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How to use culturally responsive teaching in the classroom

By Educators Team at Understood

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Understood's resources for educators are backed by research, vetted by experts, and reviewed by classroom teachers.

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a research-based approach that leverages students’ assets — their cultures, languages, and life experiences — to create rigorous, student-centered instruction. 

To put CRT into practice, follow the ideas below. And remember, it’s OK to start small as you figure out what works for you and your students. 

Identify students’ assets.

Student strengths

Reflect on your students’ strengths and whether you’ve considered them as strengths before. Ask yourself:

  • What are some of the individual strengths your students have?

  • Are there shared strengths across groups of students? 

  • What are your students’ talents, skills, and responsibilities outside of school?

Student interests

Finding out your students’ interests is a great way to build relationships. Their interests can also help guide your instruction. You can collect this information through: 

  • Questionnaires , surveys, and conversations with students and families

  • Conversations with other colleagues who know the students

  • Paying attention to the topics or activities that students find most engaging

Funds of knowledge

All students bring funds of knowledge to the classroom. That includes their own background knowledge, experiences, and skills needed to navigate their day. 

  • Take a look at this example of a funds of knowledge matrix to brainstorm similar examples from your students.

  • Learn about highlights from students’ cultures, like historical figures, accomplishments, and awards.

  • Find out about local contributions in your students’ communities. (Your students and families may have examples to share.)

  • Avoid asking too many direct questions about families’ personal lives. Some families, especially immigrant families, may have concerns about sharing personal information with the school. As trust develops, they may be more willing to share. 

Culture and cultural values

You don’t need to become an expert on all cultural groups and languages. But you do need to understand your students’ cultural identities to build a positive classroom culture and create relevant learning opportunities. Learn about your students’ cultures, whether that’s a country on the other side of the globe or a neighborhood down the street.

It’s also important to think about how your own culture impacts your teaching practices. This reflection can help you develop a mindset that strengthens relationships with all students, including those whose backgrounds are different from yours. 

  • Give students frequent opportunities to share information about their lives and cultures. 

  • Look for ways to build bridges to students’ communities in thoughtful ways. Colleagues, family liaisons, families, and community members can help.

  • Remember that sometimes culture is harder to see, but no less significant. For example, some students might come from collectivist cultures that focus on the well-being of the group, not the individual. Think about how you might use group work to build on the strengths of your students and the whole group.

Language

All students bring language assets and skills to the classroom. They may also have different styles of interaction and communication. 

  • Be mindful of the different communication styles, patterns, and norms your students may use.

  • Bring a diverse range of poetry, music, or other forms of expression into the classroom on a regular basis. 

Learn about the language skills students bring to the classroom. For example, English language learners (ELLs) have bilingual skills that are often overlooked when they are evaluated only for their mastery of English. 

Some African American students regularly switch between dialects, known as code-switching. This skill requires high levels of linguistic, social, cultural, and cognitive ability, but it often goes unnoticed. Talk about how this skill can help students navigate contexts in and out of school. Support them in using language that’s appropriate to each context.

Create a supportive classroom environment.

Develop authentic, caring relationships. Relationships establish trust and respect — crucial ingredients for learning.

  • Learn how to say students’ names correctly.

  • Give students chances to share what’s happening in their lives. Try using one-on-one chats, group discussions, or journals.

  • When possible, find ways to support students outside of the classroom, like at afterschool events.

Create a welcoming classroom. Think about whether your classroom sends a message that students are welcome and that great things are possible for their learning.

  • Look at your classroom walls. Ask yourself whether all of your students can find relatable visuals and props from a diverse range of fields and backgrounds. You can also involve students in setting up the classroom.

  • Think about whether all your students get regular, authentic messages of affirmation. 

  • Include different kinds of diversity in your classroom materials. Think about ethnicity, language, ability, gender identity, and socioeconomic experiences. Watch out for materials that perpetuate stereotypes or insulting depictions of diverse communities.

Examine the curriculum.

Look for ways to increase and support rigor. Raising expectations is an important part of increasing academic achievement.

  • Look at your curriculum. Ask where you can raise your expectations for students.

  • Identify the skills students need to complete higher-level work in your classroom. Use explicit instruction and strategy instruction to help students learn, practice, and apply new skills.

  • Keep in mind that for some students, this may be the first time they’re challenged to master these skills. Create a culture that understands that mistakes are part of the learning process.

Continue your own learning.

Explore resources to deepen your own understanding. CRT is a chance to reflect on your personal perspective. You can also use the CRT lens to learn about the broader forces that shape the lives of students.

  • Look for trustworthy, research-based examples of CRT across the curriculum that reflect the diverse student populations you serve. Start with this comprehensive list of resources from Colorín Colorado.

  • Consider finding a partner or mentor for shared discussion. You can also look for an online community of educators focused on this topic, like @equityinst.

Learn how to use CRT during distance learning.

  • Use online team-building activities where students share about themselves and their families. Give options so that students can decide what they’re comfortable sharing.

  • Plan lessons and projects around topics that are relevant to your students’ interests and cultures. Prepare for handling sensitive conversations about discrimination, racism, and oppression.

  • Provide visual or audio supports. Consider recording lessons so that ELLs can watch at their own pace.

  • Help students get access to technology or other services their family needs. Be prepared to provide materials like printouts and books that can be used when technology is unavailable.

  • Ask families when and how they prefer to communicate. Get to know what language resources are available for families of ELLs.

Learn more by exploring the distance learning toolkit

See CRT in action.

Watch this video clip from Edutopia. Think about these questions as you watch: 

  • How are the students’ lives, cultures, and experiences reflected in the environment, curriculum, and instruction?

  • What signs do you see of high expectations and rigor?

  • What are some takeaways you could apply to your teaching?

CRT is a shift in mindset that will not happen overnight. It requires a willingness to learn, be vulnerable, be flexible with instruction, and reflect. The path to CRT is a journey, but with practice and patience, it will benefit you and all of your students.

Lydia Breiseth (director of Colorín Colorado), Shivohn García, PhD (senior director of the Impact team at Understood), and Shaquala Butler ( Understood Teacher Fellow ) contributed to this article. 

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