#124 – Intentionally Planning and Implementing Culturally Responsive Teaching

Unpacking Education October 19, 2022 36 min

In part two of our conversation with Dr. Geneva Gay, we take culturally responsive teaching into the classroom and look at practical strategies for beginning implementation. Dr. Gay acknowledges the complexity of both teaching and becoming culturally responsive in our practices. In this light, she encourages us to start small and build on our successes. She says culturally responsive teaching “is a multidimensional phenomenon. Pick one dimension and work toward mastery of that, add another dimension, and then add another dimension.” Step by step, we can become more aware and more skilled in culturally responsive teaching.

To help us move toward this place of mastery, Dr. Gay offers a wide range of insights and instructional practices we can implement to make our classrooms more culturally responsive.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Our ultimate goal as culturally responsive teachers is to help dependent learners learn how to learn. We want them to have the ability to size up any task, map out a strategy for completing it and then execute the plan. That’s what independent learners do.

Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

One Step at a Time 

When it comes to culturally responsive teaching, there is a lot to learn, and this journey will not be completed in one lesson or even one year. It’s a complex process where we need to stay committed to learning. This learning can come from thought leaders like Dr. Gay. It can also come from our own experiences and those of our colleagues. It can even come from the students we teach. No matter how we expand our understanding, the more we learn, the more culturally responsive we can be.

In this episode, Dr. Gay helps us add to our learning and understanding of culturally responsive teaching and how it can show up in our classrooms. Here are a few highlights from this episode.

  • A place to start: Dr. Gay suggests that our journey should begin by looking inward. She says, “A place for teachers to start is to understand themselves as cultural beings.” This self-discovery can help us be more aware of where our personal culture enters our teaching and impacts our messages and actions. It can also allow us to be more aware of times we may need to step outside of our cultural contexts to better reach students.
  • Cultural filters: The content we teach often gets filtered through our personal cultural filters. To better reach all students, we need to be able to hear the nuances of these personal filters and adjust them as needed. For instance, when our personal culture is not the same as those of our students, meaning can be lost, and students can become confused. The wider range of cultural filters we can understand and include in our teaching, the better we can reach all students.
  • Cultural shorthand: Most cultures have their own system of metaphor that enters into the communication process. For example, colloquialisms don’t transfer well across cultures. Other times, cultural parables become metaphors and then are used as a cultural shorthand that may not be understood by those outside the culture from which they originated. Dr. Gay reminds us that if students don’t understand this cultural shorthand, “it separates them” and frustrates them, often prompting them to shut down or act up.
  • Multiple approaches: “You cannot teach anything one way and say that you are serving the needs of the greatest number of students,” explains Dr. Gay. It’s important to provide multiple examples and pathways to learning in class. One way to elicit multiple examples in class that extend beyond the teacher’s personal experiences is to involve the students. Without singling out one student to represent an entire culture, ask many or even all students to provide examples to illustrate a new concept.
  • Classroom environment: Dr. Gay stresses that we must “work in partnership with the students to make the best living conditions possible in their classrooms.” She adds that “living conditions” are “a prelude to learning conditions.” Students need to be comfortable in the learning space for them to be open to learning. Depending on their cultural experiences and expectations, the needs of your students may differ. Consider what each student needs, and even consider asking them what they need to succeed. They may provide insights you hadn’t considered. Some common elements of effective classrooms include a quiet corner, a brain break, community building, check-ins, and celebrations.
  • Student readiness to learn: Ask what can help students in different cultural groups to get ready to learn, and be open to the fact that different students may need different things. For example, Dr. Gay points out that African American students are often very social, and want to assist each other in getting tasks done. They may want to touch base with each other personally before beginning the learning process. As teachers, we might think this is disruptive, but if we deprive them of this cultural need, they may not be ready to learn and get frustrated, tune out, or act up. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs reinforces the idea that students need their basic needs met before they will be ready to learn. This includes not only physiological and safety needs but love, belonging, and esteem needs as well.
  • Keep standards high: Dr. Gay reminds us, “In cultural responsiveness, we’re not saying that you compromise the academic goals and objectives.” We must maintain the integrity of the curriculum and keep standards high. Within that context, we need to be culturally responsive and find ways to reach each student.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • How would you describe your personal culture?
  • What aspects of your culture might not be understood by students of another culture?
  • What is an example of academic content that might be colored by a personal cultural filter when shared with students?
  • What is an example of cultural shorthand that you’ve either heard, experienced, or communicated?
  • How can you work in partnership with students to create “the best living conditions possible” in your classroom?
  • How can you make sure all students are ready to learn in your classroom?
  • Why are multiple approaches to instruction so important?
  • What is a practical culturally responsive strategy or step that you hope to try in your teaching?