Culturally responsive teaching was not the norm when I was in school.
Back in the dark ages, I was one of a handful of Asian students in my entire elementary school. When Chinese New Year came around, my teachers would get my classmate Monica and me involved in a project related to the holiday.
This project was inevitable coloring the Chinese characters for Happy New Year, or making paper lanterns. We would also teach the class how to say Gung Hay Fat Choy, even though that phrase is Cantonese and I spoke Mandarin at home. (Poor Monica had even less investment in these projects; she’s Japanese and her family didn’t celebrate Lunar New Year!) Eventually, Monica and I learned that these projects were our cultural contributions to our classroom. Yet we did it, because we didn’t want to disappoint our teachers.
Yay! We’ve Evolved!
Thankfully, teaching has evolved considerably since I was in school. In addition, the research and resources available around anti-bias education, culturally responsive teaching, and inclusion in schools is abundant and readily available.
Reflecting today, all my elementary school teachers were kind, well-meaning, hard working educators. I believe they truly wanted to include my culture and background into the classroom. They just weren’t entirely able to do it as sensitively and responsively as I now would have hoped, and I didn’t have the language to ask for it.
Luckily, today I do have that language, and I want to share it with you.
It Starts with YOUR Mindset
A responsive classroom in any environment (virtual or traditional) starts with teacher mindset. Culturally responsive educators embrace and value student backgrounds, interests, and experiences. They see what students bring to the table as assets and not deficits.
Responsive teachers understand the importance of including student lives and perspectives in teaching–not only in certain months or around certain holidays–but every single day. They recognize that this attention to students fosters inclusion, respect, and empowerment.
YOU Make a Difference
First and foremost, I hope you never lose sight of just how much power and influence you have on a young mind, even if at times it may seem like none of your little minds are paying attention. (Believe me, my son is fourteen. I know how it feels.)
One teacher can change the course of a person’s life. If you don’t believe me, this Ted Talk from my good friend and hero, Dr. Victor Rios, will convince you. Dr. Rios dedicated his career to prevent society from labeling students as “at-risk,” and instead to see all young people as “at-promise.” Why? Because one special teacher did it for him.
I’ve included a transcript excerpt below, but you truly have to listen. It is a must-watch for any educator. Trust me, it is well worth 12 minutes of your life.
From: Help for Kids the Education System Ignores
She was the kind of teacher that was like, “Victor, I’m here for you whenever you’re ready.”
I wasn’t ready. But she understood one basic principle about young people like me. We’re like oysters. We’re only going to open up when we’re ready, and if you’re not there when we’re ready, we’re going to clam back up. Ms. Russ was there for me. She was culturally relevant, she respected my community, my people, my family.
I told her a story about my Uncle Ruben. He would take me to work with him because I was broke, and he knew I needed some money. He collected glass bottles for a living. Four in the morning on a school day, we’d throw the glass bottles in the back of his van, and the bottles would break. And my hands and arms would start to bleed and my tennis shoes and pants would get all bloody. I was terrified and in pain, and I would stop working.
My uncle, he would look me in the eyes and he would say to me, “Mijo, estamos buscando vida.”
“We’re searching for a better life, we’re trying to make something out of nothing.”
Ms. Russ listened to my story, welcomed it into the classroom and said, “Victor, this is your power. This is your potential. Your family, your culture, your community have taught you a hard-work ethic and you will use it to empower yourself in the academic world so you can come back and empower your community.”
(reprinted with permission from the author)
In Your Classroom
There is so much research on diversity, inclusion, and culturally relevant teaching available. So much, it cannot be contained in a single post. But I did want to get you thinking, so I’ve culled and summarized some of the important points.
Food for Thought
This list isn’t meant to be a checklist, because that implies at some point you can be finished with an item and cross it off your list. Instead, these are reminders for your planning at all times. When you ask yourself these questions, consider your classroom environment, your daily routines and structures, and even your individual lessons and tasks.
How am I creating a structure in my classroom that…
- Builds relationships: Get to know your students, and let them get to know you. (See our How are You Doing? post for more resources). Conduct interest surveys and interviews. Use the information you learn to incorporate student interests and lives.
- Makes problems relevant & provides context: Consider and explain how your lessons apply directly to student interests and experiences. Encourage discussion, analysis of bias, and sharing of multiple perspectives (see our post on Rigor for more examples.)
- Allows for more than one way to achieve: Remember, there is never one singular right way to teach or learn something. Allow students to demonstrate understanding and mastery in multiple ways. Try projects that incorporate art, multimedia, games, physical expression. You may just discover hidden talents you wouldn’t have through traditional assessment methods!
- Is student-centered: We say student-centered a lot these days, but in a true student-centered classroom tasks are designed to allow maximum choice and access to content. Provide students with many opportunities to explore and express their values. Also, when finding and creating content (text, videos, articles, even story problems), let your students see themselves reflected in that content.
- Teaches and fosters true collaboration: In true collaboration activities, tasks cannot be completed without the work of every member. (See more in our Collaboration post). Avoid those activities that let one or two students do all the work while the rest of the team is on the sidelines. Instead, offer tasks that encourage students to grapple with multiple perspectives and seek consensus for their team projects, rather than .
- Involves families and community voices: Think about your most and least engaged families. Consider the barriers that your least engaged families may face in connecting fully with the school system. What ways you can chip away at those barriers? Bring in guest speakers that represent your students and your community.
Resources for Culturally Responsive Practices
To learn more, here are a few places to get you started:
- 15 Culturally-Responsive Teaching Strategies: helpful checklist and article from Prodigy
- Teaching Tolerance: an amazing website from the Southern Poverty Law Center. They’ve been around since 1991 are are a trusted source of information on a wide variety of topics.
- National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC): resources for our youngest learners
- Culturally Responsive Teaching: What You Need to Know: From Understood, another go-to educator and parent resource dedicated to embracing difference
- How to Practice Culturally Relevant Pedagogy: an excellent article on the research, from the Teach for America site
- Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity Resources for Classrooms: Comprehensive roundup and reviews of programs from another trusted parent and teacher site, Common Sense Media
- Diversity: Roundup of videos and articles for school leaders and teachers from Edutopia.
We hope this is helpful! If you have a website or resource recommendation, please leave us a comment so we can add it to our list!