One of the most painful truths about our educational system in the United States is that there is a terrible achievement gap between white, economically stable students and minority or historically marginalized students. Our English learners, poor kids and children of color WAY too often are not having the same outcomes as their white peers.
Part of the problem is that our educational system is set up in a way that does not align with the cultural values that many of these marginalized students have.
This summer I participated in a book club with my school district. We read a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. It was a GREAT book.
First, and this is no small thing for an exhausted teacher on summer break, the book was easy to read. It was not one of those books you need to force yourself to read and re-read because it was dense with research that is hard to understand. It was a pleasure to read!
Second, I really liked the explanations that were given about how the brain functions. It’s been a while since I have thought deeply about the biological functions of the brain, but it was a great refresher because understanding how the brain works is intricately related to the learning behaviors we see in our students.
Last, I am grateful for the greater understanding the book gave me about cultural values that are different than mine as an individual, as an American who has always lived in the United States, and as a white person.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
Simply put, culturally responsive teaching recognizes the importance of including students’ cultural values and perspectives in all aspects of teaching.
This can be difficult, because as we grow up and become adults, we live and internalize our own cultural values. They are deeply ingrained. So much so that it can be difficult, even for open-minded and caring adults, to realize that other people may not view the world in the same way that we do.
One thing I learned in my reading was that that there are 2 MAIN cultural points of reference: Cultures that value cooperation and collaboration above individual achievement, and cultures that value independence and individualism.
Many European countries and the United States are highly individualistic, whereas many cultures from Africa, Latin America and Asia are highly collaborative.
What might that look like in your classroom? What assumptions might we make about student behavior based on our own cultural perspective?
For me, this was very eye-opening. And a bit painful, to be honest. I recognized that there were times in my career that I made assumptions about students’ intent or values that were probably way off base. And this was due to ignorance rather than malice.
But we all have the chance to learn and improve and grow.
There are a lot of things that go into being a culturally responsive teacher. I am not an expert. But I am happy to share what I learn.
What Are Some Actionable Steps Teachers Can Take?
Becoming more culturally aware and responsive is a BIG task. It’s overwhelming. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try. My suggestion is that we start somewhere. Let’s begin with 2 small steps, and I as I learn more, I will share more!
I am certainly NOT and expert on this topic!!
- Examine your own cultural reference points by answering questions for yourself.
- ASK your students about their cultures. During the first week of school, find out information like: what languages are spoken at home? What ethnicity or culture do they identify with? Was anyone born in another country? How do they prefer to learn and work; alone or in groups? Knowing the answers to those questions gives you a good starting point to understanding how they view the world!
Want More Information?
Again, I HIGHLY recommend this book by Zaretta Hammond.
Here are some online resources to check out too.
Culturally Responsive Teaching article from Brown University
Questions to Ask About Culture from MIT
Please leave me a comment if this is a topic you would like to know more about. I am still learning, but I would be happy to share what I learn if it is helpful to others!
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