George Lucas Educational Foundation
Culturally Responsive Teaching

Getting to Know Students Deeply

Teachers can improve outcomes and build equity in the classroom by listening closely to their students. Here are six ways to do that.
A teacher works to ensure that all students are participating.
A teacher works to ensure that all students are participating.

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) has become a central concept in the education world, and rightfully so. Zaretta Hammond offers a brilliant and accessible CRT framework in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. One of the questions I’ve been grappling with is, how do we know we’re culturally responsive if we’re not listening to our students?

In my book The Listening Leader: Creating the Conditions for Equitable School Transformation, I offer a reframing of data that encourages educators to treat human experience, and particularly student voice, as sources of data, which I divide into three levels.

As we struggle with how to improve student outcomes, we need to triangulate Level 1 “satellite” data—test scores, D/F rates, attendance rates—with Level 2 “map” data—reading inventories, teacher-created common assessments, student surveys—and Level 3 “street” data, which can only be gathered through listening and close observation. Street data tells the untold stories of student achievement, pulling back the curtain on barriers to opportunity and access.

Image explaining Shane Safir’s three levels of student data
Image explaining Shane Safir’s three levels of student data

In his keynote at the 2017 Carnegie Foundation Summit, scholar-practitioner Jeff Duncan-Andrade argued that “the most successful educators are... first and foremost ethnographers of the communities they serve.” Street data offers a concrete, respectful, and student-centered way to develop an ethnographic practice. It builds our muscles for listening and observation, and it can build relational trust with students as we value and honor their experiences.

Six Ways to Gather Street Data

1. One-on-One Interviews: Interview a student to understand the root causes of learning or behavioral challenges. Identify a student who is struggling in your class or school and invite him or her to meet with you outside of class. Tell the student that your purpose is to listen and get to know him or her better so that you can be a better teacher or leader. You might say things like:

  • Tell me about one way you’re feeling successful in my class.
  • Tell me about one area in which you’re struggling.
  • How do you learn best?
  • What feedback do you have for me?
  • How could I support you to feel successful?

2. Focus Groups/Audio Interviews: Another powerful way to listen to students is through confidential focus groups or audio interviews with a small group. Convening multiple students in the same space can lower anxiety levels and allow young people to build off one another’s ideas. Team up with a colleague, find a quiet classroom, and invite half a dozen students to participate. If you audio record the session, edit it to a digestible segment to share with your grade-level team, department, or professional learning community.

3. Feedback Interviews: These are similar to audio interviews, but instead of asking students to tell their stories, you ask them for specific feedback on your teaching practice. This can be a preliminary step toward what Christopher Emdin calls co-generative dialogues, a structured practice for getting student feedback.

4. Shadow a Student Challenge: Put on your tennis shoes and “be” one of your students for an entire day. Get his or her permission, dress comfortably, meet your student before school, and approach observation with a notebook and an open and curious mind. Be sure you set aside time to study the experiential data you’ve gathered, looking for patterns and raising questions. This one is tough or out of reach for some teachers, but it can be a valuable experience if you’re able to do it.

5. Classroom Participation Tracker: Oral participation is one important indicator of engagement and inclusion. Create a simple “equity tracker” with students' names on the left side and a column for each day of the week. I profiled this practice in a previous Edutopia post, “3 Practices to Promote Equity in the Classroom.”

6. Academic Language Tracker: The ability to internalize and use academic language in class is a gatekeeper skill for many English language learners and historically marginalized students. By paying attention to which students are and are not employing academic language, you’ll get important data with which to create scaffolds.

Select a student (or two) to listen to during class, preferably when he or she is engaged in a group task or discussion. Transcribe the student’s comments or audio-record them; then take time to analyze the transcript. How many times does the student incorporate academic language? If he or she attempts to do so, but struggles with correct usage, note that as well. What evidence do you hear that the student understands the structure of academic language, not just key terms? If you’re teaching high school students, can the student participate in ways that would make him or her feel confident in a college classroom? If not, how will you support this student?

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Lisa Montez Sullivan's picture
Lisa Montez Sullivan
Hope is the cornerstone of education and hope is what my heart is made of.

Your approach gives a framework for those who lack the schema to acquire knowledge of culturally supportive teaching methods. I agree with you wholeheartedly. Even those who are steeped in the culture of the school and community-at-large are not always accepted into the close-knit urban neighborhood culture of the students that they serve. I plan to base my PhD pursuit around the question of culturally responsive and responsible teaching.

evereed's picture

This approach seems common sense, but it's not. As teachers, we are to create an experience that is positive for the student. We want our students engaged; however, we are to grow in our understanding of what engagement looks like for the students by allowing their voice to be heard. Accountable talk, academic language, these are tools for monitoring our students. Being growth mindset oriented, we have a desire to see our students excel and achieve the way they need to.

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