The Need for Culturally Responsive Teaching

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Suppose you are a child coming to the United States from another country. You have trouble speaking English, you have different cultural habits, you don’t know how to act and you don’t know what other students already know from their previous years in the school. What will happen? Do we Need Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Or suppose you are an African-American teenager whose family moved from an urban to a suburban environment. Everything you know has become useless and the vast quantity of information you don’t know becomes overwhelming.

Or suppose you are a Native American coming to a new school. You are used to having your friends around, used to a particular culture, and now everything is different. What could your teachers do to help you adjust?

Every day, students face these types of situations. Underserved populations of students find school confusing and unresponsive to their specific needs. In response to this problem, a new type of teaching has evolved, one known as culturally responsive teaching.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Culturally responsive lesson plans enable teachers to address the diversity in their schools. By appreciating the differences in students’ styles, diversity and backgrounds, and teaching in ways that play to their differences, culturally responsive teaching allows students to learn in a new, more comprehensive way. Teachers are encouraged to include parents and family members in the attempt to interest students in education.

According to author Geneva Gay (2000), culturally responsive teaching uses “cultural knowledge, prior experiences, and performance styles of diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective for them; it teaches to and through the strengths of these students”

There are many ways to differentiate instruction and these methods need to incorporate various aspects of a student’s lifestyle. The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CCRTL) lists three aspects to culturally responsive teaching:

  • professional development,
  • community development, and
  • school development

Professional development enables teachers to understand that their particular lifestyle, educational focus, and method of learning does not necessarily represent those of their students. Through culturally responsive professional development, teachers learn to understand the mindset of their students. They are taught how to help students with literacy, math and science skills, and to effectively assist them with Standardized Test Preparation.

Students from other cultures may have difficulty adapting to the school environment, particularly when they are first acclimating to a different culture. Training teachers to develop differentiation in instruction strategies may include practice sessions with real students that are graded for effectiveness, use of music or videos to help students learn, and even instruction on how to set up small, inclusive groups for their students.

Community development may include reaching out to parents to help them empower their children to learn. Parents would be encouraged to take part in school activities and to meet with teachers on a regular basis. Events might be planned at the school which would bring together community members from different cultures.

School Development can include creation of small groups of teachers who train other teachers in methods of promoting culturally responsive teaching. According to The Education Alliance at Brown University, members of the teaching community could also “attend community events of the students and discuss the events with the students”. And of course, the school can actually hold community events onsite.

Differentiation Strategies

In order to make students feel that what they are learning is an integral part of who they are, it’s important that they identify with the material. It should be obvious, but many instructors forget to use materials that are culturally responsive. This can be achieved by using specific teaching strategies that enable the students to relate to the subject matter. For instance, when teaching literature, stories should be diverse, and reflect multiple genres and perspectives.

To teach math in a culturally responsive way, teachers could include specific examples that students may relate to. For instance, mathematical problems could cover economic concepts with a diverse group representing a specific industry, or they could focus on consumer spending. This can be as simple as asking students to talk about what their individual families purchase at the grocery store, and then discussing this in terms of amounts.

To enable students of various abilities to learn, subjects should be taught in multiple ways. Some students learn by hands-on training, while others can easily absorb information from books, or by watching the instructor write out a problem on the board. Educators need to be aware that some students might not be willing to admit they are having difficulties absorbing the lessons.

What Teaching Practices Work Well?

In traditional teaching practices, the teacher stands at the front of the class and lectures to the students about whatever the topic of the day is. Students might be invited to answer questions but discussions are limited. In culturally responsive teaching, instruction is centered on the student, with a two-way interaction that makes the student feel comfortable and incorporates their particular culture.

For instance, in traditional teaching, a teacher may ask the students to raise their hands if they have a question. In culturally responsive teaching, students might be invited to respond by clapping. For instance, the teacher would ask, “Do you understand?” and the students clap to show they do. Or the teacher might say, “Class, class,” and the students would respond, “Yes, yes.” Specific language responses could also be incorporated into the responses. Teachers may incorporate elements of the students’ culture into the lesson plans. These could include using items such as indigenous food, dress, crafts, dance, and others.

Another method of instruction is called “Jump in Reading.” The teacher begins reading a culturally responsive book, and the students are invited to try their hands at reading various sections. When a student “jumps in” they must read at least two or three sentences. This allows the students to view reading aloud as a game and to read aloud only when they feel comfortable.

When it comes to language, it is important to understand that there is no “bad” language. So the fact that a student uses phrases from the language known as African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), or Ebonics, should be accepted as normal and acceptable. While it is important for the students to understand that a phrase like, “She be going to the store,” is not correct for an exam, it’s perfectly acceptable to use this in casual conversation. These types of circumstances should be seen as an opportunity for correction, not condemnation, and need to be examined in terms of “situational awareness.” (For more information on this topic, download the pdf, Journey to Responsiveness: Focus on Language here.

Culturally responsive teaching empowers student to learn in the way which best suits their individual learning style. It is especially important that new teachers prepare for culturally responsive education. The schools they are entering have become increasingly diverse and this trend is expected to continue. The “Inclusive Classrooms Project” has an extensive library of relevant textbooks on their Web site that beginning and experienced teachers may find helpful as they expand their teaching efforts into culturally responsive areas.

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