The United States is in a unique position in many ways, but in education in particular. In the melting pot of the world, citizens encounter a diversity of cultures every day. Although that experience does depend on where you live, the facts remain the same. We are a nation made of other nationalities. It has been this way since the founding of this country—but only recently has this been considered an asset to classrooms. This new outlook has contributed to the rise of culturally responsive teaching. 

For generations, we have expected all students to read, speak, and understand the same things in the same way. We assumed they had the same basis of understanding before they got into the classroom. Teachers expected that all students shared many of the same experiences, based on what we used to believe was the American way of life. We concentrated so intensely on molding our students to a preconceived life. But it blinded us. 

We are finally seeing changes in education, largely due to the push for cultural acceptance across the nation. There are numerous benefits to opening students up to the world around them. A wealth of opportunity exists in helping them learn other languages and cultures. As the world continues to diversify, students should know as much about others as possible. It’s not just about helping them adjust to the world, but also about understanding it.

That said, what is a culturally responsive classroom? And, how do you create one? We’ll cover that, and more, below.

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching? 

Culturally responsive teaching is a method of teaching that recognizes the importance of including students' cultural references in all aspects of learning.

Culturally responsive teaching isn’t a new term. In fact, it’s been around for decades. But it has only recently gained traction in classrooms across the nation. Classrooms have always been diverse and are becoming increasingly so as the years progress. In addition, our understanding of learning has changed. We know that each child has their own unique way of learning. We also know that the experiences of each child vary greatly and that this contributes to how they learn. 

Culturally responsive teaching capitalizes on those differences. It’s the knowledge that students’ experiences vary; this plays into their cognitive abilities. The concept is outlined thoroughly in a book titled Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. Hammond offers a framework of neuroscience-based teaching among diverse classrooms. 

The problem is, many schools aren't really using responsive teaching, even when they believe they are. Instead, they’re celebrating the diversity of the classroom and making the different cultures known, shared, and understood. Though this is a good progression, it isn’t aiding the learning process. Another approach often confused for responsive education is social justice education, which is the understanding of what is fair and what isn’t in the realm of education. It’s a tool used to break down systemic issues that cripple student’s futures. 

Although both are important, they’re only the basis for culturally responsive education. True culturally responsive teaching can be difficult to achieve. It’s far more complex than just choosing the right strategies as if they’re tools in a toolbox. Instead, it’s an entire program that requires a robust understanding and application. With that in mind, let’s take a look at common practices and a few examples of responsive teaching.

Culturally Responsive Practices

Schools face a challenge that few other venues do. They have to figure out how to make hundreds or thousands of students learn side by side. Each of these students has a different background and different ways of learning. They may speak different languages, come from different countries, follow different religions, and have other cultural differences. 

Understanding students is the only way to tackle this challenge. One practice that some districts have taken up is to build a district-wide cultural team. Their role is to understand the culture of the students, as well as economic challenges in the area. They then help the students and staff understand what it means to live the lives of their students. Students and administration must cooperate for this to work. 

Other culturally responsive teaching practices are: 

  • Socio-cultural consciousness – examining identity and inequalities and how they play into the ability to learn

  • Exploring culturally responsive strategies – these may come from books, workshops, and training programs

  • Bringing native language into the classroom either with a few words the students recognize or a class fully taught in their native language

  • Bringing the family into the classroom – to help fill the understanding of their learning environment. This also helps to create a supportive and welcoming environment.

  • Community culture in the classroom – Depending on where students are from, it may be common in their culture to learn from their entire community. They may also have an oral learning culture. Learning from elders is also common. 

  • Awareness – understanding what culture really means and how it relates to how we learn.

  • Partnership – students need to feel like they have a partnership with their teachers. Build their trust and develop a mindset of confidence. 

  • Information processing – understand each student’s learning capacity and how to move into complex learning. This includes learning strategies of cultures, especially oral cultures. Know how these students process information before they enter the classroom. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies & Examples

Culturally responsive education isn’t about racial pride as a tool for motivation, though it does play a role. It isn’t about learning about the home country of a student or even leveraging cultural connections in the classroom. This teaching method is about mimicking the learning styles of various cultural backgrounds. This includes understanding and implementing the learning methods of students’ home communities. For example, there are areas of the world in which students learn from their community or their elders and parents are their sole educators of life skills and concepts.

The processing structures of each student are different. This is especially true if they come from oral cultures. Culturally responsive teaching strategies leverage their memory systems. Let’s take a look at a few of those strategies. 

For students with oral cultures, you might consider employing:

  • Metaphors

  • Rhythmic mnemonics

  • Story-fying content

Other strategies or methods include:

Call and Response

Call and response is when you teach students to verbally respond, in unison, with a “call.” This identical statement is easy to remember, attracts attention, and builds engagement.

The method relies on the archetypes of ritual and repetition. To use this method effectively, there needs to be an energy between teacher and class. Present a statement or question that the class will complete or answer. This may not seem new, and it may seem very simple or seem as though it is just for fun. However, there are ways to use it for real learning:

  • As a review and to reinforce information already learned. For example: “What is the name of the first ship that brought the first English puritans to North America?” Response: “The Mayflower”

  • To solve, usually used for math problems

Learning Stations

Learning stations are small areas of the classroom dedicated to different learning methods. One station might have headphones connected to an audiobook. Another might have a video. Another might have a textbook and paper for notes. Another might have tools, blocks, or other materials to let students work the problem out with their hands. Although the learning methods are different, the topic is the same. Give students the ability to rotate between these learning methods. 

Variety keeps the lesson fun. The different activities also reach unique ways of learning. You may consider creating a “playlist” assigning points to different activities. Students can choose which activities to do but must accumulate a certain number of points. This ensures they’re all learning the same things.

Task Groups

Dividing students into groups is a great way to give more individualized attention. It also allows you to branch students into similar learning ideologies. This ensures that students in each group are learning with a method that works for them.

To make this method work, give students task cards with a range of content. Make these cards by identifying tasks, questions, or issues you’d find in a textbook or on a worksheet. In their small groups, they can work together to solve or fulfill the tasks. Monitor the groups individually to fill in their knowledge gaps. 

Example of a more flexible approach to this method: A teacher could place the responsibility of choosing a topic on the students. Pair them into groups, and have them discuss any previous experience with research. Also, collect their expectations and concerns for the course. List them all on the board. Ask them what they would like to research as a group, and allow them to do this together. You want their topics to remain relevant. But this method uses their experience to inform the class. It also keeps them engaged because they have some sense of control. You can also use their concerns and expectations to help tailor the lesson to their group.

Acting

Acting is a very effective method of teaching because it reflects everyday life. Allowing students to act gets them engaged. They must understand something in order to act it out. Or they learn as they act. It’s a great tool in English classes (acting out books they’ve read) or in history class. 

Example: Students must learn about the creation of the Declaration of Independence. To do this, assign students roles and allow them to act out their characters. Give them time to do their own research on the character and the topic. Then spend the next week or two holding debates. Students should try to follow the same steps that the founders did. Give them a goal, and allow them to work out a method of getting there.

Think-Pair-Share

This method provides three different learning experiences in one lesson. First, you start by giving the class a topic to think about on their own. Then, pair them to discuss the topic, each with their own research, thoughts, and findings. Finally, each pair shares their ideas with the rest of the class. The class will then discuss the topic as a whole.  

Journaling

Some students may be more reserved, so it can be difficult to know how much they grasp a lesson. Give them time at the end of a lesson to reflect on what they’ve learned by journaling. In the journal, they should summarize what they’ve learned, or at least make bullet lists of key points. They should also jot down any lingering questions. They might benefit from recording how they could use this information in real life. 

You may not be able to address their writings immediately, but it can help you assess their grasp of a topic. It is also a helpful tool for later study. They can return to these notes to reinforce their knowledge. 

Real-World Problems

It can be difficult to see how lesson material applies to real life. It can be even more difficult when students have trouble relating to it. By simulating real-life situations, it’s much easier to learn. Doing so, you’re allowing the student to use their existing knowledge to solve a problem. It makes use of their cultural awareness to solve something relative to the lesson.

Example: Students are learning a language, and the lesson for the day is vocabulary within the category of food. You might consider setting up a small grocery store (use fake food or paper cutouts). Students must purchase a certain number of items using the words they are learning.  

How to Incorporate Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive classroom management isn’t designed by pulling strategies off the shelf. It’s a holistic, pedagogical approach to learning and a robust, comprehensive way of teaching. It is an entire system, encompassing everything from the way the class looks to the way it feels. To create a true culturally responsive classroom, follow the tips below:

Audit

This is your first step toward being culturally responsive. You must first understand your implicit bias. Throughout our lives, we build stereotypes. This is natural and expected, but it can form implicit bias toward students. This unconscious development affects how you assess learning and plan lessons. 

Activate Prior Knowledge

All students come with experiences of their own. There are things they learned from home and from their culture. Encouraging students to draw on that prior knowledge is key. You can do this with methods such as the real-life situation method. 

Add Context

Tie lessons to a student’s community. This could either be their home country, their school, or their neighborhood. This works particularly well for history lessons. Consider projects that draw parallels between their communities and the lesson. If they can draw the parallels themselves, even better. This may draw out some helpful information that you can use to tailor later lessons. 

Reconsider Your Classroom

When students are in an environment that feels welcoming, they learn better. Objects in your room should represent the families of the students you teach. Consider the books, posters, and artwork on display. Think about what is on your bulletin boards. Create an environment conducive to learning.

Build Relationships

Students learn from those they trust and from those with some kind of relationship to them. Building relationships of trust with students creates an environment that feels free. They know that the teacher understands them. Together, you are working to get the most out of the class.

Group Students Based on Learning Styles 

This is not a call for grouping students based on their level of ability or understanding. Instead, it’s about knowing how they learn. Every student is different, but there are generally prevailing learning styles. Grouping them helps to ensure they’re getting the most out of the class. Each group can collaborate through their commonalities. This also helps you to give them more individualized attention.

Putting students with different learning styles and personalities together is beneficial as well. For day-to-day learning, it is greatly beneficial to group by learning style. Blended groups may be better for reviewing information.

Goals

Setting goals is a valuable tool in culturally responsive teaching. Set expectations for the entire class, as a whole, and let them know this. Individual levels don’t matter. Instead, keep the same goals for all students. Level the playing field by giving certain students scaffolds or accommodations. Some students may need extra help for a while, but the eventual goal is to get them to the level of the rest of the class. 

Create a Student-Centered Classroom

When students have ownership over their learning, they feel that they have a voice. With this, they often succeed at higher rates. Provide them with a chance to learn about one another and about themselves. Allow flexibility in their learning. Understand their expectations and hesitations. Lecture less, and get students to engage more. 

Incorporate Technology 

Technology is critical to a classroom, now more than ever. Use it to implement different learning methods. E-learning systems can help you track students’ progress on various subjects. Applications can also help, particularly game-based learning. This will help you ensure they’re making progress and learning what they need to succeed. Classroom management software can also help ensure you're meeting everyone's needs.

Creating a culturally responsive classroom is difficult, but it's possible with the right tools. First, you must know about your students and the lives they’ve lived. Then you must determine the best methods of reaching them. But culturally responsive teaching isn’t just about understanding and using strategies. Instead, it is comprehensive, requiring the attention of the staff, administration, and parents. Learn more teaching tips, classroom management software, and tech tools for teachers from GoGuardian.