Culturally Responsive Teaching Starts With Students

usdeptofeducationCulturally Responsive Teaching Starts With Students

by Dr. Matthew Lynch, Dean of the School of Education, Psychology, & Interdisciplinary Studies at Virginia Union University

A multicultural society is best served by a culturally responsive curriculum.

Schools that acknowledge the diversity of their student population understand the importance of promoting cultural awareness. Teachers who are interested in fostering a cultural awareness in their classroom should actively demonstrate to their students that they genuinely care about their cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs.

To this end, there are several strategies that you can use to build trusting relationships with diverse students. For teaching cultural awareness, consider the following ideas.

6 Ways Teachers Can Foster Cultural Awareness In The Classroom

Express interest in the ethnic background of your students.

Encourage your students to research and share information about their ethnic background as a means of fostering a trusting relationship with fellow classmates.

Analyze and celebrate differences in traditions, beliefs, and social behaviors. It is of note that this task helps European-American students realize that their beliefs and traditions constitute a culture as well, which is a necessary breakthrough in the development of a truly culturally responsive classroom. Also, take the time to learn the proper pronunciation of student names and express interest in the etymology of interesting and diverse names.

Redirect your role in the classroom from instructor to facilitator.

Another important requirement for creating a nurturing environment for students is reducing the power differential between the instructor and students.

Students in an authoritarian classroom may sometimes display negative behaviors as a result of a perceived sense of social injustice; in the culturally diverse classroom, the teacher thus acts more like a facilitator than an instructor. Providing students with questionnaires about what they find to be interesting or important provides them with a measure of power over what they get to learn and provides them with greater intrinsic motivation and connectedness to the material.

Allowing students to bring in their own reading material and present it to the class provides them with an opportunity to both interact with and share stories, thoughts, and ideas that are important to their cultural and social perspective.

Maintain a strict level of sensitivity to language concerns.

In traditional classrooms, students who are not native English speakers often feel marginalized, lost, and pressured into discarding their original language in favor of English. In a culturally responsive classroom, diversity of language is celebrated and the level of instructional materials provided to non-native speakers are tailored to their level of English fluency. Accompanying materials should be provided in the student’s primary language, and the student should be encouraged to master English as well.

Maintain high expectations for student performance.

Given that culturally responsive instruction is a student-centered philosophy, it should come as no surprise that expectations for achievement are determined and assigned individually for each student.

Students don’t receive lavish praise for simple tasks but do receive praise in proportion to their accomplishments. If a student is not completing her work, then one should engage the student positively and help guide the student toward explaining how to complete the initial steps that need to be done to complete a given assignment or task.

Incorporate methods for self-testing.

Another potent method for helping students become active participants in learning is to reframe the concept of testing.

While testing is usually associated with grades (and therefore stress) in traditional classrooms, in a culturally responsive classroom frequent non-graded tests can be used to provide progress checks and ensure that students don’t fall behind on required material. Teaching students to self-test while learning new information will help them better remember and use what they’ve learned in class and will help them realize on their own when they need to study a topic in greater depth.

Maintain an “inclusive” curriculum that remains respectful of differences.

Among the most important tenets of cultural awareness is the content itself being delivered. A culturally responsive curriculum is both inclusive in that it ensures that all students are included within all aspects of the school and it acknowledges the unique differences students may possess. A culturally responsive curriculum also encourages teachers’ understanding and recognition of each student’s non-school cultural life and background, and provides a means for them to incorporate this information into the curriculum, thus promoting inclusion.

Schools have the responsibility to teach all students how to synthesize cultural differences into their knowledge base, in order to facilitate students’ personal and professional success in a diverse world. A culturally responsive curriculum helps students from a minority ethnic/racial background develop a sense of identity as individuals, as well as proudly identify with their particular culture group.

Teachers can play an important role in helping students succeed through the establishment of culturally responsive classrooms.

Dr. Lynch is an award winning writer, activist and the Dean of the School of Education, Psychology, & Interdisciplinary Studies and an Associate Professor of Education at Virginia Union University. Please visit his website at for more information. Follow him on twitter @lynch39083; 6 Ways Teachers Can Foster Cultural Awareness In The Classroom; Culturally Responsive Teaching Starts With Students; image attribution flickr user usdepartmentofeducation; 


  • Using critical thinking to faciliatate discussions. When you’re dealing with multiple world views, it’s easy to sanitize education to avoid offence. Have the kids explore concepts via socratic questioning. They should come to some conclusions about their own beliefs and how they relate to science. Otherwise there won’t be any relevant discussions about evolution, our origin story, climate change, the current 6th mass extinction event, etc.

  • Theidea of acknowledging diversity within the educational setting is an idea I
    agree with, however there are many ways in which this is done incorrectly to
    the detriment of a student that need to be recognized. Many schools celebrate
    ethnicity with cultural food and festival days and count this as being
    “multicultural”. However, what is really important to understand in an
    educational scenario, and the three topics I want to address are (1) the
    different ways of understanding the world that are found in different
    countries, (2) how different ethnicities respond to authority, and (3) specific
    attitudes towards education. A study done by Michaels et al. in 1991 supports
    the idea that understanding how different ethnicities understand the world
    around them and respond to it is an important aspect in having culturally
    responsive teaching. In this study kids both white children and black children
    were asked to participate in a show and tell in which the teacher was asked to
    facilitate and researchers recorded the dialogue and found patterns between
    them. It was found that the white kids focused on a single topic, the timeline
    discussed was linear with no shifts in time or place, and rising tones in voice
    signaled background information while falling tones signaled an end to the
    story. On the other hand black students’ speech was characterized by topic
    shifts inferred by prosody and topics of speech inferred rather than explicitly
    stated. The researchers then looked at what teachers looked for and taught as a
    good way to tell a story. They found teachers think objects should be named and
    explicitly described, talk should be temporally and specially stable, and a listener
    should have to assume little/no background knowledge. The results of this study make it clear that
    teacher have a bias towards how different ethnicities communicate information
    and this has effects on how they grade students and unconsciously judge their
    intellectual abilities. Becoming aware of different ways of explaining ideas
    between ethnicities within the educational environment will help in exercising
    culturally responsive teaching.
    Second, I agree with your points about changing the teacher’s role from instructor to
    facilitator because understanding how different ethnicities respond to
    authority is especially important in that an action that is out of the ordinary
    might be construed as disrespectful or disobedient when instead it is something
    engrained at home. It has been found that some Hispanic and rural African
    American students only speak when spoken to, as well as speaking assertively or
    directly to an adult is never accepted. Once a teacher understands this, they
    can better associate with her students and make them feel comfortable in her room. Also some Native Americans value silence while man European Americans are uncomfortable with silence. Comprehending the fact that a portion of a class might be quieter because of their ethnicity and the norms they find at home while others are used to constant talking
    assists teachers in attributing what is bad behavior and what is not.
    Lastly, I want to agree with your point about maintaining high expectations for student
    performance across all ethnicities. A study done by Fuller-Rowell and Doan in
    2010 looked the relationship between ethnicity, student performance, and social
    acceptance. The study included 13,000 students with an average age of 15 years
    old. Each participant self-reported their level of social acceptance in both
    the fall and spring semesters and researchers compared this with their grade
    point average. It was found that for white, Latino, and Asian students an
    increase in GPA was associated with an increased social acceptance, while for
    African American students who had an increased GPA there was an association
    with a lower social status. These results go hand in hand with President Obama’s Keynote Address at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 where he said that in many inner city neighborhoods picking up a book means you are turning white. In other words,
    for many ethnicities working hard in school is not the norm, nor is it praised.
    In line with your argument, I reason to say that teachers should be aware that
    student may have more on their mind than simply getting their assignment done,
    social aspects are important to students as well and being aware of this also
    will increase culturally responsive teaching.

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