Getting Started With Culturally Responsive Teaching
The education world is buzzing with talk of being more culturally responsive, but what exactly does that mean, and how important is it in the grand scheme of things?
The term “culture” refers to the norms, beliefs, and behaviours that have been passed down from one generation to the next. These are the things that explain why a student answers a question the way he does, why another may not feel comfortable looking you in the eyes when you’re speaking to her, etc. Among the most misunderstood aspects of culture are those that influence the teacher-student relationship, and they are frequently the factors that lead to students getting into the most trouble with the school discipline system. Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) attempts to bridge the gap between the teacher and the student by assisting the teacher in understanding the cultural nuances that may cause a relationship to break down—which, in turn, causes student achievement to suffer as a result of the relationship breaking down.
As Zaretta Hammond points out in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, many culturally and linguistically diverse students are one or more years behind in reading by the third grade. When it comes to empowering students to find their way out of the achievement gap, CRT is one of the most effective tools available. Being culturally responsive is one of the most important skills you can learn right now, and this alone makes it one of the most valuable.
To be culturally responsive, the first step is to conduct an internal audit—yes, you read that correctly, an audit: digging deep within ourselves and recognising and naming those things we don’t want to look at or talk about. The experiences we’ve had along our life’s journey have formed stereotypes, which have then evolved into implicit biases in our thinking. They have an impact on the way we relate to our students and their parents, as well as on the way we select curriculum, assess learning, and plan lessons. The Project Implicit at Harvard University offers an online test that you can use to determine whether or not you have implicit bias.
Culturally responsive teachers must also be aware of the sociopolitical context in which their schools operate and dare to challenge the status quo. Students must be aware of the system that operates in and around them while they are in school. Establish a sense of context for them, and don’t hesitate to bring up difficult subjects that may not be addressed at your school. In addition to Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Sonia Nieto’s Affirming Diversity is a fantastic resource for educators. The willingness to try something new to achieve different results is the most important aspect of this work, with the ultimate goal of raising academic achievement as the ultimate goal.
Prepare for your audit by devoting some time to asking yourself difficult questions and reflecting on your previous and current practices. Within your classroom, do you operate from a position of critical care, one in which high expectations are combined with empathy and compassion for your students? Are high expectations placed on all of your students, regardless of their socioeconomic background or educational attainment? Is it possible that your previous interactions with a particular race of people have hampered your ability to communicate with your family? Identify the areas in your instructional planning where you may have allowed your implicit biases to prevent you from pushing your students to achieve their highest possible levels of accomplishment. Even though answering these types of questions can be difficult, it is necessary to effect change that you identify and unearth the roots of your teaching practice.
Now that you have completed an internal self-audit, you will need to conduct one for your curriculum as well. What are the books that students are reading? How much do they get to say about what they read, where they sit, and how they interact with one another?
Another important component of CRT is empowering students to take responsibility for not only their learning but also for the environment in which they live. Making a classroom agreement that answers the question “How will we be together?” is one strategy for creating a student-centred environment. Giving students the option of answering this question provides insight into how their cultures dictate how they want to feel respected, heard, safe, and included in the classroom as well as in their interactions with one another and with you as a teacher. This reinforces the idea that they belong, as well as the idea that the way they show up at school every day, with all of their outside experiences in tow, is valuable and important.
Last but not least, give some thought to your lesson planning. You have taken the time to reflect on your actions and thoroughly examine your own biases, which may have been getting in your way previously. You’ve made changes to your classroom environment to better reflect your students’ voices, their diverse cultural needs, and their preferences, among other things. Let’s have some fun with this. As an illustration:
Make an assignment for students to create a social media campaign to support their favourite cause, and have them bring evidence of their success to class so that they can discuss the role that social media plays in social change.
To analyse the use of literary techniques and imagery in music videos, use current songs that students might enjoy to spark discussion. The song “Wildest Dreams” by Taylor Swift is excellent. Even better, rather than assigning a song, ask students for their suggestions.
Documentaries such as Race: The Power of an Illusion should be watched and discussed.
During her presentation, Zaretta Hammond shared three simple strategies that can be used to make lessons in any subject more culturally responsive.
At this point, our students require our assistance more than ever, and we must roll up our sleeves and do whatever it takes to close the achievement gap. Culturally responsive teaching is a positive step in the right direction. The result is a student body that enjoys learning, performs well academically, and has teachers who are responsive to their needs and concerns.
Being culturally responsive fosters a sense of belonging in students and aids in the creation of a safe space where they feel safe, respected, heard, and challenged.