2 Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy for/with Emergent Bilinguals

Ricardo Martinez and Ji-Yeong I

BUMBLEBEE Pre-Reading Questions
  1. As a teacher, have you considered students’ language and culture as it relates to their identity?
  2. How do you think students’ identities may impact their mathematical learning?
  3. What roles do you think students’ knowledge from their home lives play in respect to enriching math lessons?


[P]retending that we can “improve” marginalized students’ mathematical learning opportunities without taking into account their lived experiences, is educationally naïve at best. Some of these lived experiences involve navigating different worlds (e.g., literally geographically, Mexico and the United States, as well as home and school), different languages, negative perceptions (e.g., views of immigration), fears (e.g., their “status” in the United States), and areas of expertise that grow out of these lived experiences and that may be different from our own experiences and expertise. (Civil, 2014, p.11).


We began by asking, “As a teacher, have you considered students’ language and culture as it relates to their identity?” But, how about your identities? Have you thought about the complexity of your own identities in relation to your students’ identities within the shared space of the classroom? In this chapter, we explore these questions by discussing culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) in the teaching and learning of mathematics for Emergent Bilinguals (EBs). We will begin by briefly exploring the evolution of culturally relevant pedagogies towards CSP within mathematics education. Next, we will explore the two guiding theories that built CSP, along with key characteristics of CSP. We will end by emphasizing the need to situate EBs as capable mathematical learners who have the capacity to transform the mathematics classroom, mathematics teachers, and the world. As much as you, as a teacher, interact with your students, they impact how you see your classroom.

Birth of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Culturally relevant pedagogy was theorized and came to life by Gloria Ladson-Billings (1995) to teach African American students, and consists of three key ideas:

  1. Support students’ academic achievement;
  2. Ensure students gain and demonstrate forms of cultural competence in maintaining their own cultural history while gaining access to the dominant culture; and
  3. Have students develop an understanding and critique of societal norms, which requires critical reflection in guiding action.

For more information about culturally relevant pedagogy watch a speech by Ladson-Billings here:

CSP is an extension of culturally relevant pedagogy in that it explicitly connects teachers to the question, “What is the purpose of schooling in pluralistic societies?” We cannot deny that the society we are living in is no longer monocultural and monolingual, and the purpose of education needs to change. As Alim and Paris (2017) stated, “CSP seeks to perpetuate and foster – to sustain – linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of schooling for positive social transformation” (p. 1). According to Django Paris (2012), who coined the term CSP,

The term culturally sustaining requires that our pedagogies be more than responsive or relevant to the cultural experiences and practices of young people—it requires that they support young people in sustaining the cultural and linguistic competence of their communities while simultaneously offering access to dominant cultural competence. Culturally sustaining pedagogy, then, has as its explicit goal of supporting multilingualism and multiculturalism in practice and perspective for students and teachers (p. 95).

In this quote, Paris reflected that culturally “relevant” pedagogy has been watered down, and the third goal of culturally relevant pedagogy, which emphasizes students’ critical reflection on the political nature or power, has not been well implemented. Hence, he extended and revitalized culturally relevant pedagogy by proposing CSP.

When we state ‘political nature and power,’ we are not referring to political party affiliation but the political nature of choice. For example, although EBs are capable problem solvers, teachers may give EBs simple calculation tasks because they think EBs cannot read the language embedded in math problems. As a result, EBs cannot learn rich mathematics and may never achieve their grade-level mathematics learning because they are never mathematically challenged. Task selection is a political act in that it exposes students to or from cognitively challenging mathematics and various real-world contexts, including critical issues surrounding EBs.

CSP is important as it provides a counter to what Valenzuela (1999) calls subtractive schooling, where the school becomes a space that erases student identities. If students cannot explore their own culture in the classroom, they will gradually disregard their cultural knowledge at school. It is common for EBs and immigrant students to live in two different worlds (school and home) with different identities. This is not their choice, but they do this because they know parts of their identities are not accepted or valued at school. One of the authors of this book, Martinez shared his story of how schooling affected his identity.

I know for myself, as early as the third grade, I associated speaking Spanish with being stupid because ELL[EB] students were placed in the same class as special education students.[1] I stopped speaking Spanish first at school, then at home, and without practice my first language, my Spanish stopped developing. This was clearly not a CSP because the school helped to erase my language instead of supporting its development. Additionally, a divide between me and my mother started because she only knows Spanish. To this day, it is difficult to efficiently communicate with her and I just think of how many conversations and stories I missed having with her.

His story is not unique, with multiple individuals viewing Spanish (or other non-English languages) as a second or inferior language to English. Bucholtz, Casillas, and Lee (2017) explained how language, culture, and identity are deeply intertwined based on their research studies with over 800 public school students as follows.

That is, it is culture, produced primarily via language, that endows experience with meaning and provides a deeply held sense of identity and social belonging. It is precisely because of the central role of language and culture in sustaining selfhood that there is a vital need for pedagogical practices that sustain students’ language and culture in classrooms and other learning contexts (p. 45).  

This is where CSP shines once again because CSP specifically works to create spaces that foster linguistic and cultural openness by viewing students’ cultural identities as assets to be incorporated into the classroom (Paris, 2012). When students’ language and culture are valued and when students are respected as experts for their linguistic and cultural backgrounds, educators and students become co-learners and co-owners in learning and teaching. In a CSP classroom, EBs can understand their language as creative and innovative rather than wrong or imperfect, “as a powerful symbol of family and community belonging rather than as a marginalized practice” (Bucholtz, Casillas, & Lee, 2017, p. 55).

CSP is theoretically grounded in the two theories, Funds of Knowledge and Third Space. We will briefly discuss the two theories before focusing on the possible impact of CSP in the teaching and learning of EBs.

Funds of Knowledge

In the book Latinization of U.S. Schools (Irizarry & Medina, 2015), high school student Jasmine Medina shared the following words:

I am sure that teachers have more complex identities than they share with students in school, and they seem to want us to be as one-dimensional as they seem to be. Many of my teachers want to put labels on me and fit me into nice, neat categories that allow them not to think too much of who I am and what I can be, just where I belong – or where they think I belong (p. 57). 

Now, we would like to ask you the following two questions:

  1. As a teacher (or future teacher), how did Jasmine’s quote make you think and feel, and how does that relate to your classroom?
  2. How does Jasmine’s quote relate to Civil (2014), the quote used at the start of the chapter?

We ask you these questions to highlight the fact that students already have a unique and multi-layered identity when they walk into your classroom. At the same time, your classroom is a space where they will continue to develop their identities, which will interact with your own multi-layered identity. The concept of funds of knowledge refers to “the historically accumulated and culturally developed bodies of knowledge and skills essential for household or individual functioning and well-being” (González et al., 2006, p.133). As teachers, we can make a choice of identifying students’ funds of knowledge or ignoring them. Choosing to ignore students’ funds of knowledge may make it difficult for teachers to look past stereotypes that they may have of their students. We can see this in the words of Jasmine, where she later stated, “Students, who are given labels like English learners or Special Ed students, are constructed as problems and stereotypes about these groups shape how teachers think about us and the approaches they use to teach us” (Irizarry & Medina, 2015, p.58).

After acknowledging and cultivating students’ funds of knowledge, the challenge of incorporating them into the classroom becomes apparent. In mathematics education, much work has been done in cultivating funds of knowledge by the Teachers Empowered to Advance Change in Mathematics (TEACH Math) Project that “focuses on integrating children’s mathematics thinking and children’s home and community-based funds of knowledge in mathematics methods courses” (Drake et al., 2015). In this project, researchers explore how mathematics lessons can incorporate students’ funds of knowledge into classrooms, which is a core principle of CSP and culturally relevant pedagogy in that it honors students’ culture. In the case of emergent and experienced/proficient bilinguals, incorporating students’ funds of knowledge also honors student’s language(s). Click on the image below to explore the TEACH Math Project.

Teachmath homepage at teachmath.info

Here we want to add a discussion for backlash or pushback. From our previous experience working with teachers, we found many teachers were afraid of asking EBs to share their home culture in class because the teachers assumed that EBs might not be comfortable sharing their home culture (i.e. funds of knowledge). We have dissected these likely occurring thoughts into various scenarios and attempt to propose some teacher actions that we believe are suitable for the CSP framework.


Case 1: Teachers believe that EBs have an embarrassing culture and history.

This is the worst scenario, and we hope this is not happening in real classrooms. These teachers have deficit views of EBs’ backgrounds and see EB’s home culture as inferior to the mainstream culture in the US.


Case 2: Teachers believe all cultures should be valued but are concerned that EBs may feel embarrassed by their culture.

These teachers still have a deficit view on EBs. Most EBs are proud of their identities and cultures. I remember how enthusiastic the EBs in our projects were when they shared their life and cultural experiences. If EBs feel uncomfortable with sharing their culture, it is probably not because they are embarrassed by their culture but because they have other reasons, which are described in Case 3. If some EBs really think their culture is inferior to that of the US, it is a red flag because it is likely due to the continuous negative message about their culture from society. How can they live well with the deficit view on their own culture and identities? In this case, teachers must actively intervene to change the deficit views. This could also be a red flag indicating that the school’s culture does not embrace diverse home cultures (please see Case 3).


Case 3: Teachers believe it is great to share students’ home culture in class and EBs value their home culture, but EBs refuse to share their home culture because they do not feel safe in the classroom or school, or do not want to be divided from the rest of students.

This tends to be the most frequent situation. EBs in upper grades are likely to know there might be people in their classes who would possibly bully them just because they are different from other students. They also know that by sharing their culture they could be the target of ridicule or disadvantaged in their social life at school. This is sad but a reality. If a teacher thinks, “I will ask EBs to share their home culture, but if they don’t want to do that, there’s nothing I can do,” this does not help improve the situation and continuously leaves the EBs in an unsafe environment. The teacher’s active involvement is required in this case which may involve working with the principal and other school leaders to incorporate valuing various home cultures as part of the school’s mission and vision, and building a safe environment should be prior to asking EBs to share their funds of knowledge.

Our first suggestion is being proactive. A classroom you successfully build on CSP will ideally provide a safe space to all students, but it will not be built in a day. Our second suggestion is not giving up after your attempts are unsuccessful or if you receive pushback, resistance, or complaints from parents or students. As you know, silence or avoidance of addressing diversity and culturally sustaining environment does not save EBs but leaves them living in deficit views from others and themselves. Rather than avoiding difficult topics, we need to learn how to promote CSP within schools and prepare for responding to possible resistance.

Third Space 

Third Space is a “hybrid space [that] is created when classroom members bring together elements of school culture and home culture to create something new” (Carlone & Johnson, 2012, p. 155). In this definition, a school where only English is used is a first space, and home, where students use their first language dominantly, is a second space. Subsequently, a third space can be created by combining and interacting with both spaces, an intertwining space that results in something new and that includes all elements of both spaces. A classroom culture built on Third Space principles allows creative exploration from students using funds of knowledge from the student’s home culture (González et al., 2006). Jobe and Coles-Ritchie (2016) applied the concept of Third Space theory to teaching EBs and stated, “If ELs [EBs] can create third space and White students [non-EBs] can learn to engage within the space without dominance, that is effective for both the ELs [EBs] learning and the overall social experience of all students in the classrooms” (Jobe & Coles-Ritchie, 2016, p. 11). This statement explicitly describes the nature of Third Space and does not exclude anyone, but in fact values all students’ learning through their own experiences.

In education, Third Space can be viewed as an extension of Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) in focusing on how learning is mediated and constructed in a learner’s cognitive activity, which is influenced/supported by a knowledge holder. Third Space is a collective space embracing the multiplicity of individuals and the various pedagogical practices that facilitate learning, where it “includes not only what students learn in formal learning environments such as schools, but also what they learn by participating in a range of practices outside of school” (Gutiérrez, 2008, p.149). This concept extends the ZPD outside of the classroom by connecting the knowledge co-constructed between student and parent(s) with the knowledge being gained between student and teacher. Rich mathematical learning spaces for EBs are ripe for being a Third Space when we honor EBs’ abilities and provide them with challenging mathematical tasks connected to their home culture.

Nepantla Teachers Community logo

An example of a Third Space for math teachers can be seen within Nepantla Teachers, where teachers have created a space for their own learning that embraces the multiplicity of teaching with their own identities in connecting teachers digitally.

To listen to a Podcast about Nepantla Teachers, click on the image below.

Nepantla Teachers Community Podcast

Outside of the classroom, mathematics as a Third Space can also be seen in the Algebra Project.

Implementing Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy in Mathematics Education for EBs

Every day in America, children are still required to “leave” home, albeit symbolically, because of the culturally chauvinist curriculum to which they are routinely subjected, and most typically by teachers and school systems that systematically fail to construct a meaningful educational practice out of students’ languages, cultures, community-based identities, or real-world experiences (Valenzuela, 2016, p. 8).

CSP begins when we bring our students’ funds of knowledge to create a Third Space with the intent of transforming society. Mathematics classrooms should be part of a Third Space where students’ funds of knowledge can take place. The reality at many schools, however, is that EBs are given simple rote-based mathematics tasks such as computation worksheets even when they are capable of doing high-level tasks such as problem-solving. Language can be a barrier for EBs (and all students), but it can also be an asset and instructional tool when teachers use it based on CSP in a Third Space. Creating language objectives, introduced in Chapter 1, is one example of supporting EBs. To ensure students opportunities to read, write, listen and speak about mathematics in the classroom, teachers are encouraged to consider students’ rich language capabilities in both English and their first language(s) and to help them reach mathematics objectives by setting language objectives.

As mentioned by Moschkovich (2010), we need to treat EBs’ home language as a resource for learning, to be shared with the class, instead of viewing it as a deficit that should be hidden away. CSP in the mathematics classroom acknowledges students’ language and culture as an asset for learning and being a valuable classroom member. We will see more strategies and approaches for teaching mathematics to EBs based on CSP in the coming chapters.

The political nature of teacher task selection within a framing of CSP showcases how mathematical learning can be a rich, empowering process in two ways. First, CSP counters the image of EBs being second-class citizens and second-rate mathematicians. When EBs are only given simple tasks, it reaffirms that they are not smart and incapable of doing mathematics. Second, when EBs do not see themselves or their culture in the context of the problem, it makes them not want to share their culture in the classroom. It is important for students to share their language and culture because it normalizes their culture where they are no longer afraid to share with the class.

As we mentioned above, teachers may want to avoid asking EBs to share their culture and language in class because they thought EBs were not willing to do it. It is not because they feel embarrassed to show their culture, but because they do not feel safe to share their differences in the class. A safe space (Third Space) should be established before inviting EBs to share their assets, identities, and cultures. CSP also allows for students to continue to develop and learn about their cultural history without shame at school. Therein lies the power of all teachers in creating a CSP classroom where mathematics can allow for rich cultural experiences for all students. The power of teaching mathematics through CSP is that it seeks to empower students by allowing them to better understand the true nature of the world.

The reality and empowerment of EBs do not live in a vacuum, nor do funds of knowledge, and for this reason we must discuss the role of the community in creating a Third Space of mathematical learning for EBs. What are we doing to encourage community engagement in mathematical learning? Why is it particularly vital for EBs? Work in connecting mathematics to the community can be seen in Bridging funds of distributed knowledge: Creating zones of practices in mathematics (Gonzales et al., 2001) and the CEMELA project. Connecting community to classrooms is vital for EBs in order for them to feel safe and welcomed in school. Schools historically have not been friendly places for non-English speaking students. CSP seeks to dismantle language discrimination by celebrating all languages within the school and community. It is impossible to say you are empowering a student if that empowerment is confined to the walls of the classroom. Hence, students and community are intrinsically connected, as CSP works for the betterment of both.

Here lie the possibilities of CSP for/with EBs;

  • where CSP views EBs as capable mathematics learners;
  • where CSP provides realistic support for EBs to engage in mathematics;
  • where CSP harbors rich, high cognitively demanding tasks for EBs to better understand the world;
  • where CSP connects a classroom to the knowledge found at home (funds of knowledge), to then connect mathematics to the community;
  • where mathematics allows CSP to be a third space, dancing between the parallels of language and mathematics;
  • where CSP empowers teachers because at the heart of CSP is the joy of teaching;
  • where CSP allows for students to sustain and further develop their own culture and language; and
  • it is CSP within mathematics that provides a path for EBs to be seen as intellectuals.

The multiple approaches of CSP is a reminder that each of us reading this can create a safe and revolutionary mathematical learning space for EBs. Think about Jasmine’s quote from earlier and how it applies to how teachers allow their students to see them. What would it look like if we allowed students to bring their whole identity(ies) into the classroom and took away the notion of identity in relation to categories and labels? Undoubtedly, CSP will look different in each classroom because each teacher is different and so are their students. Throughout this book, we will discuss various strategies that can aid teachers on their journey, but it is teacher’s commitment to EBs and teaching mathematics that will transform lives.

CRMT Lesson Analysis Tool

Rooted in culturally relevant teaching, the culturally relevant mathematics teaching (CRMT-TM) lesson analysis tool was created in order to help teachers reflect on their own teaching. The CRMT-TM tool specifically looks to promote intentional teaching discussions and critical reflection on mathematics lessons while centering mathematical thinking and equity. The tool was not created to evaluate a teacher or a teacher’s ability. The main goal is to provide teachers with a framework to reflect on their own teaching and to help improve lesson design and implementation for all students, including EBs. The CRMT-TM lesson analysis tool focuses on six domains, each with a reflection prompt (TEACH MATH, 2012) as described in Table 2.1.

Table 2.1 Six Domains of CRMT-TM Lesson Analysis Tool
Domain Guiding Question
Cognitive Demand How does my lesson enable students to closely explore and analyze math concept(s), procedure(s) and reasoning strategies?
Depth of Knowledge & Student Understanding How does my lesson make student thinking/understanding visible and deep?
Mathematical Discourse How does my lesson create opportunities to discuss mathematics in meaningful and rigorous ways (e.g. debate math ideas/solution strategies, use math terminology, develop explanations, communicate reasoning, and/or make generalization)?
Power and Participation How does my lesion distribute math knowledge authority, value student math contributions, and address status differences among students?
Academic Language Support for EB How does my lesson provide academic language support for EBs?
Cultural/Community-based funds of knowledge How does my lesson help students connect mathematics with relevant/authentic situations in their lives? And how does my lesson support students’ use of mathematics to understand, critique, and change important equity or social justice issues in their lives?

For your reference, view the full CRMT-TM Tool.

Within the tool, we can see how important recognizing students’ contributions are in a mathematics classroom. Talk time and contributions should be distributed between the teacher, students, and among students. It would be helpful to audio/video record your own class, noting the length of teacher talk time and students talk time, as well as which students (or student groups) have more opportunities to speak or make contributions in mathematical discussions. Based on your reflection with CRMT-TM Tool, you can find effective ways to improve your teaching in terms of CSP and supporting EBs.

Chapter 2 BUMBLEBEE Post-Reading Questions:
  1. How can mathematics classrooms create a space of empowerment for EBs?
  2. What ideas do you have to first identify to utilize students’ Funds of Knowledge? What are some of your own Funds of Knowledge?
  3. What are additional ways to connect your classroom to parents and the community?
  4. What are potential barriers that you foresee teachers encountering in implementing a Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy in their mathematics classroom? How can teachers work through those set backs?


Alim, H. S., & Paris, D. (2017). What is culturally sustaining pedagogy and why does it matter? In D. Paris & H. S. Alim (Eds.), Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (pp. 1–21). Teachers College Press.

 Bucholtz, M., Casillas, D. I., & Lee, J. S. (2017). Language and culture as sustenance. In D. Paris & H. S. Alim (Eds.), Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world (pp. 43–59). Teachers College Press.

Carlone, H., & Johnson, A. (2012). Unpacking “culture” in cultural studies of science education: cultural difference versus cultural production. Ethnography and Education, 7(2), 151–173.

Civil, M. (2014). Why Should Mathematics Educators Learn from and about Latina/o Students’ In-School and Out-of-School Experiences?. Journal of Urban Mathematics Education7(2), 9-20.

Irizarry, J & Medina, J. (2015). How Can You Teach Us If You Don’t Really Know Us? Rethinking Resistance in the Classroom. In Latinization of US Schools (pp. 57-68). Routledge.

Drake, C., Aguirre, J. M., Bartell, T. G., Foote, M. Q., Roth McDuffie, A., & Turner, E. E. (2015). TeachMath Learning Modules for K-8 Mathematics Methods Courses. Teachers Empowered to Advance Change in Mathematics Project. Retrieved from www.teachmath.info

González, N., Andrade, R., Civil, M., & Moll, L. (2001). Bridging funds of distributed knowledge: Creating zones of practices in mathematics. Journal of Education for students placed at risk6(1-2), 115-132.

González, N., Moll, L. C., & Amanti, C. (Eds.). (2006). Funds of knowledge: Theorizing practices in households, communities, and classrooms. Routledge.

Gutiérrez, K. D. (2008). Developing a sociocritical literacy in the third space. Reading research quarterly43(2), 148-164.

Jobe, J. & Coles-Ritchie, M. (Ph.D.) (2016) Creating Third Space through Critical Interactions in a High School: Examining Latin@ Students’ Experiences in Neocolonial Society, NABE Journal of Research and Practice, 7(1), 142-185. https://doi.org/10.1080/26390043.2016.12067807

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a Theory of Culturally Relevant Pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491. https://doi.org/10.2307/1163320

Moschkovich, J. N. (2010). Language and mathematics education: Multiple perspectives and directions for research. Information Age Pub.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational researcher41(3), 93-97.

Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: Issues of caring in education of US-Mexican youth. State University of New York Press.

Valenzuela, A. (Ed.). (2016). Growing critically conscious teachers: A social justice curriculum for educators of Latino/a youth. Teachers College Press.


  1. I(Martinez) associated being an EB student as being the same as a special education student and because he, in the third grade, thought special education students were stupid, concluding that EBs were stupid too. This was wrong because special education students are not stupid and are capable of high levels of thinking, just like everyone else.