Creating Culturally Responsive Environments

Guest post by Eva Cwynar

I want you to think about the last time you watched a movie where the main character looked like you, lived in a community like yours, or came from a similar background/culture. How often do you come across stories or texts where one or more of these characteristics are present? For some, the answers to these questions are that it happens all the time. For others, the answer may be rarely, if ever. Now imagine that you are a student in a school where the history that you learn is not the history of the culture that your family comes from, the scientists and mathematicians that you learn about don’t look like you or come from similar backgrounds, the literature that you read, music you hear in band, or sports that you play in PE don’t reflect your experiences or heritage. How do you think this would make you feel? This is a reality for many students that walk our halls and form our school community and this is why culturally responsive teaching is so important!

Culturally responsive teaching validates and affirms the culture of students in our schools/classrooms and incorporates that culture in meaningful ways in both the learning and the environment. It’s not enough to simply make mention of a race or culture or to change the names in a word problem so that they’re “ethnically diverse”, CRT is about leveraging and growing students’ existing funds of knowledge by connecting to diverse personal experiences. The following examples are simple ways to develop culturally responsive environments in your classroom:

  1. Connect learning to background knowledge – Take the time to learn more about your students’ homes, community, and interests. Parent & family surveys are a perfect way to learn about your students and their backgrounds. Think about providing the survey in multiple languages and in multiple formats so that it is accessible in multiple formats. Once you have this information, USE IT! Don’t just file it away in their student folder…incorporate these gems into the learning environment.
    • Create a library of non-fiction texts that focus on student interests and make them available in different languages that represent the home languages of your students.
    • Create a “Netflix” playlist full of documentaries showcasing diverse people, cultures, and countries, historical events from around the world, nature shows that highlight plants, animals, and natural phenomenon in different continents.
    • Bring the community into the classroom – connect social studies concepts to neighborhood events and/or landmarks, explore science concepts taking place in their backyards or local parks, engage in learning walks to identify geometric shapes in architecture.
    • Play music during transition periods that reflects students’ heritage or favorite genres.
  2. Encourage cognitive routines that foster critical conversations- Ask students to think critically about the relationships and connections between concepts or phenomenon.
    • Have your students engage in word play that’s both cognitively demanding yet fun. Taboo and Scrabble are great ways to build vocabulary about concepts students are learning while simultaneously repositioning the student as a leader in the learning by developing student agency. You may choose to have students do this by sharing the vocabulary terms in different languages, by having them define the term used in their own words, or by connecting the terms to something that they have experienced in their life.
    • Engage students in literature analysis by comparing the central idea of traditional texts in ELA and Social Studies to popular music and poetry (there is a library of songs as well as other resources that can support this type of learning at Get Free Hip Hop Civics Ed).
    • Provide texts that share diverse viewpoints and experiences to spur discussion about socially relevant topics that effect our community. These texts should provide avenues for students to think critically about current and past events in a classroom environment that provides a safe forum to share sensitive and thought-provoking concepts.

A critically important aspect of culturally responsive teaching is that these experiences, methods, and strategies do not become a single activity that you check off a to-do list once a trimester…these practices should become routine and be practiced over and over again throughout the school year and across the campus. A culturally responsive environment acknowledges that everyone brings something to the learning table and that everyone’s voice and experiences are incredibly valuable.

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