George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

Choosing Culturally Responsive Images to Connect With Students

For teachers who are just starting to weave students’ backgrounds into their practice, focusing on the images in lessons is a good option.

October 14, 2020
High school students listen to their teacher in class
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

If you’ve heard the term culturally responsive teaching (CRT), you know the importance of creating a culturally rich classroom environment. However, if you’re an educator who is new to CRT (also known as culturally relevant teaching), it can seem overwhelming. When I attended my first AVID Summer Institute and received in-depth training on how to become a more culturally relevant educator, I came away completely inspired and ready for the school year ahead.

I quickly realized that I didn’t know how to put the new concepts I had embraced into practice. My perception of my role as an educator had completely changed, but I was uncertain as to how this transformation should manifest itself in my daily lessons.

I tackled my uncertainty by making a list of the CRT strategies I’d learned about so that I could pick just one to focus on—radically transforming my teaching practice was intimidating, but trying out just one new idea was manageable. I knew that over time I would be able to integrate new ideas into my practice and that CRT would radically transform me as an educator, but I needed to start by dedicating myself to a single idea.

I decided to focus on one concept: being intentional about the images I chose to share with students.

Demonstrate Intentionality by Using Images of Real People

What kinds of images should you use? Start answering these questions by looking at the pictures in your teaching materials (slide shows, worksheets, and other resources) and asking yourself if those images reflect the students who are sitting in front of you every day, as well as those across the country.

When I did an inventory of what I had been using in terms of imagery, I saw that some of the images I used weren’t perfect in that respect. I went to work updating slide shows that included only images of white people to make sure that people of color were represented, and I focused on using photographs over clip art; I’ve found that photographs foster a sense of connection with the image among my students.

If I did need to rely on clip art, I updated images that exclusively featured men in professional careers and women in subordinate roles. I also became conscious of how sometimes clip art images of people exaggerate or stereotype the facial and bodily features of people of color—yet another reason to use photographs rather than clip art images in my teaching materials, whenever possible.

Being intentional about the images you use in class is an easy thing to do, but it has a profound impact on classroom culture. When students see themselves reflected in the lesson, they are more invested in what they are learning.

Experiment with Image Search to Find What Works Best

I use Google images or Unsplash to find new images for my resources, and I find that playing around a bit with the search terms can yield better results. For example, a Google Images search using the term “group of students” displays results that are different from those from the search term “diverse group of students.” The first term does yield results featuring students of color, but the second term shows more students of color in the front and center of each image. Making small adjustments to your image search terms will help you choose better pictures for your classroom resources.

On Unsplash, it can be a bit more difficult to search for the image you have in mind because photographers upload their own images to the website, and then they’re curated by a team of photo editors who put tags on each photo that might not match what you’re looking for. For example, the Unsplash tag “people images and pictures” is often too general to surface the kind of photo you need.

My workaround on Unsplash is to browse through Unsplash’s photos using either the “Topics” or “Collections” tab and “liking” whatever catches my eye. Then the images are stored with my profile, and I have a stockpile of curated images that I can scroll through the next time I want to update a teaching resource.

Know That We All Make Mistakes

Once you start to build your awareness of CRT, you might look back on mistakes you’ve made in the past and wish you’d caught them earlier, or you still might blunder now and then even if the concept of using carefully chosen images in CRT isn’t new to you. Know that there’s nothing unusual about making mistakes. Last school year, I opened a PowerPoint presentation just before class that I hadn’t thoroughly previewed. Sure enough, there was a distasteful clip art image of an Asian man. One of my students noticed it right away, and it needed to be addressed.

I had made the embarrassing mistake of not looking through all the slides before I downloaded the PowerPoint, but I immediately knew that I could use it as a teachable moment. I explained to my students the importance of using images that represented us as a class, and I suggested that we update the picture together. We took a few seconds to look at Google Images, and then we selected a photograph to replace the original clip art image. After that, we went back to the lesson.

In a way, I’m glad it happened because it gave me the opportunity to tell my students about the power of images and how important it is to me that they see themselves reflected in what I share. What mattered in that instance was that I saw the student’s concern, agreed with the student, and then did something immediately to remedy the situation.

Owning up to your mistakes in class strengthens classroom culture and helps you build relationships with your students. We all want to be the best educators we can for our students, and to me that means being open to adjusting our teaching practices from year to year.

Although CRT encompasses a wide range of strategies, it isn’t necessary to radically change your teaching practice all at once. That will happen over time as you begin to make small shifts in your daily interactions with students. Being more intentional with classroom images is a great place to start because it’s manageable for someone who is new to CRT, and it makes a difference in the lives of your students.

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