By Dr. Angello Villarreal
According to US News & World Report, in both 2020 and 2021, the state of New Jersey ranked number one in the public education system. But how can we support our students even more as our state is becoming more racially, ethnically and culturally diverse? How can New Jersey become a role model to other states in its approaches to diversity and social justice?
As our classrooms become more diverse, we must acknowledge and embrace the rich cultural backgrounds of our students. Culturally responsive teaching encourages teachers to celebrate students’ cultural and linguistic diversity (Barret-Zahn, 2021) and can be applied across disciplines in the school (Wlodkowski & Ginsberg, 1995).
So, how can you use a culturally responsive approach in your school?
As an educator, it is crucial to know your students’ cultural background practices to better understand how a student may behave in the classroom. Issues may range from students not looking into someone’s eyes out of respect to acknowledging that some students may have multiple generations of family members living with them at home, making it more challenging to do homework.
Parents from different countries may see education differently from what teachers in U.S. typically expect. As Diane Staehr Fenner writes in Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators under the heading Education vs. Educación:
“For some Latino families, in particular, the idea of educaciόn focuses more on a child’s personal and moral development than on academics. These parents may see the direct impact of educaciόn on the child’s academic development. They may believe that raising their children with good manners and providing them with solid guidance results in good classroom behaviors, promoting higher academic achievement. However, some U.S. teachers might perceive Latino parents’ focus more on the moral aspect as a lack of interest in their children’s academic development.” (Fenner, D.S., 2014.)
Acknowledging that some parents from different backgrounds may see education differently is critical. Working with the parents and their communities creates a better environment where students learn, prosper and feel safe.
A safe environment must be one of the top priorities for any educator or leader who works with children. But being physically safe should not be the only aspect in which a child feels safe at school, for their mental health is also essential. Every student must feel safe in our schools regardless of gender, religion, skin color or language spoken at home.
Just as we educators are not all the same, neither are all children. It should also be understood that there are differences among students whose first language is not English. Considering just Hispanic/Latin cultures, you’ll find that students from South America, the Hispanic Caribbean, and Central America are all different from one another, have different background knowledge, and perhaps do not even speak Spanish. The same goes for all students from different regions of the world: Asia, Africa, and Europe.
As an early career educator, you may be thinking how difficult it can be to learn about each of your students’ backgrounds while trying to teach lessons, assess progress, keep students engaged and more. Just like working with any other student, it takes time and willingness to reach your students. Spending some time within the class to learn about their abilities, strengths, and interests creates a connection with students. Learning what they are passionate about can help create new content where students can make more connections and understand material better.
Be there for them, advocate for your students, and most importantly never measure their “intelligence” based upon the lack of English fluency. Recognize their bilingualism, or in many cases multilingualism, as an asset not a liability.
Dr. Angello Villarreal is a teacher at Freehold Township High School and an adjunct professor at Monmouth University. Born and raised in Peru, Villarreal focuses his research and teaching on culturally responsive practices, culturalization, language acquisition and providing more equitable opportunities for all students. Villarreal is co-adviser to the Spanish Club and is implementing the project “Hidden Treasures” as part of a minigrant from the Social Justice Academy from Monmouth University. Villarreal earned his B.A. in Spanish from Montclair State University and is a Monmouth University graduate with an M.A.T. in Spanish, ESL, Bilingual/Bicultural Education and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership. He can be found on Twitter using @AngelloVillarre.
More to learn
In preparing this article, I referenced these resources. I encourage you to read their work directly.
“Culturally responsive teaching,” by Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn. Science and Children, March/April 2021.
Advocating for English Learners: A Guide for Educators, by Diane Staehr Fenner. Corwin (2014).
Raymond J. Wlodkowski and Margery B. Ginsberg, “A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching,” ASCD (1995).