George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Value of Culturally Responsive Teaching in Distance Learning

Zaretta Hammond shared practical strategies for fostering students’ independence and agency while they are learning at home.

June 15, 2020
Teenage girl working on her laptop in her room
Igor Alecsander / iStock

Teacher educator Zaretta Hammond recently hosted a webinar to explain how culturally responsive teaching (CRT) can play an important role in fostering students’ independence during school closures, writes Amielle Major in “How to Develop Culturally Responsive Teaching for Distance Learning,” for KQED’s MindShift.

Independence is clearly needed for students working at home, so teachers should foster it very intentionally, said Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. “Culturally responsive instruction doesn’t mean you’re only mentioning issues of race and implicit bias,” Hammond said: By seeking to expand learning capacities of historically marginalized students, “you’re also focused on building brainpower by helping students leverage and grow their existing funds of knowledge.”

“By giving students more agency, the idea is to disrupt old routines around teaching and learning that make the student dependent on the teacher for receiving knowledge,” Major writes.

Hammond offered three suggestions for implementing CRT in the current situation:

1. Use students’ background knowledge: The knowledge students have from their families, communities, and lived experiences informs the ways they process and retain new information, and Hammond said educators can guide students to connect what they’re learning in classes to that background knowledge.

Hammond encouraged teachers to survey students to find out their interests and then use those as the foundation to help them build more knowledge. Students can take a walk with their parents to find “community curiosities” that spark their interest, for example, or create a list of shows or documentaries that focus on their interests.

Guiding students is about more than curating resources, Hammond said. Provide a framework that shows students how to explore a subject. For example, ask “What was your biggest surprise from this book/show?” Hammond suggested. Asking students to reflect on and share what they observed or learned in a video or audio note can reinforce the knowledge gained.

2. Build routines for the brain: Establishing questions for inquiry is “essential to processing and hardwiring information in the brain,” Major writes. Using a regular set of prompts in every send-home assignment builds students’ capacity to “begin to think that way even when you’re not in the classroom to reinforce that way of thinking.” Hammond called this being students’ “personal trainer of their cognitive development.”

Hammond suggested asking questions that encourage students to draw connections between pieces of information and to relate parts to the whole. For example, a basic question such as “What’s the relationship or connection between these things?” gives students a consistent lens for examining new information. While the concepts are simple, the repetition of these questions will help students “internalize these prompts until they become almost instinctual.”

3. Boost vocabulary: Creating active student engagement in vocabulary building is an important equity strategy, Major writes. By helping “students engage in wordplay, word consciousness, and word knowledge,” educators boost students’ understanding of words in a way that is more robust and engaging than a worksheet, she says. Word games and searches “are small, familiar but high-leverage activities because they’re fun but also require a high cognitive load.”

Poetry activities and word scavenger hunts, for example, can be engaging ways to build interest in new words. “Kids have different interests in words, so find out where their energy is,” Hammond suggested: “The idea is to get them actively involved in word consciousness.”

As students develop these skills—connecting new information to background knowledge, establishing cognitive routines, and improving vocabulary—they become more independent in their learning. And autonomy is a valuable asset not only for distance learning but for becoming more empowered, engaged learners. 

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Brain-Based Learning
  • Online Learning
  • K-2 Primary
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary
  • 6-8 Middle School

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