Culturally Responsive Education: Some Thoughts for Getting Started

Culturally Responsive Education: Some Thoughts for Getting Started

By Caitlin Orbanek

When schools and districts start to explore culturally responsive education, the first thought may be “where do we even begin?” While intentionally developing, growing, and embracing a culturally responsive environment for youth and adults in any setting is deeply important work, there is no one right way to get started.

Culturally responsive education is fundamentally a “pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates all cultures, and offers full, equitable access to education for students of all cultures”. This means that content and approaches to teaching and learning are most effective and attainable when learners’ backgrounds, past experiences, social norms, needs, and personal expectations are taken into consideration. Taken at the face value of an academic definition, making sure your approach to teaching is culturally responsive can seem like a huge task. Culture is both shared and personal, and we often shy away from discussing differences or points of uncertainty because we don’t want to offend, we don’t know the right questions to ask, or we don’t want to be invasive.

But culture is so pervasive in how we live and experience every day, we can’t possible ignore its’ impact on ourselves or our students. Still not convinced? Culturally responsive education is shown to impact and awaken student connection to learning and their intrinsic motivation. If you have disengaged students, or if you’ve ever heard the question “Why do I even have to learn this”, CRE might make a difference. We like this explanation from ASCD: “While the internal logic as to why a student does something may not coincide with that of the teacher, it is, nonetheless, present. And, to be effective, the teacher must understand that perspective. Rather than trying to know what to do to students, we must work with students to interpret and deepen their existing knowledge and enthusiasm for learning. From this viewpoint, motivationally effective teaching is culturally responsive teaching.

Below are five thoughts about starting points for your CRE efforts. While this is not a comprehensive list, these may inspire some thinking about your work.

1.     Get introspective. All of us come from a culture, and all of have cultural norms which are comforting, important, and “normal” to us. What are the things that make you YOU? What are your values? How do you approach certain situations? How were you raised, and how does that impact your outlook on your world? Are your answers to these questions different from those around you? Asking these types of deep introspective questions of ourselves is the first step in becoming more culturally responsive.

2.     Get aligned. Your culturally responsive work should not be an additional “initiative”. Ensuring that your language, tools, outreach, and methods are sensitive to the needs and expectations of your population should be fundamental in all your work. Many districts have found that culturally responsive learning follows naturally when social and emotional learning is supported, because our minds become more attuned to welcoming others’ perspectives, appreciating diversity, and thinking about our impact on the world. What do you already have in place that supports your students, staff, and families’ experiences?

3.     Look around. There are two types of culture we should pay attention to: the tangible and the intangible. Tangible culture – such as what’s on the walls, in the books, served at lunch or celebrations, or worn as clothing or decoration - these are the first things we think of when a school wants to undertake a “cultural audit” or think about making a space more inclusive. While that work is worthy and important, it is often the cultural intangibles that have a greater effect: how we welcome others into our lives, how we speak about people or ideas, how we include people, and how we show or discuss our values, opinions, beliefs, and thoughts. Some considerations here may be to ensure language is gender-neutral (use terms like “friends” or “scholars” rather than “boys and girls” when asking for attention), work to develop group compacts, adopt structures and methods that ensure all voices can be heard, and examine behaviors honestly to make sure they aren’t unknowingly creating barriers.

4.     Ask the experts. As stated above, this can be a daunting undertaking and its key to remember you aren’t going at it alone. When in doubt, do some research. Poll your personal network for inclusion ideas, ask your colleagues what has worked for them, and explore tried and true resources like Edutopia. But for the true experts, look no further than your students and their families. Create opportunities for students to share their culture through discussion prompts, creative pursuits, and learning projects. Invite family members into your space: things like bilingual book readings are exciting for young learners, while sharing lived experiences is powerful for older students.

5.     Start right where you are. Asking your students to become more culturally aware might be a big jump. Rather than diving into cultures very different from your own, set some baseline understanding of what makes up culture by exploring how theirs as a young person is different from yours as an adult. Youth culture is dynamic and vast, so ask: What are they in to? What are they eating, what are they wearing, how do they spend free time? From there, move on to what they value, what they believe, what motivates them. Grounding your conversations in the idea that we all have a culture and it’s equally important as everyone elses’ is empowering. Make some initial connections for students so they start to define their own space – then when they look outside the bounds of their experiences they will be more able to see what is valuable, interesting, exciting, and genuine about others.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind as educators and as humans in a multi-cultural world is that we all always have something to learn from each other.


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