Geneva Gay, professor of education at the University of Washington, Seattle, argues that “humans are cultural beings” and that culture profoundly affects the way students show up in our classrooms. After 20 years of teaching elementary school, I came to realize I was failing many of my students from various cultural backgrounds, and I needed to look beyond dominant cultural practices in order to understand the scholars in my classroom.
In order to learn more about my students, I began incorporating identity questions into beginning-of-year student surveys. Based on the feedback I got from students, I made changes in the way information is shared in my classroom to become a more culturally responsive teacher.
Implementing a Culturally Responsive Survey
A student survey such as this one that I created can offer a teacher initial insights into students’ identities and lives outside of school. I use Google Forms with my fourth and fifth graders, but you could adapt the questions and language to fit your class’s needs. When designing surveys, I ask mostly open-ended questions that students can answer in under 15 minutes.
As I administer the survey, I assure students that their answers are confidential. I let my students know that I heard them without singling out any one particular response. I thank them for completing the survey and let them know I’ll use the answers to make sure our classroom is a place where each of them can feel comfortable and learn well.
Learning From Survey Responses
After I’ve reviewed each survey response, the next step is to take action (think of yourself as an action researcher). Zaretta Hammond encourages teachers to “consider some of the mundane things that go into effective teaching like time, routines, group work, formative assessments, and timely corrective feedback.” All of these are times in a school day when culturally relevant teaching can be implemented.
One way to make students feel visible is to weave their personal interests into lessons. I like to write math story problems that feature student hobbies. For example, this year I have students who enjoy TikTok, Roblox, doing flips on the trampoline, cooking, riding bikes, swimming, playing various sports, engaging in art, doing martial arts, playing the harmonium, camping, shooting, and participating in various other activities that I incorporate into lessons.
To best leverage the information gleaned from your surveys, pay attention to the patterns in answers across student surveys. Once you notice a pattern, ask yourself how you are countering or cultivating that cultural norm in your classroom.
On a recent survey, for example, I learned that helping others is important to many of my students. This inspired me to change my math exit ticket routine to be more culturally relevant to them. We used to publicly recognize each student who got 100 percent on their daily exit tickets. Now, I recognize class-wide success by celebrating how many students in the class earn 100 percent on exit tickets each day. The overall number is posted daily. I remind them that we have built-in time for cooperative learning during our math time, and they can work together coaching each other to success.
Over time, you can design activities that extend from the information you collect in your surveys. For example, I dedicated class time for students to create their own identity starbursts to further explore different facets of cultural identity. You could also have students create “about me” presentations focused on topics such as “identity” and “favorites” to share with one another. This work may even encourage you to engage in home visits and off-campus gatherings in the community.