#39 – Accelerating Learning With Culturally Responsive Teaching

Unpacking Education May 12, 2021 30 min

Each student who enters the classroom should feel that they have every opportunity to become successful. Students of color often come to school with experiences that some teachers are unfamiliar with—whether it is language, customs, or beliefs. As teachers, we have the opportunity to embrace these new experiences and learn how to include them in our classroom systems and structures to ensure the success of every child.

Students who come from different backgrounds often feel isolated in the classroom. When we do not actively implement multicultural educational frameworks and culturally responsive teaching practices, we are communicating to these students that their experiences are not valued and that they are not capable of success.

In this podcast episode, we are joined by Dr. Winston Benjamin, a Social Studies and English Language Arts facilitator in the Renton School District in Washington. He shares his expertise in culturally responsive teaching to begin a conversation about how we as teachers must challenge our beliefs, examine our own biases, and reflect on how we need to evaluate the structures and systems in our classrooms to support all students, celebrating their experience and applying it to their learning process.

Paul Beckermann
PreK-12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
Digital Learning Coach
Pamela Beckermann
PreK-12 Digital Learning Specialist

Culturally responsive teaching can be defined as using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them. It teaches to and through the strengths of these students.

Geneva Gay, professor and author


The following resources are available on AVID Open Access to explore this topic in more depth:

Connecting Classroom Learning to Students’ Lives to Boost Engagement

To meet the needs of all students in the classroom, teachers need to invest time and energy into developing trusting relationships with both students and their families. This allows teachers to better align their classroom structures with those of the family and the relevant cultural backgrounds. From this relationship comes an opportunity for teachers to identify ways that they can include students’ identities in the learning process. This may include learning scaffolds that reflect a student’s cultural experience, literature by and about the variety of cultures represented in the classroom, and realia to which students can relate.

In this week’s episode, Dr. Benjamin begins the conversation about how teachers can start to evaluate their practice—the knowledge frameworks that organize the classroom, as well as the approaches that teachers can take to build inclusive spaces. Tune in to the podcast to learn more about these topics.

  • Multicultural Education and Culturally Responsive Teaching: Let’s start by establishing the difference between these two topics. Multicultural education is about the practical application that consists of a knowledge framework. It is focused on the individual’s construction of knowledge and how you, as the teacher, provide support. In other words, how do you know what your students know, and how do you support your students in knowing? This begins by engaging students in their cultural language, helping them cross-communicate so that they have an entry point to engage in learning. Culturally responsive teaching is the practical approach teachers take to build spaces that are anti-oppressive for students. We need to begin with multicultural education before we are able to move forward with culturally responsive teaching. Start with developing cultural knowledge by choosing new approaches and new texts. Then, by expanding the scope of your learning and unlearning your cultural perspectives that are biased to new knowledge, you can develop approaches that support learning for all students.
  • The Missing Components in Multicultural Education: For many teachers, it is easy to enact multicultural strategies. The challenge is we may be implementing strategies in a way that perpetuate the structures that harm children. Having a perspective of the how and why, plus your own understanding of your experience in the world and how that impacts how you learn, will help you engage students where they are at and begin to learn about their cultural knowledge. The component that we sometimes miss is our personal engagement and how our implicit biases impact the way we read the classroom, the way we read the conclusions we are drawing from student performance, and the way we engage with what we think students know.
  • Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Zone of Proximal Development: We know that culturally responsive teaching improves student outcomes, and the zone of proximal development (ZPD) helps us understand why. The ZPD is the distance between connections that we are able to make based on our prior knowledge and what we can do with the support of an expert to push through challenges in our understanding. As teachers, if we don’t have an understanding of our students’ cultural knowledge and the knowledge systems of the brain, how will we be able to engage students within their ZPD to encourage and advance their individual learning? Being aware that our students enter the classroom full of knowledge will help us determine how to best engage them in the learning process. We need to be able to leverage a student’s personal experience to aid them in developing new knowledge and expanding their schema, thereby helping them build a flexible framework for future understanding.
  • Experiential Learning and Learning Loss: A phrase that many of us are hearing as it relates to this school year has been learning loss. But before we label this year as a loss, we need to ask ourselves: If our Black and Brown students were in school, would they be getting what they need to be successful? As we look at the past year and the experiences of children of color during the pandemic, are we taking into account that they have learned math and science by measuring out baby formula to help mom every day? That older siblings are supporting younger siblings, honing their social and emotional skills? That they are learning geography when they see the latest pandemic hot spot on the news? How can we shift our mindset so that we accept these experiences as valuable experiential learning? Culturally responsive teaching practices provide schools and districts with a lens to engage students in how they have learned and grown during the pandemic.
  • How to Challenge the Rules of Intersectionality: The concept of power structures and the ways in which they overlap with how children are seen and see themselves is often ignored. When we think about the impact of culturally responsive teaching, the focus is often placed on young boys of color. When we look through the lens of intersectionality, we bring Black and Brown girls into the picture and begin to notice how the structures that harm Black boys also harm girls of color. We project rules on how to dress, rules on how to perceive your body, and rules on what it means to be an acceptable woman. As teachers, how might we develop a deeper and more nuanced understanding of structures of power at play in our classroom and how they overlap within these intersectional points so that we can find ways to break the norm?