5 Ways to Move Toward Culturally Responsive Learning for Students

"We must teach the way students learn, rather than expecting them to learn the way we teach."

Pedro Noguera, UCLA Distinguished Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and Faculty Director of the Center for Transformation of Schools at UCLA

It’s time we rethink how we teach, lead, and design school cultures for students. For far too long, we taught, led, and designed school cultures in the way that we learned, how we experienced school, or in our own cultural framework. For many educators, this was done in a European (Anglo-Saxon) way which perpetuated the traditional way of doing things. As educators, we have a responsibility to design learning in a culturally responsive way in order to meet the individual learning needs of each student and to prepare our students for the future.

We fall short when we only recognize and celebrate a student's culture. We must use the gifts, heritage, mores, and traditions of the student’s culture to strengthen their learning. Plus, it does not only benefit the individual student, but the student body as a whole as it shapes behaviors, actions, and mindsets for everyone. The need to personalize learning is needed more than ever before and it is important to personalize learning in a way that leverages student's cultural background and life. To accomplish this, we need to provide professional learning for teachers and school leaders and make an intentional focus to becoming a culturally responsive learning community.

Zarretta Hammond, teacher, author, and an expert on Culturally Responsive schools shares the following definition of culturally responsive learning in her book, “ Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students -

"An educator's ability to recognize students' cultural displays of learning and meaning making and respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and and content in order to promote effective informational processing. All the while, the educator understands the importance of being in relationship and having a socio-emotional connection to the student in order to create a safe space for learning" (15)

5 Ways to Move Toward Culturally Responsive Learning for Students

Connections - It's important that you get to know your students and their culture very well. Set aside time to talk with each student about their strengths, things they enjoy, how they like to learn, and what's important to them. Invest in the lives of your students, attend their extra-curricular events, support them in the community, and make contacts home to their parents/guardian. When you take this personal interest in students, it can go a long way in strengthening their learning and your relationship with them.

Respect - Creating a classroom of respect for all students is paramount. When respect is absent, true learning is hindered and will stagnate. To move forward in becoming a culturally responsive learning environment, we must first build and nurture a culture of respect for every student. To do this, white educators may need to change their thinking and historical framework of respect such as saying to a child, “look me in the eye when I talk to you.” This type of reaction is a very Anglo-Saxon response and one that is not cross cultural. We also need to value and respect the differences in other cultures, this requires educators to examine and perhaps change own own biases, learn of the differences between other cultures, work to respect and honor every student. Respect is much more than a list of rules for everyone to follow, it's a culture of respect that is built everyday through modeling, caring relationships, and an intentional commitment. Again, we need to move away from compliance to confidence for every child.

Expectations - We all say we have high expectations for all students but do we really? Do our actions and attitudes exhibit these high expectations for all students? I was challenged in my thinking and actions after reading this quote from educator, Kathleen Serverian-Wilmeth. She shares, “When a teacher expresses sympathy over failure, lavishes praise for completing a simple task, or offers unsolicited help, the teacher may send unintended messages of low expectations." (Brown University Teaching Diverse Learnings - Communications for High Expectations) After reflecting on Kathleen’s challenge on raising the bar for all students, I know that I have been guilty of some of those things that she mentioned and have a new charge to rethink how I focus on high expectations for all students.

Storytelling - We need to find creative ways to turn learning into storytelling, this is important for all students. There is nothing like a powerful story to teach a new lesson or to provide context to the past, present, or even the future. Storytelling builds connections cross cultural in a way that students can understand and appreciate. It allows the teacher to engage students in a way so they can find connections to their own life and cultures. Storytelling is great for all students as it provides a visual framework to a narrative which deepens the learning experience.

Community - Some of the best learning takes place in a community of learners where they can talk about their learning, share experiences, work through struggles together, and collaborate. Allowing students to do this in a way that supports them is important. Give students time to share in the community, it's not natural for everyone. For this to take place, the community must represent trust and respect.

Students deserve schools which are culturally responsive to strengthen their learning and to increase their growth. We must move toward supporting every child so they can succeed in a highly rigorous, complex, and demanding workforce. For this to happen, we need to move away from focusing on student compliance, conforming to the traditional ways of learning, and working to have students learn the way we learned as students. We learn through the lens of our cultures, this needs to be developed, leveraged, and practiced in every school. The whole point is we use our culture/experiences to activate prior knowledge in the learning process. If we don’t reach kids where they are we are missing the chance to activate learning in a powerful way. The very students we seek to support are being continually disadvantaged. School Leaders must break this cycle!

Resources on Culturally Responsive Learning

14 Resources on Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally Responsive Teaching - EduTopia

The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students - Book by Zaretta L. Hammond

Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: An Interview with Zaretta Hammond (Corwin)

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