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Culturally Responsive Teaching

Teaching Strategies That Support Students’ Individuality

When teachers make a point of recognizing the diversity of their students, they can help all students make deeper connections to what they’re learning.

September 1, 2021
Teacher and students in middle school classroom
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Your students this year will come from many different backgrounds and hold different learning expectations. Because they bring a wealth of knowledge and experience into the classroom, a very effective approach to teaching is one that will consider and take advantage of their various cultures, backgrounds, skills, and languages. I’d like to share some teaching strategies that are responsive to students’ cultures and individuality—methods that you might find helpful for students in middle and high school.

Setting Up Your Classroom

Do the posters on the walls reflect a diverse community of learners? Will your students see themselves reflected in the books you’ve selected for your classroom library? Plan to use tools and resources that reflect diversity across backgrounds and appeal to a wide variety of cultures. Some students may come from homes with a strong oral tradition and show engagement and interest in the class activities by speaking up in class.

Others may have trouble sitting still and being quiet; they may benefit from a designated area in the classroom where they can move around during lessons and incorporate movement into their studies. Plan to set up different learning stations that support different learning methods, and rotate students between tasks. One station might include watching a video, another might require students to read an article, and a third might involve creating a piece of artwork or constructing a puzzle.

Allow for free and flexible time whenever possible, so that students can use class time to their advantage. When possible, allow students to work in the way they prefer that day: Some might want to work independently and quietly while others listen to audiobooks or watch a video; and some students might opt for group activities, like playing a game that has learning objectives or collaborating to complete an assignment.

Getting to Know Your Students

Ask students what they valued and appreciated in past classes. Ask them one-on-one questions about their hobbies and extracurricular activities, or conduct a class-wide survey where students fill out an interest-based questionnaire. Incorporate your findings into your lesson plans; for example, if several of your students are soccer fans, you might include soccer references in word problems for math class.

Ask a lot of questions, but also be mindful that one student should not be seen as the representative of an entire cultural group—it’s important that you see your students as individuals because they may not identify with their cultural background.

It’s not a bad idea to visit Harvard University’s Project Implicit to check yourself for implicit biases you may have about certain cultural groups and then work to counter them in your classroom.

Planning Engaging Lessons

We are wired to understand and pass on stories to one another; stories activate parts of the brain in a way that allows for a deep sense of emotional engagement with the lesson. So, whenever possible, plan to turn learning into a narrative and use storytelling whenever possible, especially when dealing with math and science. Word problems in math may be a little less abstract for students than just dealing with numbers, and this can make it easier for students to grasp concepts that may be difficult for them.

Some students may come from homes with a strong oral tradition, and storytelling in science may be helpful for them, and for all of your students. For example, you could explain world weather events by showing students examples of unusual weather events. Storytelling easily extends into other subject areas like social sciences and history. By telling stories about past events or present social conditions, you’ll make the subject material easier to grasp.

Try making learning a game—some of your students may enjoy gaming, and this will help them feel comfortable in the classroom. Set up incentives for completing a task successfully, such as stickers or badges; write an instruction manual for an assignment with a rubric; and track the class’s progress on a chart that is competitive in nature.

In most lesson plans, you can use problem-solving-based strategies. For example, you could discuss the logistical challenges of hosting a festival, or present your students with a sociological or anthropological issue that needs to be addressed, like the degradation of the environment in an area populated by people. Allow students to pitch ideas for projects, and then set up objectives for the lessons and let them use their imaginations to formulate ideas for lesson plans and activities that allow them to showcase their talents.

Whatever strategy you use, it’s important to engage all students, including English language learners, who might be reluctant to raise their hands. Every student should feel they have a place in your classroom community. 

Leveraging Collaboration

Break your class into collaborative learning groups, and encourage students to work together to solve problems and complete tasks that you assign to them; this allows them to develop in-depth collaborative relationships over time, retain information better, and gain a better understanding of diversity as something that extends beyond just ethnicity and cultural background.

Additionally, remember your partners who aren’t in the classroom—the parents and guardians. They are important in children’s education. Make sure to communicate the course material you will be covering in each unit by sending letters home with your students that explain the topics you’ll be discussing and what is expected of each student in terms of homework. Make sure that your students’ parents and guardians know that you are available to answer their questions. Keep in mind that some of them may not be able to communicate clearly with you, especially if they are learning English themselves.

Incorporating culturally responsive teaching practices help make learning relevant for a diverse group of students and increase cultural understanding in the classroom among various groups. Try some of the previously mentioned strategies and see which ones work for you. Any of them can help increase your students’ feelings of belonging and lead them to realize that they have a stake in their education.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Diversity
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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