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Investing in Arts Education

Talking About the Other Critical Race Theory In Schools


While the debate over teaching Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools continues to dominate school boards all over the country, Dr. Mackie V. Spradley, the President of the National Association for Music Education (NAfME), wants to talk about a different kind of CRT in schools — and specifically in music education. 


Dr. Mackie V. Spradley

President, National Association for Music Education (NAfME)

What Dr. Spradley is talking about is culturally responsive teaching, and she’s here to help parents and educators understand what that means, how it can benefit all students, and how to implement these strategies in the classroom.

Dr. Spradley certainly has an impressive music education and leadership pedigree. She’s basically been teaching music since she was a child herself. “I learned how to play the piano and knew how to read and improvise at a very early age,” she says, explaining that she learned from her mother, who was a musician, teacher, and gospel singer herself.

“At the age of 12, I was skilled well enough to be the music director of a church with no assistance. Can you imagine this young girl teaching and leading adults in choir rehearsals, selecting the hymns and song selections, and carrying out the service all by herself?” This also carried into her life at school. “I loved the band and served in leadership as president of the band council as well as student director. Teaching and leadership experiences led me to a music career.”  

Implementing CRT

Now, as president of NAfME, Dr. Spradley is working to make music education better for all students, and that includes implementing CRT. 

If you’ve heard of culturally responsive teaching before, there’s a good chance you’ve gotten a somewhat vague or mistaken impression of what it means. “Culturally responsive teaching is overused and is interpreted differently depending upon who you ask,” Dr. Spradley says. What CRT is not, she explains, is a list of strategies that teachers can grab and go, a check list, a behavioral management strategy. It is not multiculturalism or simply implementing a guitar program or including rap in a class syllabus. 

“CRT is a humanizing pedagogy that is built upon internalized beliefs that directly influence our decision-making before, during, and after instruction,” Dr. Spradley said. “Culturally responsive teaching is a way of thinking, doing, and being. Let me be clear, CRT is not something we simply pick up by observing. We have to do the internal work to ensure that we believe that all students are valued, important, can learn, and deserve the best from us at all times.”

Putting in the work

There’s no step-by-step program or fast-track path to making a classroom culturally responsive, according to Spradley. It’s up to individual educators and parents to do the internal work themselves, and that means outside the classroom too. “We have to do the internal work to ensure that we believe that all students are valued, important, can learn, and deserve the best from us at all times.” 

It’s also important to understand that CRT is not one-dimensional but multidimensional. “[It is] shaped by our individual and collective histories, stories, societies, and cultures,” Dr. Spradley says. “Because all learning occurs in a social and cultural context, CRT requires that we consider the students in front of us. We must listen to our students, without attaching stereotypes, assumptions, or biases.” 

Part of this is understanding that human experiences are not “monolithic,” meaning not every member of a certain race or cultural background feels the same way about the world around them or has the same lifestyle. “Human experiences are different and established through social constructs, the use of space, speech, body, ownership of wealth and property, and much more. I could go on. But I do believe that teachers must work to examine their own thoughts, beliefs, and actions as it relates to ‘difference.’”

Where to begin

So where to begin? Dr. Spradley says the first step is to develop an internal framework for CRT. She suggests teachers start by trying to answer a few questions. How do we dismantle a false sense of educational and social status and reexamine our perceived sense of knowledge, ability to understand, and make meaning? How do we elevate humanness as a central tenet of our work? How do we genuinely see our students as we communicate with and learn from each other? 

Though NAfME’s national office doesn’t work directly with schools, “each State’s Music Education Association (MEA) has multiple opportunities to engage with district music administrators, state music education directors, students, teachers, schools, and school districts. Those opportunities could be through conferences, town halls and so forth,” Dr. Spradley says.

She also notes that her organization does help educators who want to gain a better understanding of CRT with professional development programs. “The NAfME national office does develop, coordinate, and stand-up professional development in which teachers can learn more about CRT and study with experts, such as Connie McKoy from the UNC of Greenville, who co-authored ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching in Music Education’.”  

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