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As educators, we all have a “come to Jesus” moment—a moment when we are humbled by our students’ questions, asked to address what we don’t know, and forced to really do the work of educating ourselves to educate our students. These moments mark a clear turning point in our approach to education. They make us re-engage with questions of equity, social justice, and cultural competence. These moments are where our stories and identities as educators sit. They are our anchors, headlines, and foundations. They send us on a journey to learn how to support our students better—regardless of their ethnicity.
My “come to Jesus” moment came in my 2015 World History Class, when I faced an unexpected question that made me reconsider not only what I was teaching, but how I was teaching it too. I had just finished wrapping up—what I thought was—an engaging lesson around the military expertise and strategy of Julius Caesar. I asked the usually unanswered question of “Are there any questions, comments, or concerns? We are all clear on what the homework is?” and got a response that shook me as a BIPOC educator: an Asian American student asked me, “But where were all the Asians at though?” As I stood there watching all 33 of my students looking at me for my answer, I realized that I, in fact, did not have all the answers.
This question made me rethink my lessons and my approach to teaching. What other questions would I run into in my other units? Would a Latinx student ask me what the Puerto Ricans were doing during the Dark Ages? How can I prepare for all the potential questions that could come up? That’s when I realized that my problem didn’t lie in my inability to prepare for the future, but rather it fell in the way I was teaching and what I was teaching. I needed to examine why my students asked these questions in the first place. Was I overlooking their history in my classroom?
Responding to A Crisis in Education Through Culturally Responsive Teaching
In this moment, flood lights came on—not a singular, illuminating lightbulb—but huge, blinding screams. I realized this is where my growth as an educator would take place. I needed to reflect, learn, and unlearn the roots of my own education, calling out where the perspectives were homogeneous and pivoting to make sure I could answer questions and reveal a culturally appropriate, responsive, and reflective answer.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
When it comes to culturally responsive and aligned teaching, educators are not taught how to ask or structure the right questions to make genuine choices. The framework of culturally responsive teaching is too narrow—we don’t know what this responsibility demands or what we owe our students until we do the work to understand our students and educate in a way that relates to their needs.
Overtime, this need to change my approach to education moved from quiet whispers into larger screams. As I say in a teacher meeting about how to incentivize students to do their homework, it became clear that my colleagues and I were missing something larger. This isn’t the history of our students, of course they aren’t going to be interested.
However, my understanding of education and the bureaucracy that comes with it, combined with my identity as a minority teacher, kept me from speaking up. It was my first year teaching World History, I wasn’t sure how much we could push against an established curriculum. I felt like I was sinking, but was determined to come up for air.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies & Examples
1. Get Creative: Change Not Only What You Teach, But How You Teach
These constraints did force me to realize that though I couldn’t change what history I got to teach immediately, I could change how I taught the history sanctioned for me in the meantime.
That meant as I built the content knowledge needed to teach things left out of history textbooks, I’d introduce new perspectives and use real-world examples for engagement purposes. The history of Julius Caesar is riddled with contemporary emotions and themes. It isn’t about the history of ancient Rome—a history that feels irrelevant and far removed from modern life. At its core, the rise and fall of Julius Caesar are about betrayal. It’s about conflicting loyalties between the state and friendship.
That was it, my students could understand this concept of betrayal, even if they didn’t grasp military strategy. I took this unit and called it the “Opps” unit. This hard reset—education lingo for a quick and sudden change in approach to teaching—began the following week. Instead of tasking my students to “cite textual evidence to support that the theme of Julius Caesar is betrayal,” I phrased the ask as, “So we can all agree Brutus is an Opp, where should Julius have been checking his back from the jump?” Their books flew open. I’d push further with “So how does Cassius with the fake screenshots contribute to this being a tragedy?”
It was at this moment I realized, as a teacher, you have to make it make sense. You have to help students relate the content to their lives—even if the content is as distant as ancient Rome. That means you need to know who is in your room, how their lives intersect and weave with the themes and content in your classroom. If you don’t understand your class, you won’t be able to present information in a way that resonates with them.
2. Don’t Be Afraid to Use Others to Bolster Your Teaching
I also built my content knowledge of aspects of our curriculum that touched on overlooked and marginalized groups. I wanted to make sure that no student felt like their history and their community was not important enough to teach, or that their stories did not matter. Though I switched from World History to American Literature, I still began to phase-in and phase-out curricular content with more representative content.
- My students responded best to excerpts from A People’s History of the United States and Mental Floss and videos from Ted-Ed and Crash Course.
- Undefining and redefining the “classics” isn’t an easy process—so I relied on Thug Notes and Lies My Teacher Taught Me to keep my students involved in this history.
- Instead of The Great Gatsby, we used Nella Larsen’s Passing.
- To make our class as inclusive as possible, I shifted our curriculum to align with heritage months. I made sure to teach Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club while discussing Crazy Rich Asians. I had students use a translator to study directions in Chinese and prepare for our Mahjong class tournament.
- Remember, there is always help out there. A little research can take you to a books on culturally responsive teaching or online webinars. (Check out this lesson on making your classroom an affirmative space for all students.)
3. Culturally Responsive Teaching Extends Beyond the Content
However, culturally responsive teaching is merely a tool in the wheelhouse of culturally aligned educational practices. Updating the content of what we teach is part of the core work needed to create inclusive spaces, but the physical spaces need to be welcoming to your students. Your students have to feel like they belong in your class. For example:
Is your classroom decor welcoming?
Do you have quotes on your walls from a diverse group of leaders with not only ethnically but socio-economically as well? Are your posters all in English? Are your desks in rows or do they promote collaboration by being in groups? How long do students sit in their assigned seats? Can they choose their seats, and if not…why? Can students not be trusted in the ways we trust them in college to choose a seat that best works for them? You know you can still separate them from their friends if they become a distraction? You know you can teach them how to choose seats that are best for their learning styles and needs?
What about your school environment and its messaging?
What message do these send to students? What do your assemblies look like? Is there a Black History assembly? Is there an Asian-American Pacific Islander month assembly? What about a Latinx Heritage month assembly? Do you decorate doors with notable BIPOC? What about your bulletin boards?
How do you make sure student activities and extracurriculars speak to and include each student?
What activities found within your school building are reflective of other cultures? Great you have a book club, do you also have an Anime club? You have Baseball why not offer Cricket as an intramural club sport? Spanish and French are offered but what about Arabic?
How do your school’s rules work with your students?
Is your dress code reflective of what your students wear outside of school? Are your rules rooted in upholding white supremacy? Do you welcome and provide school correspondence in multiple languages? Is there someone on your staff who can communicate with families who speak a language other than English?
The list goes on and on, as it should. In de-segregation and the integration of schools, we only integrated the people, we didn’t fuse in their curriculum, practices, procedures, guidelines, languages, dialects, history, methods.
Building Out What We Teach
I often get asked, “What about the classics!” Well, these are only classics because we continue to teach them. Yes, they are relevant because they make later works—often written in opposition to the Western canon—more powerful.
But why not use classic excerpts paired alongside books written in opposition to the status quo? Why not give students multiple perspectives throughout your history content in order for students to determine who the hero really is? Aren’t there always two sides to a story anyways?
What about in your science courses, can you use the research and data of BIPOC to support experiments across topics that directly affect the communities of your students? Can you adjust your math curriculum for students to have to design equations and expressions as mathematical solutions to culturally relevant questions?
Allowing our students to think through concepts allows them to build analysis and critical thinking—anchors we have to address across subjects. If a teacher’s efficacy is measured by the standards, the content they use to meet these standards should be their choice. If you don’t trust your teachers to choose the right content, maybe it’s time to choose better professional development.
It’s a matter of “yes, and…” Yes we can teach the standards and rigorously meet benchmarks, and we can use content that is culturally aligned.
Culturally aligned education practices work in classrooms and buildings of all shades, socio-economic status, and regions. It works in the classrooms of Chicago to the suburbs of Atlanta to rural counties throughout Iowa.
Teaching everyone’s perspective and voice is simply the right thing to do. It’s decolonizing and dismantling racist systems within our education spaces.
It is equally important in building empathy so that students have a better understanding of people who do not look like them.
I challenge you, if teaching BIPOC authors “wouldn’t resonate” with your white students, then how has teaching the classics “resonated” with millions of BIPOC graduates who learned from white-dominated canons and curriculums? Seems like if we can’t get a refund, we definitely need an exchange.
If you want to learn more about how to support all of your students—regardless of their socioeconomic status, ethnicity, and race—check out this post on strategies for white educators looking to be Anti-racist.