Culturally Responsive Teaching

Helping Students Understand and Appreciate Their Differences

To promote substantial and lasting change, consider these diversity and inclusion initiatives for high school students.

February 23, 2024
Alice Mollon / Ikon Images

The educational sphere is still fine-tuning its ability to implement DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) initiatives that have the capacity to promote meaningful change. Yet celebrating heritage months, hanging rainbow flags, and posting signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “All Are Welcome Here” aren’t sufficient to cultivate a more equitable and just school culture.

One idea to foster enduring change in schools is to expand our awareness and gain a deeper understanding of other people’s experiences to build empathy and inspire us to action. Lawyer and social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson explains it this way: “You need to get proximate to the people you want to serve to get clarity.”  Stevenson believes that although our tendency is to avoid what we don’t understand or are afraid of, we need to do the opposite.

The steps that follow can guide educators to design a learning experience that invites participants to “get proximate.” It’s possible to implement this idea as a professional development session for educators or educational leaders, as part of a schoolwide program, or adapted for a language arts or social studies classroom.

Develop a foundational understanding of belonging

It’s important to begin by demonstrating, perhaps using Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, that regardless of our differences, we are united by our common humanity, and a sense of belonging is a fundamental human need.  When we know we belong, we have the ability to reach our highest potential, and this sense of belonging also impacts who we are in relation to other people.

Accepting people for who they are is foundational in our work toward equity because if we don’t understand the people we want to support, how can we possibly become their allies?

Curate a selection of texts from a range of perspectives

Next, choose stories for participants to read, watch, or listen to from people across differences. For example, for a session during our high school’s second annual DEI Day: Building Bridges, Fostering Change, we centered stories from people who are Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, or queer, and those who live with disabilities or mental health issues:

  • Laverne Cox is a transgender actress and activist who discusses in this video the discrimination she’s experienced dating as a trans woman.
  • Cathy Park Hong is an author and professor whose 2020 book Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning explores her personal experience and perspective on being an Asian American, as does this two-minute video.
  • Michelle Zauner is a musician and writer whose 2021 memoir, Crying in H Mart, portrays growing up as one of the few Asian Americans in her school and describes how the loss of her mother left her searching for her Korean identity.
  • Claudia Rankine is a poet, professor, and activist. Her 2020 book  Just Us: An American Conversation offers a wide variety of short excerpts that offer a glimpse into her personal experiences that illustrate some of the barriers that preclude racial harmony. She also shares a one-minute personal story on this podcast  (beginning around the 6:24-minute mark) that illustrates how, as a Black woman, she is viewed with skepticism, even when the situation should indicate much to the contrary.
  • Erika L. Sánchez is a writer who is the daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her 2022 memoir, Crying in the Bathroom, explores her cultural identity and her struggles with mental health.
  • Tommy Orange is a citizen of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes of Oklahoma who is the author of the novel There, There, which weaves together stories that portray the experience of Indigenous Americans.
  • Prachi Gupta is the author of the 2023 memoir They Called Us Exceptional: And Other Lies That Raised Us. In this five-minute video, she discusses her family’s story and the danger of the model minority myth.

Another resource, The Moth, offers a selection of classroom-friendly stories that have either audio or video, and some even provide transcripts.

Offering varied perspectives like these enables participants to get proximate and gain insight about other people’s experiences. When we listen to other people’s stories, we learn about their struggles that we perhaps never understood before, and we also often discover the ways that we are more the same than we are different. The combination of what we learn and these moments of recognition cultivates empathy. As thought leader Brené Brown writes, “People are hard to hate close up. Move in.”

Offer Choices to Explore

Encourage participants to begin with whose story they’re most curious about. This element of choice is crucial because participants need to be curious about what they’re going to learn in order to be receptive to the lesson. As they explore each person’s story, it is helpful to have guiding questions so they can jot down their ideas for reflection and discussion. Below are examples of some helpful questions.

  • What did you learn that you didn’t know before?
  • What did you learn that made you feel more empathetic?
  •  What is something else that resonated with you?

Choice is also important with regard to these questions; they are meant as a guide to generate authentic reflection, not to emotionally crowbar people into identifying with everything and everyone.

Facilitate Conversation

This kind of experience sets the stage for a rich discussion, as participants have likely read, watched, and listened to different people’s stories. With carefully selected prompts, participants can find points of connection between themselves and others and can also learn about people they didn’t have a chance to explore.

The reflection questions from the exploration stage can be a starting point, and using the Connect, Extend, Challenge discussion protocol can further enrich the conversation.

Create Space For Personal Reflection

Lastly, in order for participants to synthesize what they learned, devote time for quiet reflection. One way to frame this final reflection is to use the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Posing the following additional questions can help clarify actionable steps:

  • How might you think or act differently based on what you learned?
  • Can you commit to a specific change to your words or actions going forward?
  • In what ways does this change have the promise of fostering a more equitable and just school community and society?

The goal of this kind of experience is that it will foster the intrinsic motivation for participants to “do better.” It can also be easily adapted with a specific focus for a heritage month celebration or in response to a particular need in your school or district.

Fundamental culture shifts begin with changing people’s minds and hearts on a visceral level. And since marginalized populations need supportive allies to ensure that they are afforded equal opportunities, empathy and understanding offer the surest path toward equity and justice.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity
  • 9-12 High School

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