Bring Culturally Responsive Teaching to Any Setting in 6 Steps

Do you feel like you're teaching in uncertain times? You're not alone. But there are certain things that will always be certain. Like--your students need you to be there for them. Click through to find out how to do that with Culturally Responsive Teaching in Any Setting.

This is Post 2 of the “Teaching in Uncertain Times” series. Check out the introduction here.

There are a lot of ideas about culturally responsive teaching. I’ve read articles and books. I’ve talked to teachers. Every time I ask people what it is, I get a different answer.
I’m partial to Nikki Williams Rucker’s definition in an Edutopia article. It’s clear and concise, “Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) attempts to bridge the gap between teacher and student by helping the teacher understand the cultural nuances that may cause a relationship to break down—which ultimately causes student achievement to break down as well.”
I can get behind that because it’s about relationship-building, which is the single most important aspect of teaching. Effective teaching is an act of leadership, and not many of us will follow a leader we don’t have a relationship with.
It follows from Rucker’s definition that relationships are built through understanding and appreciation of culture. So what is culture?
Culture is a way of viewing the world. It encompasses language, values, norms, religion, and beliefs. I express my world-views with the English language. I was taught to look somebody in the eye when they talk to me. I was taught to say “ma’am” and “sir” and to comply with adult requests.
Many of my students weren’t. They don’t share my cultural norms. It follows that if I don’t try to understand their culture, we will experience misunderstandings. I may think a student’s being disrespectful when she looks at the floor and says, “Yeah,” when I address her. 
But that’s not necessarily the case. Her culture may be different than mine. If that’s it, and I give her detention for being disrespectful, what exactly am I achieving?
Zaretta Hammond said it best, “Too often when we talk about culturally responsive teaching, we think, ‘Oh, we’re just talking about social justice.’ Or ‘Oh, we’re just talking about race.’ We aren’t. We’re talking about how was a child’s brain wired? Your nurture culture–0 to 5, your brain is wired to take in the world through a particular cultural lens.”
We teach students from all different backgrounds, so how is it possible for one teacher of a particular culture to understand everybody’s culture?
At its heart, it’s about empathy. Hammond also argues it’s about expectations and rigor–re-imagining our roles as educators and our students’ roles. Instead of viewing students as empty vessels to fill with information, it’s about allowing students to steer their own learning through inquiry and personal connections. The teacher then becomes the mentor–the guide to help students along the way.  
I know your question here is the same as mine–how do we go about doing that, especially in these uncertain times when we may not even be sharing a room with our students?
Do you feel like you're teaching in uncertain times? You're not alone. But there are certain things that will always be certain. Like--your students need you to be there for them. Click through to find out how to do that with Culturally Responsive Teaching in Any Setting.
New America has an eight-point list for culturally responsive teaching. Here it is (loosely summarized):
1. Reflect on your own bias
2. Recognize and work against systemic bias
3. Shape curriculum with student culture
4. Use current issues in the classroom
5. Have high expectations
6. Respect differences
7. Involve families and the community
8. Communicate in culturally responsive ways
I’m going to focus on six of them today. 


6 Steps to Culturally Responsive Teaching in Any Setting

1. Reflect on your own bias


You’ve got them. I’ve got them. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our preconceived notions and work against incorporating them into our lessons and interactions with students. The trouble is, we’re often blind to them. Harvard’s Project Implicit has tests that serve as a good starting point for identifying biases. 
I think it helps to reflect by journaling at the end of every school year. Where have your biases held your students back? This isn’t easy, but we won’t improve if we’re not honest with ourselves. In point 5, I’ve got a personal example that I’m not proud of, but I learned from it.

2. Recognize and work against systemic bias


In a school setting, it helps to know your numbers–gender, race, ethnic, and socioeconomic breakdowns. How do test scores compare among these groups? What about discipline and graduation rates? Are there patterns? Who’s taking AP classes? What can you do within your classroom to make it more equitable?

3. Shape curriculum with student culture


Your curriculum is probably out of your control. You can counter this with your approach to the curriculum. Validate your students’ experiences and make them an integral part of your lessons and give them ownership of learning with these suggestions:

– Require students to focus their individual approach to a unit by having them generate driving questions. Give them a standard and time to research it briefly. Guide them through forming a driving question that will allow them to explore aspects of a lesson that they’re curious about. They can explore answers through an extended project, written reflections, video, or small group discussions.
– Hook students at the beginning of a lesson with bellringers. Ask questions–such as: What would you do in a particular situation? What was the most ___ time in your life/ thing that happened to you? Describe a time when you felt ____. 
– Give students a voice with full class and small group discussions. Ensure that everyone has an opportunity to speak. Check your biases so that you’re not always calling on the same students. In a virtual setting, use discussion boards and Zoom breakouts.
– Require students to personally reflect on lessons at the end of class each day with exit tickets, quick writes, Flipgrid, etc.
– Allow choice in your classroom. Offer student’s choice with how they learn the material. Offer choice with how they will demonstrate that learning. Menus are great for learning choices (will they read, watch, or research?). Choice boards work beautifully for project decisions. Offer ideas, but also offer student choice with teacher approval.

4. Use current issues in the classroom


Have students find current events that connect to the unit and explain how they connect–economically, politically, socially, culturally. Require them to explain why. Use past injustices to discuss current ones.
Newsela is a great resource for leveling reading, but the internet is the limit. Just require students to check their sources for bias. A good place to start is This site ranks news sources according to bias (evinced in loaded language and omissions) and factual reporting. A reliable site for fact-checking is
This will enable students to see relevance to their lives in the curriculum.

5. Have high expectations


Have you ever rummaged through your students’ test scores and discipline records at the beginning of a term? I know I have. I justified this by saying, “I need to know who I’m teaching.” That’s true. I definitely should be learning their names and reading their IEPs and 504s. But if I’m honest with myself, I was only checking test scores and discipline records because I was nosy.
I had a Black student one year who’d been suspended for gang activity in the past and had a lexile score of 400 in the 11th grade. I read his information and thought, “He’ll be a challenge.” I met him with bias.
He blew me away in the first week with his intelligence, drive, and determination. He turned out to be one of the most amazing students I’ve ever taught. What scares me about the situation is this: What if he wasn’t self-motivated? What if he had picked up on my initial expectations? How would it have been different?
How has it been different in the past? How many students have I lost with my biases and low expectations?
My point is, I no longer check behavior records and scores at the beginning of the year. We’ve all had bad days, all been misunderstood, and all bombed tests. Some of us face these challenges with an added layer of systemic bias. 
We should have high expectations for all our students from the first day. If we find they’re not ready for a concept or activity, we can help them rise by scaffolding our lessons.

6. Involve families and the community


One hallmark of privilege in our society is voice. People of privilege are comfortable speaking out. They’re comfortable coming to the school and advocating for their students. This isn’t the case with everybody. Often, school is a source of trauma for the disenfranchised, making them appear either disconnected or adversarial. This is a glaring inequity.
We need to change that by actively working to involve our students’ families and communities in their education. 
The community is a goldmine for our lessons. There’s a rich resource of various experiences within our students’ families. There are veterans, activists, professionals. There are people who’ve lived through pivotal historical events. We can incorporate our students’ cultures into our curriculum with guest speakers and interviews from their community. Skype, Zoom, and Google Meet are great ways to do this virtually.
We also need to communicate with all of our parents–not just the ones who reach out to us. They should be clear on our classroom procedures (at school or virtual) and where to find everything. Language can be a major barrier in this endeavor, but with technology, it doesn’t have to be.
– Send emails to parents in the language they speak. You can compose the text in a Doc and translate it with the Google Translate add-on for free. I prefer because it’s better at picking up nuances. It’s free for a certain number of translations a day, but for editable text, you’ll need the paid version.
– Use the Screencastify extension to record screencasts of the organization and procedures of your class. Translate it into multiple languages using a method above. Paste the translation into Natural Reader and play it while you record the demo. If you opt for the Natural Reader paid version, you can download the MP4 and use a video editor such as WeVideo to add the audio to the pre-recorded screencast.
I hope these have been practical ways to incorporate CRT into your teaching, whether we’re facing our students in the classroom or online. Leave a comment to let me know.
Be sure to check back next week as the “Teaching in Uncertain Times” series continues with “Equity and Race.” I’ve tweaked my plans for the series a bit because I value you and your feedback. Thank you!

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