Being culturally responsive is a critical and necessary feature of our interactions with one another. It is also vitally important in the context of education. Culturally responsive teaching is an approach that “empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes” (Ladson-Billings, 2014). The following practices provide five essential strategies for how educators can make their learning environments more culturally responsive.
1. Know your students
Learning about our individual students is critical in how we design our curriculum and deliver it. As instructors, it is our duty to learn the behaviors, backgrounds, and challenges our students face so we are better equipped to address them. An effective way to learn about students is to break the ice with them in the first few class meetings. This can be accomplished by brief survey questions, student inventories, interviews, or questions that can be tailored to be increasingly sophisticated depending on student level. Questions might include information about students’ likes and dislikes, personal interests, responsibilities outside of school, and especially their opinions about courses and/or teachers they have perceived to be effective or ineffective. With more mature students, we may ask questions about their experience with racial incidents inside or outside of an academic environment. Very often students will share personal experiences that have deeply affected them. Eliciting this kind of information can assist educators in better meeting their students’ needs. In addition to breaking the ice at the beginning of the semester, it is also essential to engage in regular check-ins with our classes. Sometimes during a semester or school year, situations may change. Students may end up homeless, deal with a parent remarrying or divorcing, or cope with their own life-changing circumstances. The more we know about them, the better we can empathize with their situation and provide them with assistance.
2. Be aware of your own personal biases
Bias can exist in many forms and often stems from inherent world views that were inculcated in us during childhood. Our beliefs and biases are also shaped by our education, family, friends and peers, and may take many forms such as religious, gender, cultural, academic, or something less consequential as color, food, or size among others.
In an educational setting, teacher bias is often a very real issue. We see it regularly in classrooms in which a student perceives the teacher as being unfair or that grading practices are not consistent from one student to another. This perception may or may not be accurate and being unaware of our biases may influence pedagogical decisions. For example, in a predominantly white, middle-class community, unfortunately, teachers may lower expectations based on a student’s culture and/or race. Unconscious biases can also contribute to flawed thinking. For example, implicit bias may result in a teacher thinking women can’t excel at math or that introverted, quiet students don’t understand the lesson because of their limited participation. Being cognizant of the fact that we all have biases will not change them, but it may help us make more informed decisions and value differences from various perspectives so we are not perpetuating inequality.
3. Transform your pedagogy and curriculum
Teachers are now more mindfully revisiting how to facilitate lessons that are culturally responsive due to the critical need in our changing times. While districts begin to work toward meaningful changes, there are specific steps teachers can take to transform both course curriculum and pedagogical practices.
In the area of curriculum, a number of different strategies can be implemented in terms of three areas: course content, methodology, and assessment.
- Cultural course content
First, when it comes to content, materials and readings used in the classroom should reflect the diversity of the students in class and the diversity of the contributors in the field of study or discipline. Teachers should also recognize how their choices of readings, examples, analogies, videos, and other content may be biased or may reinforce stereotypes. Curriculum should also be reviewed to ensure there are no hidden forms of oppression, and activities used in class should be created to be mindful of the impact they may have on students.
- Meaningful methodology
Second, pedagogy should be inclusive which means that course work should be meaningful for students, designed to encourage them, effectively meet their needs, and invite collaboration. Teachers should ensure that varied and frequent active learning techniques are being used. This can include discussions, group work, experiential learning, debates, presentations, and team projects, to name a few. Activities and lessons should be presented in multiple ways to address the varied learning styles of students, and learning support or scaffolding should be incorporated to gradually build upon the skills that students have acquired. Giving students an opportunity to reflect on what they have learned can provide insight into their progress and areas that may need more attention, but it can also reinforce learning and help them make connections to their own life experiences.
- Assess assessments
Finally, in the area of assessment, we can use multiple measures to assess student learning and acquisition of knowledge. Students should be invited to share knowledge in multiple ways which include not only traditional tests but low-stakes quizzes, quick writes, homework, responses to class questions, and group discussions, as well authentic assessments such as life history interviews, personal stories, autobiographical journaling, and portfolios to demonstrate and personalize learning. Students should be allowed to accumulate grade points in a number of different ways, not just through midterms and a final. Finally, teachers should clearly communicate the purpose of assignments and activities, and the knowledge and skills that will be gained by doing these.
4. Respect and reinforce student culture
Each student comes to our classroom with a set of behaviors, beliefs, and characteristics that make that student unique. Coupled with this are the value systems, languages, religious beliefs, and ways of life that also contribute to their self-identity. By valuing each student’s culture, we contribute to their self-concept, which in turn influences their academic success. It is also imperative to validate a student’s culture by connecting their outside experiences, daily life, and background knowledge to what is occurring in the classroom in terms of the interactions and the learning that is taking place. There are a number of ways that teachers can embrace culture in the classroom.
Sharing and listening is an important way to validate culture. Students should be encouraged to listen effectively, and this is something a teacher can model in terms of good listening skills. Students should be given opportunities to share their feelings, beliefs, values, and perspectives, and they should be taught to receive and embrace this information, while still honoring the differences of their classmates. Activities and learning opportunities that allow students to celebrate both their own culture and those of others should be incorporated into lessons.
Teaching methods and instructional practices are another way to support and validate a student’s culture and language. Include readings, videos, poems, songs, and other materials where students will see and hear people who look like them. Inviting guest speakers to class or joining an online event is another way to embrace culture and a student’s background. Spend time understanding your students so you can teach to different cultural backgrounds and interests. Also, be sure to incorporate universal design wherever possible to accommodate the needs of all students.
5. Involve family and community
Making a classroom more culturally responsive means engaging families and communities in the academic lives of students. Research has shown when parents and communities are involved, students are more likely to attend school regularly, complete homework, earn better grades, have better social skills, maintain better relationships with their parents, and have higher self-esteem. Involvement can occur several different ways, including parenting, communicating, volunteering, learning at home, decision making, and collaborating with the community.
Educators should communicate with families, not just when there is a discipline issue, but when something positive occurs. Open and honest communication with families can lead to greater trust and develops a nurturing relationship which allows teachers to ask questions and learn more about their students and their backgrounds. Reaching out before the school term begins and providing ways parents can communicate with you can be very helpful. Teachers might even invite parents to complete an interest survey to better understand their students. Dialoging with parents about community or support resources to strengthen schools can not only lead to increased awareness but can also build the community relationships that are necessary to support students. Many schools also ensure translators are available for families and provide transportation vouchers to enable them to attend school meetings and events. Finally, making time for impromptu conversations and organic check-ins can enable families to feel more included and more comfortable.
Meena Singhal has taught K-6, college, and university education. She holds a BA/BEd in English and elementary education, a masters in TESOL, and a doctorate from the University of Arizona, Tucson.
Sudeepa Gulati is a professor with teaching experience from K-6 in French, English, and Spanish, and has a background with college teaching in Canada and the US. She holds two bachelor degrees from Universite Laval in Quebec, Canada and a masters degree from University of Toronto.
Gloria Ladson-Billings (2014) Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0: a.k.a. the Remix. Harvard Educational Review: April 2014, Vol. 84, No. 1, pp. 74-84.