Culturally Responsive EducatorIt’s more than food, festivals, and flags

Do you work with a diverse student population? If so, are you creating an environment where all of your students feel they are included and valued members of the class community? In other words, are you a culturally responsive educator? Many teachers would answer this question with a resounding, “YES!” However, we can’t truly reflect on this question without a clear understanding of what is meant by the terms cultural mismatch and cultural responsiveness. Once we understand these, we can investigate some practical strategies to assist teachers in implementing a culturally responsive approach to teaching in their classrooms. 

Demographic data indicate that our population of elementary and secondary school students continues to grow more diverse every year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/), approximately 45 percent of school-age children are students of color, almost one in five lives in poverty (17 percent), and approximately 20 percent speak a language other than English at home. In contrast, about 85 percent of the teaching force is white, middle class and monolingual, resulting in what is known as a cultural mismatch. A cultural mismatch is characterized as a situation where a student’s home culture is in contrast with the dominant culture of the classroom.

Cultural mismatches can exacerbate many academic issues and classroom management problems. For example, it may be that the overrepresentation of African American boys in special education and disciplinary actions can be partially attributed to a cultural mismatch between the teacher and student. Similarly, the lower overall achievement scores for students of color can also be, to some extent, credited to a cultural mismatch. Finally, it seems apparent that a cultural mismatch can also contribute to parental feelings of alienation and, therefore, less involvement in the school community.

Given the current demographics of both the teaching and student poulations, creating a perfectly “culturally matched” situation is not a feasible solution. However, it is also not an acceptable excuse because student diversity can enrich the learning experience for both teachers and students. So, in order to capitalize on the benefits of a diverse classroom, teachers must adopt a culturally responsive approach to teaching.

Tracey GarrettCulturally responsive teaching is more than the traditional food, festivals, and fun approach to celebrating diversity that has grown in popularity over the last several years. According to teacher educator Geneva Gay, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching: Theory, Research, and Practice, culturally responsive teaching is defined as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant and effective for them.” Similarly, teacher educators Carol Weinstein, Saundra Tomlinson-Clarke and Mary Curran contend, “cultural responsiveness is a frame of mind in which we view the tasks of teaching through the lens of cultural diversity.”

Drawing on these two definitions, following are some practical suggestions in three key areas of teaching: organizing the physical design of the classroom, building relationships, and planning and implementing instruction. Teachers can employ these strategies to assist in their quest to become culturally responsive educators. 

Organizing the physical design of the classroom

One of the first tasks teachers must address at the beginning of the school year is organizing the physical design of the classroom. This task involves decisions about the placement of the students’ and teacher’s desks, and organizational systems for class materials and student work, colorful and meaningful visual displays, and many other choices. A culturally responsive educator will view this task through the lens of the cultural diversity present in his or her classroom and consider the following suggestions.

  • Display posters that represent the cultural diversity of your students. Be sure to avoid stereotypical representations.
  • Display signs with common greetings from different languages. Encourage students to use the greetings with their classmates.
  • Create a diversity bulletin board. Display a world map in the center of the bulletin board and hang pictures of students around the perimeter. Have each student staple a piece of string or ribbon linking the students’ picture and country of origin.
  • Hold a flag ceremony. Have each student design a flag from his/her country of origin. Then, play music from each country as a flag is raised and posted around the room, creating a beautiful, personalized visual display.

Building relationships with students and their families

Another important task for teachers is building relationships with students and their families. This is an important aspect of teaching for several reasons. First, students who feel that their teacher cares about them are more likely to cooperate, follow the classroom rules and routines, and engage in academic activities. Next, families who feel a connection with the teacher are more likely to participate in classroom and school-wide activities as well as support teachers with academic and behavioral goals the teacher may establish for their child. A culturally responsive educator will also view this task through the lens of the cultural diversity. Some suggestions include:

  • Increase your personal frame of reference by asking students about traditions and events in their communities.
  • Consider attending some to develop a better understanding.
  • Visit the local community center to research the cultural activities and beliefs of students.
  • Take a neighborhood walk. Walk around the communities where your students live and visit the places they like to play and spend time. They will be excited to talk to you about their favorite places.
  • Have children bring in pictures of their homes and make a community map. When children see where others live, they gain a sense of community and their role in the community.
  • Implement community building activities. Develop a repertoire of community- building activities that help you get to know your students. Also design some activities that help students learn about their classmates to build peer relationships.
  • Send a weekly/monthly newsletter (in the home language) informing parents of school happenings.
  • Invite parents to the classroom. Ask parents to present to the class about customs, traditions, or celebrations unique to their culture. Also ask parents to partake in special classroom events that aren’t culturally related such as class trips, special projects, working in centers, etc. to help increase their comfort level in the school environment in a more natural setting.

Planning and implementing instruction

 It is of paramount importance for a teacher to view the task of planning and implementing lessons through the lens of the cultural diversity that exists in his or her classroom for several reasons. First, it is essential that students feel the content they are learning is relevant to their lives. If it is not, a student’s intrinsic motivation to learn is diminished. Related to that point is the idea that the more motivated and engaged students are in lessons, the less likely they will be to misbehave. Some practical culturally relevant strategies include:

  • Build a multicultural library – Include books that feature characters that look similar to your students.
  • Read literature by authors of other cultures.
  • Have students research and write about different aspects of their culture and/or traditions shared by their families.
  • Assign students research projects that focus on issues or concepts that apply to their own community or cultural group.
  • Have students share artifacts from home that reflect their culture.
  • Take photos of community places. Gather, post, talk, and write about pictures of real places the children and families go in the community.
  • Read local community newspapers and use the current happenings as a springboard for lessons that day.
  • View the linguistic diversity in your classroom as a resource and use it as a springboard for a study of language and communication patterns.
  • Choose music representing the cultures of the children in your classroom and find times to play it throughout the day.
  • Be sensitive when planning due dates for major projects or tests as not to conflict with cultural holidays or traditions.

With the number of cultural mismatches on the rise, it is imperative that teachers adopt a culturally relevant approach to teaching. Then, you can confidently answer that you are indeed a culturally responsive educator.

Dr. Tracey Garrett is an associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education at Rider University.  Her areas of interest include classroom management, cultural diversity, and student motivation.  She is a former elementary teacher with experience teaching at the third-, fourth- and fifth-grade level. Contact her at tgarrett@rider.edu.