When I taught early American history, my students and I discussed both the tragedies and the triumphs surrounding the founding of the United States. My students—mostly Black and Latino—could appreciate the grandeur of the Washington Crossing the Delaware painting, while simultaneously empathizing with Phillis Wheatley’s poetic longings for equality. A culturally responsive approach to teaching inspires deep conversations and can be equal parts challenging and rewarding.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that understanding the principles of culturally responsive education and actually being a culturally responsive educator are not synonymous. Bridging the gap between theoretical knowledge and successful execution may include mistakes, such as jumping into sensitive topics without building trust or making assumptions about students’ lived experiences. There are three key steps to help navigate difficult conversations in a culturally responsive way.
1. Center Student Voice and Choice
Culturally responsive teaching incorporates and connects students’ interests and experiences to our learning objectives. Centering student voice and choice not only engages students; it also shows that their perspectives and input matter. Christopher Emdin’s theory of reality pedagogy, which centers student agency and connects academic content to current events, highlights the importance of co-teaching with students. Sharing the classroom “steering wheel” with students builds inclusivity, belonging, and their sense of agency.
For example, when I taught a unit about women suffragists, my students chose their research subjects as well as the facts they wanted to share with their classmates. I was amazed by how many of them focused on what women like Sojourner Truth and Elizabeth Cady Stanton were like growing up. I would not have thought to share much about suffragists’ childhoods, and yet my students were so inspired by the suffragists’ journeys toward activism.
Through this model of co-teaching, my students showed me their interests. I paid attention, and I integrated their values in subsequent lessons. Ultimately, culturally responsive classrooms support academic achievement though personalized connections.
2. Differentiate Between Safe Spaces and Brave Spaces
Meaningful and challenging discussions will arise in your classroom. Safe spaces and brave spaces are foundational in fostering and holding such moments. According to scholar Shihua Chen Brazill, a safe space is “established through mutual respect built on group norms,” and it “protects students from psychological harm” and judgment. A safe space is the foundation of a brave space, which Brazill describes as “a tool to discuss controversial and sensitive issues regarding diversity and social justice.”
An excerpt from Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street inspired my class to engage in a conversation about family history and cultural belonging. In this safe space, students shared anecdotes and tall tales punctuated by moments of laughter and tears of nostalgia. During the conversation, a student admitted that she was not always inclusive of people different from her. I knew it was time to transition into a brave space.
Typically, brave spaces allow learners to engage in critical analysis, challenge a norm, and/or engage in a debate. Teachers can use a visual or nonverbal cue as well as a verbal cue to signal such a transition. During this lesson, I explicitly signaled the transition from a safe space to a brave space by placing a blue magnet on the easel and leading the class through a “deep belly” breathing exercise.
We then discussed times when we excluded or judged others who were different from us. We connected our experiences to the passages in The House on Mango Street and brainstormed how we could disrupt exclusionary behaviors moving forward. Throughout the conversation, I referenced anchor charts with community agreements so that students knew how to engage in the space.
When dialoguing in a brave space, ensure that everyone knows the hand signals and safe words needed to convey nonverbal communication throughout the discussion. Similarly, offer both verbal and nonverbal acknowledgment to uplift students, such as snaps, smiles, and high-fives. Encourage your students to do the same for one another. This creates a sense of community, camaraderie, and safety.
3. Ease Students Into the Lesson
One of the tenets of culturally responsive pedagogy, a philosophy developed by Gloria Ladson-Billings, is to “identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems.” This can be a difficult task. Immediately diving into hard questions and confronting content can be confusing, alienating, jarring, and/or traumatic. Especially in these moments, it is crucial to ease students into the lesson.
To start the lesson, preface the agenda and the content. Remind students that you will scaffold the unit over time (lesson by lesson) and let them know what the overarching goal of the unit is. For example, students may need to be eased into discussions of periods of racial violence or religious persecution, such as the Trail of Tears, lynchings of Black people, the internment of Japanese Americans during Word War II, and the Holocaust. You can begin by asking students what they already know about the historical event and what they would like to find out. While discussing these topics, ensure that students have a safe word or gesture so that they can take breaks.
Furthermore, units should highlight acts of resilience from those who survived and fought for justice. We should celebrate and honor people who have been historically marginalized so as not to reduce their history to a single story of pain and suffering.
Culturally responsive teaching is good teaching. Successful and impactful culturally responsive teaching is a village effort, and members of the community can help you hone these skills. Have resources available for students to process their feelings at school (such as time with a guidance counselor) and for families to help with processing at home. The goal is not to be perfect but rather to be aware, flexible, and responsive.