Culturally responsive teaching is an essential modern teaching practice. Maybe you want a better understanding of what it is or why it’s important. Or perhaps you’re searching for tips for culturally responsive teaching. Regardless, this post is a great place to start.
Culturally responsive teaching is more than a buzzword—it’s a necessity. As our world becomes increasingly diverse, so do our classrooms. Thus the need to shift the focus to more culturally responsive teaching is more important now than ever. So, whether you’re teaching a diverse group of students or not, culturally responsive teaching is vital to the success of our students and our future society as a whole.
I know that feels like a lot of weight to put on our shoulders, but I promise it’s doable. The question is how?
Luckily, this post is dedicated to providing tips for setting you and your students up for success by incorporating culturally responsive teaching in your classroom.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
At its core, culturally responsive teaching is student-centered teaching. It’s about inviting the whole student to be part of your learning community.
Unfortunately, traditional ELA curricula and accompanying texts often don’t do justice to our diverse student bodies, especially minority and marginalized populations. Therefore, culturally responsive teaching practices focus on presenting materials that represent and honor diverse voices and experiences while teaching in a way that allows all students equal access to success. It’s also about fostering a learning environment that acknowledges, represents, and respects your students, their backgrounds, and their experiences.
That said, culturally responsive teaching requires adjusting content, strategies, and tools based on the needs of the students. It’s about recognizing, acknowledging, and valuing each student for who they are and what they add to your classroom. From there, you can foster an accepting learning community and encourage student success, regardless of a student’s background and experiences.
The Importance of Culturally Responsive Teaching
As teachers, our goal is to guide students toward success as students and future citizens of the world beyond the school gates, right? That’s exactly why culturally responsive teaching is so important.
We can use literature as both windows and mirrors for our students. Literature can help students identify with the content or open their eyes to new voices and experiences different from their own. Therefore, culturally responsive teaching allows students to feel a sense of belonging and connection to the texts and materials we teach. However, it’s also about building bridges and understanding those whose lives may look very different from their own.
Highlighting the Benefits.
While embracing various cultures and student identities is often at the forefront of the culturally responsive teaching conversation, that’s only scratching the surface of the benefits. Here are several others to consider (and strive for):
- Increased student engagement and success
- Building a strong, welcoming learning community
- Promoting equity and inclusivity in the classroom
- Strengthening students’ individual and cultural identities
- Fostering acceptance and empathy
- Targeting social and emotional intelligences
- Supporting critical thought about the world around us
Tips for Culturally Responsive Teaching
While this post is geared toward ELA teachers, the following tips could be applied to any classroom in any subject area.
- Get to know your students. To successfully incorporate any student-centered teaching approach, you need to know your students. And I mean really know them, not just the surface-level stuff you can figure out from their academic files. (And yes, that includes learning—and practicing—the correct pronunciation of their name.) Make an effort to get to know your students through discussions and activities that help you learn about them, their backgrounds and experiences, their likes and dislikes, and their life beyond your classroom. From there, you can adjust your teaching accordingly to foster a sense of belonging and establish a strong classroom community.
- Consider the classroom environment. An essential aspect of creating a welcoming and inclusive learning environment is representing the students who are part of it. Do a quick audit of your physical classroom. Is it representative of your student roster? Do you provide easily accessible resources for students who need additional support? Do you celebrate your students by displaying their work on the walls? Is your decor mindful of your student population? You’d be surprised how impactful the physical classroom can be on a student’s learning.
- Hold all students to high expectations. We must remember that equality doesn’t mean giving all students the same materials and support. Instead, it means giving all students equal access to the path toward success. However, avoid making assumptions about students’ abilities based on factors such as race, ethnicity, religion, learning differences, socio-economic status, or background alone. Instead, work with other teachers, administration, families, and students themselves to best determine how to support them, especially struggling or reluctant learners.
- Acknowledge your personal biases. This might be one of the most difficult ones on the list. However, being aware of our own biases is essential in culturally responsive teaching—and it’s part of practicing what we teach. Part of that is simply understanding that our students have varied experiences, many of which may differ from anything we’ve experienced ourselves. Therefore, we must consider any conscious and unconscious biases we have, especially those that may impact our teaching. Being cognizant of these biases will help you navigate them in a conscious and informed way to minimize any potential implications for your students.
The tips mentioned below will help you harness the unique learning opportunities you have as an ELA teacher.
- Pay attention to what’s on your bookshelf. Books are powerful for many reasons, one of those being an opportunity to help readers feel seen, heard, and understood. Another is the ability to step into experiences we wouldn’t have otherwise had any insight into. Both of those are powerful learning tools to better understand ourselves and the world around us. Therefore be sure to fill your bookshelves with characters, settings, themes, conflicts, and topics your students can relate to and those that help expand their understanding of others.
- Incorporate diverse and quality texts. Simply placing diverse books on a shelf isn’t enough. Your job is to weave these diverse voices and quality texts into your teaching, even if it’s through a quick book talk or First Chapter Friday. Furthermore, ensure the texts you actively teach represent diversity as well. Consider fiction and nonfiction as well as classics and modern stories. Regardless, such texts open the door for powerful teachable moments and meaningful conversations around diversity, injustice, systematic inequalities, and social issues.
- Facilitate conversations around diversity and injustice. As mentioned above, choosing the “right” books isn’t enough. While the texts we choose might reflect important topics and diverse experiences, we can’t leave it up to the students to make meaning of this on their own. We must also serve as mentors and guide students through important (and sometimes uncomfortable) discussions. Through this, we can provide a safe place for such conversations to unfold, including ensuring students engage in informed and respectful conversations—especially around potentially controversial or sensitive topics.
- Make connections to pop culture and current events. One of the best ways to increase student engagement and interest when taking a culturally responsive approach is to incorporate pop culture and current events. This helps students make connections between classroom content, their own lives, and the world around them. While you can certainly initiate these connections, it’s always fun to see what students come up with on their own. Challenge students to bring in a current event or pop culture artifact (think song lyrics, movie trailers, art, sports interviews, etc.) and have them explain the connection to whatever topics or materials you’re currently working on in class.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Ideas
Now that you have a better understanding of how to incorporate a culturally responsive teaching approach, here are a few activities that will further emphasize your overarching goals.
- Practice close reading with a critical lens. As ELA teachers, we have a unique opportunity to build literacy and social-emotional skills with culturally responsive teaching. Whether students can personally connect with a text or not, there is an opportunity for critical thought. Challenge students to analyze, interpret, critique, and connect with the text to better understand its implications for themselves and the world around them.
- Use agree/disagree statements to challenge perspective. Students love to have an opinion on just about everything, right? Put that to use by challenging them to agree or disagree with statements that relate to a specific topic or theme of a text before reading. Then, have them revisit their statement and reasoning after reading. If anything has changed, challenge them to consider how the text changed their perspective. This simple activity is the perfect springboard for powerful and engaging discussions or equally effective writing prompts.
- Encourage a “window or mirror?” reflection: Remember how literature can serve as both windows and doors for readers?This activity harnesses that idea by encouraging meaningful reflection.Following reading a text, put this prompt on the board. Then, give students several minutes to reflect, think, and free-write regarding if the text and its characters, conflicts, and themes served as a window or mirror for them. This gives students free and safe space to reflect on the personal and social connections and implications of what they read. These prompts make for great conversations, too, showcasing the different ways in which students connect to a text and one another.
The bottom line? As teachers, we have the power to impact our students in a very special way. It’s time we use that power in a way that reflects our students’ realities, including identities and experiences beyond our classrooms. And while we can do our best to influence our students in the classroom, mindful, inclusive, and culturally responsive teaching is sure to have a lasting impact long after our students move on. Therefore, culturally responsive teaching is more than educating now. It’s educating for the future.
If you’re looking for more resources on culturally responsive teaching, Learning For Justice is a great organization. Jump right to their library of diverse texts or explore their plethora of classroom resources and dig in!