6 Ways to Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom
By José A. Viana, Senior Advisor, Education Partnerships, Lexia
Developing a Culturally Responsive Classroom
A significant milestone was achieved in our nation's public schools a few years ago when minority student groups comprised more than 50% of public school enrollment. While the United States has a highly diverse student population, most educators do not share the same cultural experiences of their diverse students. Culturally responsive classrooms play an important role in this regard.
The concept of a culturally responsive classroom starts with a teacher's ability to teach in a multicultural or cross-cultural setting. Culturally relevant teaching recognizes students' traditional backgrounds as an asset in the classroom. Many effective teachers have consistently demonstrated an awareness of student backgrounds and cultural sensitivity. As a result of their intuitive understanding, these educators are able to recognize that the more inclusive their classroom is, the more engaged their students will be, and that engagement ultimately results in success.
The Importance of Opportunities for Multilingual Learners
“Growing up in the U.S. as a child, my parents had just arrived from Cuba and didn't speak English at all. Despite the fact that my teacher had limited resources for helping English learners, she connected with me and made a sincere effort to communicate with my parents and my family—and that made all the difference in the world. My teacher made it clear that she cares about me and my success through her words and actions. All educators can invest in the success of bilingual and multilingual students, just as my teacher did for me all those years ago.” —José A. Viana, Senior Advisor, Education Partnerships, Lexia®
Unfortunately, a deficit approach, which suggests students with limited English proficiency have an educational deficit, is all too common. The transformation of our classrooms to create a culturally responsive atmosphere requires teachers to examine their own attitudes about different cultures—understanding any preconceptions they might have held, as well as valuing each student for who they are, including their background and the culture they bring to the classroom.
The National Center for Educational Statistics reported more than 5 million Emergent Bilingual students in 2019—approximately 10% of our public school students. Additionally, it may be surprising to learn that a large proportion of American students with limited English proficiency are citizens of the United States. Eighty-five percent of these individuals were born in the United States, compared to 15% who were born abroad. This sparks the question: If almost three-quarters of English Learner (EL) students were born in the United States and speak some English, why is there a tendency for EL programs to assume all students are relatively recent immigrants?
Many educators are implementing an asset-based approach and using the term "Emergent Bilingual" rather than English Learner. This term focuses on the student's strengths—that they are becoming bilingual, or multilingual. It recognizes and values the native language, cultural background, and other assets students bring to the classroom, regardless of where they were born. In this respect, educators should be intentional about valuing the many gifts these students bring to the classroom to move toward achieving educational equity for them.
Culturally Responsive Classrooms Provide Opportunity
When preparing for participation in a global economy, students who speak more than one language are at a distinct advantage. A culturally responsive classroom is a valuable way to support and encourage Emergent Bilingual students. To provide a culturally responsive classroom, all students should be able to identify themselves and see their communities reflected in the content. Although the personal connection between the student and teacher is crucial, teachers can also support Emergent Bilingual students by embracing innovative instructional techniques, utilizing various resources, and intentionally fostering stronger relationships with students' families.
We live in a world filled with a variety of cultures, and students will thrive in classrooms where every student is valued for the gifts they bring to the classroom. By creating opportunities for students to share their cultural experiences and connect to real-world concerns, teachers can actively engage students in the learning process. An inclusive classroom ultimately leads to greater student achievement.
Six Steps to Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom
Across the country, classrooms have implemented blended learning models that integrate technology due to the pandemic. To maintain those connections to family and community, the culturally responsive classroom model must be put in place. During the past few years, teachers have been able to gain a great deal of insight into the lives and communities of their students as they have engaged in remote learning.
As we recover and move into the phase of pandemic recovery, it’s important to adapt and evolve from a traditional instructional model to a coaching role that facilitates student engagement and critical thinking.
Here are six steps to help you get started:
1. Tap into Various Cultures
Get to know your students! The key to culturally responsive teaching lies in this principle. To develop a deeper understanding of your students, ask them about their lives and families. Meet their families, and discuss the hopes and aspirations of parents for their children. Encourage them to speak their first language(s) together at home. Additionally, you can learn about the cultures of the families by visiting their communities.
2. Design for Multiculturalism
It is important for students to be able to identify themselves in the displayed images, bulletin boards, classwork, and books that support their learning. For students to be able to connect with the material and internalize it more effectively, representation is essential.
3. Create a Student-Centered Classroom
To be truly active learners, students must take ownership of their education. Focus on engaging students in culturally relevant learning by promoting student collaboration and interaction. This is closely related to getting to know your students and allowing them to be represented in the instructional materials. In an environment where students are the focus, student success is inevitable.
4. Pronounce Names Correctly
In addition to building trust, it is important to honor the cultural heritage of your students by correctly pronouncing their names. Furthermore, it not only demonstrates mutual respect, but it also demonstrates your commitment to their academic success.
5. Set High Expectations
Every student should have access to scaffolding and learning accommodations until they can gain independence. To help learners reach success, educators can use technology to meet the various needs of students.
6. Embrace an Asset-Based Mindset
Reflect on students’ individual strengths. By using an asset-based approach to learning, you can determine how to use students' interests, skills, and responsibilities from outside the classroom to guide classroom instruction. Students’ cultural experiences, knowledge, and languages can be significant assets in the classroom, creating rich learning experiences for culturally diverse students and their peers.
Create a Culturally Responsive Classroom with Lexia
Schools that provide culturally relevant and responsive instruction report higher levels of community engagement and academic achievement. This is good news for future learners! Educators should continue to establish culturally rich, diverse, and responsive classrooms that will allow students to find and make their place in an ever-changing world.
Learn more about how you can support Emergent Bilingual students and accelerate their learning with the webinar, “Future-Ready Emergent Bilingual Education: 3 Factors to Improve Teacher and Student Support.”
José Viana is the former Assistant Deputy Secretary in the office of English Language Acquisition at the U.S. Department of Education. He is now a Senior Advisor, Education Partnerships for Lexia. This blog was originally published in December 2020 and refreshed in February 2023.
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