George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

6 Ways to Make Teaching More Culturally Responsive

Educators can help all students in their classrooms feel included by using strategies focused on self-reflection and feedback.

October 6, 2022
Middle school students raise hands in class
Sneksy / iStock

Over half of the students in our schools are from culturally and/or linguistically diverse backgrounds, but still, 79 percent of our teachers are White, many of whom aren’t multilingual. To ensure that teachers are prepared to teach and support students whose cultural linguistic backgrounds are different from theirs, many states have added requirements on teacher licensure, such as the need to have sheltered English immersion endorsement and/or complete relevant coursework.

Even with these changes, teachers’ understanding of how to effectively implement culturally responsive pedagogy in their classrooms may still be limited.

1. Take Time to Self-Reflect

Self-reflection is a key component of being an effective teacher. It allows us to step back and take a look at who we are as a person and as a teacher. We may not want to admit it, but all human beings have certain stereotypes and biases that may have been shaped by our upbringing, peers, education, or personal experiences.

Lack of awareness about our biases can impact our actions, such as being unfair when grading student papers or judging students based on how they dress, where they’re from, and how they act. Teachers are often key role models for many students, and our behaviors can impact how students treat one another. When teachers ignore racist behaviors in their classes, they encourage those behaviors to continue.

Let’s ask ourselves: How do we react to others from different backgrounds? What core beliefs do we hold? How do these beliefs make us a better person/teacher? How do these beliefs restrict us? How do we handle when others have opinions that differ from ours on particular issues? The process of self-reflection allows us to determine areas where we can improve.

2. Create a Student-Centered Classroom

Know your students. At the beginning of each school year, teachers are given access to their students’ cumulative folders. Have you reviewed what’s in there? If not, then there’s more you need to learn about your students. The cumulative folders include lots of helpful information for teachers to consider when planning instructions, such as students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, academic performance, and academic needs (such as an individualized education program or 504 plan). In addition, speaking with students’ prior teachers and families can enable us to learn more about their strengths and their needs, and if they have any interrupted formal education.

Rethink your lessons. It’s important to understand that valuing social justice and diversity is much deeper than the appearance of our classrooms (e.g., bulletin boards) and school/classroom events and activities (e.g., multicultural fairs). Teaching multicultural lessons/units only during cultural heritage months is also insufficient. Although they can be important, they are far from what culturally responsive pedagogy is. Culturally responsive pedagogy focuses on student learning, cultural competence, and critical consciousness. Instead of focusing on just what we can see on the surface, we need to pay attention to what we do and use in our lessons and classrooms.

  • Teachers often feel bound to the scripted curricula they’re required to use. However, we can still teach the content by connecting to our students’ backgrounds—for instance, if we’re preparing to teach our class about maps. During lesson planning, we can consider the following:
  • What activities can we embed in the lessons that allow students from different backgrounds to understand the different types of maps (paper versus GPS) and how to create maps, etc.?
  • How can students walking to school, taking school buses, riding with their parents, or taking public transportation utilize the skills they have learned about maps?

What supporting materials and resources from the student community can we use to enhance the lesson (such as using a compass to identify alternate routes to go from one place to another in the community and visiting city hall to learn about zoning and land use planning)?

3. Rethink Your Classroom Library

Having a classroom library that reflects students’ cultural backgrounds is important. In addition to including teacher-selected books, invite your students to bring books that reflect their cultures and share them with their peers. This allows students to take pride in their own cultures and gives them opportunities to teach their peers about themselves.

Often, there’s a disconnect between what’s being taught in the classroom and students’ day-to-day lives. When teachers incorporate students’ own books into lessons, it not only helps them connect what they learn to their lives but also prompts other students to become interested in reading these books and builds stronger relationships with their classmates.

4. Engage Students’ Families and Community

Our efficacy as teachers also comes from engaging our students’ families and community. Family engagement is more than getting their signatures, having them volunteer in the classroom, or having them attend school meetings. When we seek resources to enhance our lessons, besides utilizing online resources, consider seeking collaboration from the students’ families and community.

For instance, when teaching about immigration history, invite some families (parents and/or grandparents) to share their immigration experiences. For older students, schools often teach about career planning. Instead of simply teaching what the process is like from textbooks, teachers can organize visits to the career centers in the community and learn directly from the staff about what support they offer and what the job search involves.

5. Advance Your Skills Continuously

If you’re enrolled in a teacher preparation or a graduate program, you probably have many opportunities to learn about recent research and effective practices. However, if you aren’t enrolled in any programs, you should stay current in new research on teaching pedagogy, emerging technology tools for the classroom, new intervention strategies, and more.

Teachers are strongly encouraged to become members of professional organizations that interest them, such as the National Education Association, ASCD, and the Council for Exceptional Children. These organizations have annual conferences, webinars, and publications that offer research-based strategies that teachers can utilize, as well as community forums for teachers to post questions and seek support from their peers.

6. Reflect Consistently

At the end of each lesson or unit, we can take a few minutes to reflect on what’s working and what’s not working: Is there anything we wish we had accomplished but didn’t? Why not? Are there any materials we could’ve used to strengthen the lessons but didn’t? What community resources could be incorporated in the lessons, if we were to teach them again? And so on.

This reflection process allows us to identify adjustments for future lessons and units. It’s also helpful to revisit these reflection notes at the end of the school year, in order to be better prepared for the next one.

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