Over the past few decades, students, their experiences, upbringings, and backgrounds have changed. Classrooms now reflect families of varying races, cultures, and socioeconomic statuses. As a result, the way teachers educate these students must change, too, says Cherese Childers-McKee, assistant teaching professor in Northeastern University’s College of Professional Studies. One of these shifting approaches to education is known as culturally responsive teaching.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Culturally responsive teaching is a pedagogy that recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural references in all aspects of learning. Traditional teaching strategies emphasize the teacher-student dynamic: The teacher is the expert and adheres strictly to the curriculum that supports standardized tests while the student receives the knowledge. This teaching method is outdated, Childers-McKee says.
“Teachers have more diverse classrooms today. We don’t have students sitting in front of us with the same background or experience, so instruction has to be different,” she says. “It needs to build on individual and cultural experiences and their prior knowledge. It needs to be justice-oriented and reflect the social context we’re in now. That’s what we mean when we talk about culturally responsive teaching.”
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Culturally Responsive vs. Traditional Teaching Methods
Culturally responsive teaching can manifest in a number of ways. In traditional classrooms, educators may default to teaching literature by widely accepted classic authors: William Shakespeare, J.D. Salinger, and Charles Dickens, for example, adhering to widely accepted interpretations of the text.
Culturally responsive teaching, on the other hand, acknowledges that there’s nothing wrong with traditional texts, Childers-McKee says, but strives to include literature from other cultures, parts of the world, and by diverse authors. It also focuses on finding a “hook and anchor” to help draw students into the content using their past experiences.
“This way, students can see themselves in some of what they’re reading and not just the white, western world. The learning is more experimental, more hands-on,” she says. “Instead, you’re showing them a worldwide, multicultural community and looking for different interpretations while relating it to what it means for society today.”
Why is Culturally Responsive Teaching Important?
Culturally responsive teaching is especially pertinent today because the traditional education path from school to college to a career and life in the suburbs isn’t a reality—or desire—for everyone, Childers-McKee says. Educators’ approaches to teaching need to reflect these differences.
“That typical, mainstream education is not addressing the realities of today’s students. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t just for those students who don’t come from white, middle-class, English-speaking families—it’s an important teaching strategy for everyone. When done the right way, it can be transformative.”
Here’s a look at five culturally responsive teaching strategies all educators can employ in their classrooms.
5 Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies for Educators
1. Activate students’ prior knowledge.
Students are not blank slates, Childers-McKee says; they enter the classroom with diverse experiences. Teachers should encourage students to draw on their prior knowledge in order to contribute to group discussions, which provides an anchor to learning. Taking a different approach to the literature that’s taught in classrooms is one example of this.
2. Make learning contextual.
Tie lessons from the curriculum to the students’ social communities to make it more contextual and relevant, Childers-McKee advises. “If you’re reading a chapter in history class, for example, discuss why it matters today, in your school, or in your community,” she says. “Take the concept you’re learning about and create a project that enables them to draw parallels.”
3. Encourage students to leverage their cultural capital.
Because not all students come from the same background, it’s important to encourage those who don’t to still have a voice. Say, for example, you teach an English class that contains ESL students. It’s important to find ways to activate the experiences they do have—their cultural capital, Childers-McKee says.
The teacher may choose a book for the class to read in which the ESL students could relate and feel like they could be the expert, for instance. As a teacher, Childers-Mckee’s once chose a book that told the story of a child of migrant workers because some of her students came from an agriculture background.
“When you have a mixed classroom, you want those in the minority to feel like they are an expert. You want to draw from their experiences,” she says. “I do caution that you don’t want to cross a line and make ‘Johnny’ feel like he needs to speak for all Mexican people by putting them on the spot, for example. That’s a line you need to walk.”
4. Reconsider your classroom setup.
Take inventory of the books in your classroom library: Do they include authors of diverse races? Is the LGBTQ community represented? Do the books include urban families or only suburban families? Beyond your classroom library, consider the posters you display on your walls and your bulletin boards, too. “These are all small changes you can make to your classroom more culturally responsive,” Childers-McKee says.
5. Build relationships.
Not all students want to learn from all teachers because the teachers may not make them feel like they’re valued, Childers-McKee says. Teachers need to work to build relationships with their students to ensure they feel respected, valued, and seen for who they are. Building those relationships helps them build community within the classroom and with each other, which is extremely important, she says.
“When we think about culture and diversity, people often automatically think about black students, but people need to think broader than that, now,” Childers-McKee says. “Some teachers whose students are all white and middle-class struggle with how culturally responsive teaching strategies apply to them. It’s equally important for them to teach students about diversity. These aren’t just teaching strategies for minorities, they’re good teaching strategies for everyone.”
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