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What is culturally responsive teaching and how to implement it in your classroom?

Being a teacher has never been only about teaching students things like math, science, and history. A teacher is a mentor, a counselor, an influencer, and even a therapist. In addition to teaching students about certain subjects, they also guide them, inspire them, shape their minds, and support their growth.

Unfortunately, the problem for years now has been generalized teaching practices that don’t take each student’s identity and experiences into consideration. Instead, many teachers support all their students equally so as to be fair, but this ignores the fact that not all students live the same lives or have the same experiences. And ignoring those differences can ultimately have a negative impact on their learning experience.

How can you expect to mentor and support a student’s growth when you don’t truly know who they are and treat them all the same? 

This is particularly a problem for students of color. The educational experience for many black and brown students is associated with white teachers and being surrounded by classmates who have no understanding of their culture. This means the majority of BIPOC students tend to feel left out or like their  identity is seen as “less-than.” It also means they don’t get the individualized help or support they need.

And while modern teaching methods have started to shift towards more personalized learning pathways and inclusive practices, they still often leave out recognizing each student's cultural and racial differences. This is where culturally responsive teaching (CRT) can step in and bridge the gap.  

What is culturally responsive teaching?

With newer generations heavily pushing for equity, inclusivity, and more anti-racist practices and behaviors, culturally responsive teaching has become somewhat of a buzzword in the educational sphere. But what is CRT exactly? 

Around two decades ago, the term culturally relevant pedagogy was introduced by Gloria Ladson-Billings in an effort to call for change in the educational setting that recognized cultures that were traditionally excluded from mainstream teaching. The idea was that by centering a student’s culture and how it affected their learning experience, teachers could empower students intellectually, emotionally, socially, and politically.

Shortly after culturally relevant pedagogy became known, professor Geneva Gay built on the work of Ladson-Billings by developing a framework that focused more specifically on the teacher’s responsibility to educate in response to cultural differences. It was then that Gay coined the term culturally responsive teaching.

In her book, Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, Gay defines the CRT approach as:

“Using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.” 

Since then, CRT has gained in popularity. Scholars have since developed various teaching methods and practices based on CRT, incorporating students’ lived experiences and cultural identities into the classroom. While CRT methods can vary, the primary goal of all CRT practitioners is to empower students of color to become critical thinkers and lifelong learners.

How culturally responsive teaching can benefit your classroom

Culture encompasses the beliefs, customs, languages, and behaviors of a group of people that are passed down through generations. And the reason acknowledging a student’s culture is so important is that their culture and lived experiences influence how they understand or make sense of the world, which will affect how they act, respond, and learn in the classroom setting.

Unfortunately, culture is one of the most misunderstood aspects of a student’s life, and that misunderstanding can negatively impact the teacher-student dynamic. And the more the teacher-student dynamic is impacted by a lack of cultural understanding, the more the educational and achievement gap grows for students of color.

In the book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, author Zaretta Hammon writes, “by third grade, many culturally and linguistically diverse students are one or more years behind in reading.” So if BIPOC students are already that far behind at just third grade, imagine how much farther that gap grows by the time they reach high school or college.

This is why CRT is necessary. It not only bridges the learning gap for students of color but can improve the classroom setting and benefit all students by creating a more inclusive environment that supports critical thinking.

Overall, CRT and more diverse and inclusive classrooms can:

  • Increase understanding and engagement with academic skills;
  • Increase motivation and interest;
  • Improve test scores;
  • Improve cognitive skills and critical thinking;
  • More readily prepare students for the real world as adults;
  • Promote creativity and collaboration;
  • Improve the student-teacher dynamic;
  • Bridge achievement gaps for students of color.

Read more: 5 Strategies to make your classes more inclusive

Strategies for implementing culturally responsive teaching

There is no one right way to approach culturally responsive teaching. Practices and methodologies can be just as diverse as the students whose cultures you are attempting to understand and recognize. It’s less about a strict curriculum and more about finding an approach that caters to your individual students and your unique classroom setting.

Tips and strategies for implementing CRT and creating a more inclusive classroom can include:

  • Make an effort to learn more about your students’ cultural backgrounds and racial identities;
  • Assign projects that allow students to learn more about the culture and their community;
  • Use culturally diverse examples in your teaching. It helps for students to see themselves in your curriculum, so include cultural references whenever possible, whether that’s when you’re designing Powerpoint presentations or writing your lectures;
  • Establish a zero-indifference negative behavior policy;
  • Appreciate and respect different communication styles;
  • Use multicultural instructional examples;
  • Set high expectations for all students and help them achieve academic success while still validating their cultural identities;
  • Use contextual learning by encouraging students to relate their individual experiences and current lives to what is being taught, such as when teaching about something that occurred in another place, time, and culture; 
  • Redesign the classroom or rearrange the space to promote a more inclusive environment that fosters diversity, communication, collaboration, positivity, and critical thinking;
  • Avoid comparing one student’s progress to another;
  • Attempt to bond with your students and form relationships to improve the student-teacher dynamic. This will make students more likely to engage and participate. It will also help them trust you and encourage them to come to you when they need help or support;
  • Incorporate relevant pop culture references into your teaching that recognizes and celebrates diverse cultural identities;
  • Use visual aids to support diverse learning preferences. Various tools and resources should be used, such as a three-set Venn diagram. Not all students visualize things the same way, especially if they are influenced by a different culture or background. So your tools and resources should be just as diverse as your students to give them different options more suited to their individual needs. 

Read more: 5 Digital tools for making the virtual classroom more inclusive

Key takeaways

A truly fair and equal classroom setting doesn’t give each student the same thing or the same treatment. Instead, it promotes equity by recognizing and respecting differences to provide each student with the individual support they need. Your students are culturally and racially diverse, so your teaching practices should reflect that.

By acknowledging the cultural identities and lived experiences of your students, you can improve their overall learning experience, helping them bridge learning gaps, think more critically, be more motivated, and better prepare them for the future.

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