Culturally Responsive Teaching

Helping Diverse Learners Succeed

It's critical to understand the diverse learners in your classroom as people, and to share enough for them to understand you as a person.

September 2, 2014

My career got off to a bad start when I was hired to teach in a Minneapolis Ojibwe Survival School. That was the year that Prince's Sign O the Times dropped -- the year most of my lesson plans failed. More terrifying was the fact that I had no backup plan.

I'm embarrassed now to admit that I sent over 15 kids to in-school suspension in a single morning. A chair was thrown at my head and later a waterfowl-sized stone. At a school event, a masked student threatened me with a hunting knife while I stood at a public urinal.

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The attempted assaults weren't fun, but I classified them as aberrations and moved on. What really unhinged me was that students didn't like me. And their scorn felt earned. Most of my memories of that year have been erased, but I'll always remember putting on my headphones, leaning my head against a bus window on the ride home from work, feeling numb, listening to Sign O the Times.

It took a decade for me to figure out what I did wrong -- a lot of little things, but one big thing. I didn't try hard enough to understand my kids -- I didn't understand their religion, their language, their relationships, their home lives, their poverty, their politics, their weekend visits to the rez, their history, or their dreams. And secondarily, I was too occupied with pretending I knew what I was doing to share anything real about myself.

Today we know more strategies for helping all kinds of students succeed. But none of them can work unless we learn to "see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs," says author John Green. Otherwise, it's like "looking at your window shade but never looking inside. But once the vessel cracks, the like can get in. The like can get out."

Research-Based Strategies for Working with Diverse Learners

A review of the research (PDF, 119KB) on teaching diverse learners sorts the "best practices" into four categories, summarized below:

1. High Expectations

Teachers address beliefs that lead to lower expectations of diverse students and persistently teach challenging curriculum.

2. Culturally Relevant Instruction

Instructors associate engaging curriculum with the knowledge, skills, values, and concerns that students bring with them from their home and community. Other practices include cooperative learning, extended dialogues to develop language and thinking skills, explicit teaching of cognitive strategies, and the use of technology to enhance instruction.

3. Caring Relationships

Teachers develop relationships with their students. They co-learn, co-teach, and co-research together.

4. Parent and Community Involvement

Instructors communicate with parents, and invite them into their children's learning process.

Working together, teachers, parents, and administrators can make significant progress in supporting diverse learners. Harrowgate Elementary School in Chester, Virginia, where 61 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, struggled to involve parents. Harrowgate's solution was to initiate the Parent Partners Program that awards points to guardians for participating in different school events: parent-teacher conferences, PTA meetings, classroom service, any of the 40 yearly workshops, etc. "Parents responded to these new opportunities, making high parent involvement an embedded part of our culture," writes Linda Wood, Harrowgate Elementary School Principal, in NAESP's Best from the Best. "For the first time in our 50-year history, the PTA realized 100 percent membership!"

In the download for this blog post, you'll find a collection of tactics for enhancing those classroom conditions that boost academic achievement among diverse learners -- strategies that do not arise from the discredited cultural deficit model.

Ultimately, a teacher's goal at the end of a semester is to gaze upon the shadows of all our departing learners and see that our lessons taught them to reach for a patch of blue sky, bright with significance and purpose. And to keep reaching.

How are you remaking your classroom to foster learning among diverse students?