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Culturally Responsive Teaching: Strategies for an Inclusive Classroom

If you’re a classroom teacher or tutor, then you know how important it is to create lessons that interest and excite your students.

And you also know that the best students are the ones who feel welcome in the classroom and are empowered to share their thoughts and feelings with the class.

The hard thing can be figuring out how to create a learning environment that accomplishes these things.

Culturally responsive teaching helps you create classes that excite and motivate students, and that make them feel like their classes are for them instead of just somewhere they need to be.

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What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

In the traditional classroom setup, the teacher is positioned as an expert who passes down knowledge to the students.

We’re all familiar with this setup, and there are times when it is useful.

The truth is, though, that positioning the classroom as a strict hierarchy where the teacher is the sole keeper of knowledge can be hurtful to students and keep them from getting the most out of class.

Each student brings a fount of knowledge and lived experience to the classroom. 

It helps everyone when the teacher can build on that knowledge and draw on it to create classes that are meaningful and relevant to students, and that honor what everyone has to bring to class – not just the teacher.

Culturally responsive classrooms address the problems with traditional classroom setups by using strategies and techniques that draw on students’ cultural contexts and experiences.

A culturally responsive teacher creates classes that feel relevant and immediate to students and that are connected to their backgrounds and knowledge bases.

Why Is Culturally Responsive Teaching Important?

If you think back to your time in school, you might remember a specific type of classroom experience: books written by white men that take place in Europe or America, pictures featuring smiling white children, and examples in your math textbook involving children named Alice and John dividing up pieces of pizza or apple pie.

While there are of course some great books written by white men (and we all love pizza), classroom institutions like these can create an environment that caters to a specific kind of student and speaks to a specific kind of lived experience.

Culturally responsive teaching seeks to broaden that scope, acknowledging the various identities of the students in a given classroom and creating lessons that speak to the full range of backgrounds and ethnicities in a classroom.

This makes each student feel more included in class and makes the lesson content feel more relevant to them, which in turn leads to greater participation and more learning. 

More than that, it helps students feel seen and accepted for who they are.

Culturally responsive education turns the classroom into a place that affirms and celebrates students’ backgrounds and identities instead of furthering a narrative that certain cultures, backgrounds, or references are more valid or normative than others.

Culturally responsive curriculum is important in any learning environment, but it can be especially important in ESL classrooms.

That’s because in ESL classrooms, students often have extremely diverse sets of backgrounds and cultural references from their teachers and thus may struggle to connect with the types of lessons the teacher provides.

5 Strategies and Techniques for Culturally Responsive Teaching

There are a number of easy ways to incorporate culturally responsive teaching into your classroom. 

Most of these strategies are fairly easy to implement, but they’ll make a huge difference in terms of what your lessons look like and how your class feels.

Learn About Your Students

The first step toward creating a more inclusive classroom is to figure out who your students are and what they care about.

There are a number of ways to do this – and you don’t need to limit yourself to just one method.

One of the easiest ways to learn about students is to distribute a survey or questionnaire at the beginning of the semester asking students about their hobbies, interests, backgrounds, and more. 

You can also facilitate open-ended discussions throughout the year that center on your students’ favorite activities, areas of interest, and more.

Once you have an idea of what your students like and what’s important to them, it becomes easier to incorporate those things into the classroom – whether that means playing the newest Billie Eilish song at the beginning of class or facilitating a unit on oceanography.

Make Your Classroom Setup More Inclusive

Simply evaluating the way your classroom looks can go a long way in terms of creating a learning environment that feels more relevant and inclusive to students. 

For example, if you have posters on the wall, do they feature modern families or only traditional nuclear families? Do your bookshelves feature works by diverse authors or only canonical white authors?

If you teach younger students, do you have dolls, toys, and costumes that speak to a number of identities or are they limited in their scope?

Expand the array of decorations, tools, and objects in your classroom to be more inclusive. This can be as simple as putting up a poster of a celebrity or public figure your students look up to or including playthings that represent a number of different backgrounds, living situations, and professions.

Simple changes like these will help students feel more welcome in the classroom and will signal to them that this is a space for them.

Let Your Students Be the Experts

As was discussed above, changing the norm wherein the teacher is the sole expert in the classroom is a huge part of culturally responsive teaching.

Creating classroom experiences where your students get to be the experts validates the importance of the knowledge they bring to the table, and it also helps them practice compiling knowledge and teaching. 

There are ways to let students be the experts in all sorts of classroom settings. For example, in an ESL class you can have a unit where students teach the class about foods, holidays, or other topics that they grew up with. 

Or in a history class, you could teach about historical events that are relevant to your students and have them interview parents or relatives about said events and then report back to the class on their findings. If they did a great job, you can motivate them by giving rewards.

Bring in Guest Speakers

An easy way to make students feel represented in and excited by the classroom experience is to bring in guest speakers.

You can bring in speakers who share a cultural background, gender, or nationality with your students – and in fact, a 2015 study shows that students are often motivated to perform better in the classroom when they have educators who share a background or racial identity with them. 

You can also bring in speakers who share interests with your students. So, if your class is ga-ga over soccer or guitar or TikTok, you can try to find a speaker who’s an expert in one of those fields. 

Or you can feature guest speakers who can speak to your lesson material. So for example, if you’re teaching a certain book, you could try to contact the author to come speak (or Zoom into your class for 10-15 minutes). 

Or if you’re teaching about a geographical region, you could invite someone who’s spent time there to come speak.

Your students will love getting to hear from someone with a background that speaks to them or the content, and they’ll also be excited about a special lesson that’s a change from the norm.

Make Room for Each Student

It’s important to make each student feel that their voice is important and that there is room in the classroom for their unique perspective.

You can foster this kind of environment by calling on each student and giving them a chance to speak. 

You can also make room for each student by having everyone submit anonymous feedback or answer questions on index cards that you then redistribute randomly to be read back to the class.

Another way to include every student is to invite students to teach back material after you’ve introduced it, making sure to cycle among every student eventually.

These methods create a more inclusive environment and make each student feel that they have a stake in the classroom experience.

Culturally Responsive Education is What You Make It

At the end of the day, there’s no specific rubric for culturally responsive teaching – and that’s a good thing because it gives you room to connect with your students and really see what they need.

The most important thing you can do in terms of creating a culturally responsive classroom is to listen to your students, create genuine connections with them, and make them feel valued and welcomed in the classroom.

Hopefully, these strategies will help you accomplish that, but no matter what techniques you use you’ll be successful as long as you show up as your most authentic self and create an environment that makes students feel celebrated and secure.

If you have other methods you use for creating a culturally responsive learning environment, please let us know in the comments below! 

We love hearing your ideas for how to make any classroom a more inclusive, learning-friendly place.

If you want more tips on how to make your students more motivated, our guide on interactive learning might help you.

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