George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

4 Tips for Dealing With the Challenges of Teaching Diverse Texts

Teachers can help students ask tough questions and engage in respectful dialogue as they process a diversity of texts.

April 24, 2024
Covers courtesy of publishers, Gokcemim / iStock (background)

Culturally responsive teaching is an integral measure by which we evaluate a high-quality curriculum. Our multiethnic, multiracial student population deserves to see themselves reflected in what they are being asked to read. However, engaging in culturally responsive teaching and analyzing texts by diverse authors pose their own sets of challenges.

I recall feeling anxious about guiding students through a study of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. I was unsure whether I could adequately navigate the conversations about its sensitive topics such as gender power dynamics, abuse, and the oppression of women. Nevertheless, the stumbling blocks of that experience represented a decisive turning point in how I began to tackle demanding, diverse texts in my classroom. Here are strategies I use to help teach diverse texts in a culturally responsive way.

4 Best Practices for Culturally Responsive Teaching of Diverse Texts

1. Begin with themes, rather than texts. Telling yourself “I want my students to be exposed to more Black female writers” can get even the most well-intentioned teacher into a difficult situation. Instead, begin with the question, “What do I want my students to understand on a deeper level?”

For example, you may want your students to explore the complex, symbiotic relationship between humans and nature. You could assign the novel Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler; the poem “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” by William Wordsworth; and the short story “The Bass, the River, and Sheila Mant,” by W.D. Wetherell. In each text, characters undergo a journey through nature but have vastly different experiences. Structuring thematic units in this way ensures that students are exposed to various genres, perspectives, and historical contexts.

Additionally, providing students with a reading log where they respond to the same question during and after reading each text facilitates some of the highest forms of critical thinking.

For instance, one continuous reflection question could be, “What do the characters gain from their natural surroundings?” Students might notice that the characters in the novel use the limited resources (acorns) to produce food (bread), while the protagonist in the story relies on the river to help him travel quickly and impress his love interest; furthermore, the speaker of the poem finds solace and tranquility while walking among the field of daffodils.

Slowly, organically, and perhaps even unconsciously, students begin to compare and contrast perspectives and synthesize ideas across various sources to support their claims—long before any formal writing task is assigned.

2. Give students a voice, and let them ask the tough questions. Creating a culturally responsive classroom empowers students to become the owners of their learning and trains them not only to use their voice to ask challenging questions, but also to practice answering them. This is particularly important when studying diverse texts because historically absent authors tend to undertake weighty, sensitive topics that challenge the status quo.

Of course, students need question frames to help them get started: 

  • How is ____ in text A similar to/different from ____ in text B? 
  • How would the author of text B feel about the idea that ____, which is presented in text C? 

After students practice and internalize these frames, they slowly realize that strong questioning cannot have a simple yes/no answer. At this point, they are able to interrogate the text at hand, their peers, and their teacher on a deeper level, which is how you truly foster an appreciation for any writer. 

My students’ favorite part of the unit is always Socratic Seminar day, which comes after we have thoroughly read and analyzed three or four texts around one thematic topic. On Socratic Seminar day, they ask the questions. They provide the answers. They facilitate the discussion. In short, they do all the work and the thinking while I am a mere shadow in the room. 

These techniques encourage students to engage in academic discourse as a way of learning how to (politely) defend their own opinions when challenged. For humanities teachers, coaching our students to partake in respectful discourse is one of the most valuable skills we can help cultivate. This is the embodiment of a culturally responsive approach to education.

3. Do not pretend to have the answers. One of my favorite stories to assign high school students is “The Flowers,” by Alice Walker. It’s so short yet so rich, so beautiful yet tragic, and so simple yet layered with symbolism. But I am up front with my students: I’m unsure of what Alice Walker is trying to say about childhood and innocence. Is it better to lose it fairly quickly in preparation for a cruel world, or should one protect it at all costs?

This is a formidable philosophical question, and asking it forces me to become vulnerable with my students. But guess what: My students are capable of providing answers—all unique, all anchored in their personal understanding, and all valid. A culturally responsive classroom prioritizes reflection and introspection over correct answers.

4. Don’t make assumptions about your students’ experiences. It’s great to assign Julia Alvarez because you want your Latino students to see themselves “represented,” but don’t expect these students to be experts on the same experiences she writes about. When we make assumptions about others, we tend to default into stereotypes and cringeworthy generalizations.

This sounds obvious, but you would not believe how many times I, Mexican-born and raised in Texas, was asked to explain a random cultural reference in In the Time of the Butterflies, even though I had never set foot in the Dominican Republic. It wasn’t until I was well into my 30s that I finally visited the Caribbean and had any background about the dictator Rafael Trujillo.

While some students might be extroverted enough to share cultural insights with the rest of their peers, not all will be. If you encounter an unfamiliar concept while guiding your students’ reading, asking, “What do we think Alvarez means by ____” is a simple way to avoid forcing a student into taking the daunting responsibility of speaking on behalf of an entire race or ethnic group. We should be cautious about how we ask students to discuss and deconstruct literary texts, particularly when the texts represent voices of those historically underrepresented or marginalized.

If you are asking yourself, “Am I the right teacher to teach this?” it probably means that you are. A little apprehension is good, but you must have a plan, a clear understanding of why (and how) you want your students to interact with that text, and structures in place to ensure that the students are truly engaging with its ideas.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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