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    The Roots: A Culturally Responsive & Antiracist Arts Framework
    Posted on 11/18/2020
    Singer in Chief Sealth International High School Mariachi Ensemble

    Article by Carina A. del Rosario & Christopher Mena

    “I don’t like music class. I mean, I like music. I just don’t like this music that we do in class,” a student told Jessica Staire, who was then a new teacher in the Dominican Republic. Now a music teacher at Concord International Elementary School, Staire is part of the Seattle Public School’s Antiracist Arts Education Task Force (AAETF) with Jacob Chavez, Carina A. del Rosario, Donte Felder, Maribel Gonzales, Christopher Mena, Naho Shioya and Toyia Taylor.

    “I couldn’t blame the student,” shared Staire. “I didn’t like that music either. Yet here I was, teaching from a standard American music curriculum – the same music I studied when I was in school – trying to teach it in the Dominican Republic. They couldn’t relate to it; it just wasn’t relevant to their lives.” 

    Unfortunately, this is a common sentiment shared by many visual and performing arts teachers and teaching artists. When we first start teaching, we often replicate what and how we were taught – and are absolutely stumped when some students tune out. 

    Throughout the years, arts educators and administrators in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) have explored ways to make arts experiences more relevant to students’ lives and, most recently, started the AAETF to create a framework for putting this thinking into practice. This group grew out of educators' and arts administrators’ realization that more content and action were needed to address the very system that creates oppressive classroom environments. Additionally, the national and international protests against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many other Black and Indigenous people – which some refer to as a “Great Awakening” over the spring and summer of 2020 – necessitated current frameworks to be more explicitly antiracist and to embrace fully the tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement. As a result of these converging conditions, Visual & Performing Arts Manager Gail Sehlhorst and K-12 Instructional Services Music Coach Pam Ivezic partnered with a diverse group of visual and performing arts teachers and teaching artists to form the AAETF and help construct a tool to support educators in profoundly shifting their thinking and teaching for the benefit of students.

    For weeks we discussed, pondered, and pored over resources and research related to antiracism, liberatory education, indigenous epistemologies, and various pedagogical alternatives to inform our work. We discussed concepts, came up with analogies, made drawings, and used web-based resources such as ‘padlets’ to organize our work. Essentially, we asked ourselves, “What would we want students to feel and experience in our arts classroom?” As we refined our thinking, our output began to coalesce around the idea of roots, and certain themes. We eventually reached consensus on a theory of action and vision for what we now call The Roots: A Culturally Responsive & Antiracist Arts Framework. This living framework consists of five dimensions, or Roots – Relational, Healing*, Liberatory, Transparent, and Empowering, and a set of guiding and probing questions for each root that arts teachers can use when planning their lessons to reflect on ways in which they can expand their classrooms to be more culturally responsive, sustainable, and antiracist. 

    In one example, Bethany Grant-Rodriguez, a K-5 music specialist at Roxhill Elementary, shared her reflection on implementing The Roots Framework into a lesson she was developing. For one activity, she focused on using the root named Healing*. She reflected on the guiding question, “What have you done to establish a safe and healthy environment of trust where students can share harms they have experienced?” She then reflected on the probing question, “How do you define vulnerability? Are you willing to be as vulnerable as you expect or request your students to be?” In her reflection, she shared:

    “When I started this lesson, I couldn’t help but hope that they’ll be kind to me if I make a mistake. My heart is racing, I do not feel that I am in control. I am nervous about teaching online. I am having big feelings about failure or things not working the way I thought they would. I will start by sharing this fear with students and model vulnerability. This will open the door for the students to share what they are scared of as well. This will allow the learning community to acknowledge fallibility and establish a culture of bravery and grace.”

    Oftentimes teachers focus on teaching content and forget that students learn more in environments where they feel safe. By using the guiding questions offered in the root named Healing, Grant-Rodriguez was able to recognize her own concerns with virtual learning as well as potential frustrations that her students might experience. This allowed her to accept the reality of uncertainty that all education stakeholders are currently experiencing and focus on cultivating an encouraging learning environment where students could feel that their contributions are valued. 

    The SPS Visual & Performing Arts Program is exploring a variety of professional development opportunities including a series of workshops, a cohort model, and a potential research component to document the impact the framework has on student learning and teacher practice. The hope is to share The Roots Framework as a living document, learn as we go, and create learning experiences for students that are relational, empowering, liberatory, transparent and healing.

    If you are interested in a training happening soon, the Washington State Teaching Artist Training Lab is partnering with us to take The Roots: A Culturally Responsive & Antiracist Arts Framework beyond Seattle Public Schools. It is offering “Ideas to Action: Anti-racist Arts Education”, which is a two-part workshop that includes a section on understanding and practicing using The Roots Framework. The virtual workshop is open to all teaching artists and arts specialists throughout the state, and is scheduled for Dec. 2nd and 9th, 4-6:30 pm. For more information on this and other professional development opportunities, visit

    *Healing: Centers student identities; nurtures well-being by transforming the root causes of harms within institutions; incorporates narrative stories that center and celebrate students’ intersectional identities and varied experiences.