rather than translate English songs, Morris dives into the songs that his students’ parents would have learned as children.

Morris’ understanding of his students comes from his stepmother, who was from Mexico and who helped raise him. He engages with their culture because he knows that learning is more fun for them and comes more naturally that way.

The parents are appreciative of his teaching style. A Honduran father says he “appreciates the cultural element in Morris’ teaching, even if it isn’t his culture.” Another parent says she sent her child to Stone Avenue specifically because of Morris—even among teachers in the dual-language programs in California, his efforts to engage his students culturally go above and beyond.

Both radio pieces highlight something that we feel is deeply important: cultural and linguistic engagement. Students come to school from a wide range of backgrounds that inform who they are, the way they think about the world, and what is comfortable and engaging for them. Being sensitive to students’ identities is important – great teaching goes a step further by incorporating the cultures of each learner into the curriculum.

For many students, the cultural touchstones that are most comfortable for their teacher may not be so familiar to them. By bringing his learners’ language and culture into the curriculum, Morris is creating an environment that is both familiar and engaging to students. Singing in Spanish shows them that their songs, their language and their culture have value inside and outside the classroom.