Strategies to Build a Culturally Responsive Classroom

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The population in our mainland classrooms has changed drastically over the last ten years, and will continue to do so as the US Census forecasts that,  “Two or More Races population is projected to be the fastest growing over the next 46 years with its population expected to triple in size (an increase of 226 percent).” (p. 9)

As proactive educators, we wish to ensure that all students feel safe in the classrooms and our schools, and also known for who they are. One way we can do that is to be more culturally responsive in the classrooms.  

Consider trying a strategy below in your classroom, test it out, make it authentically yours and watch how your students begin to share more of who they are, making everyone’s experience richer.

1. Make space for students to share their unique story, with the idea of the lesson woven throughout.  For instance, in a social studies lesson where the objective was to ensure students will be able to describe how humans adapt to live in different places many of the students assumed everyone was from the local area.  In the activity, the teacher had students identify, with a pin, where they felt like they ‘came from’ on the world map.  The pins represented cultural belonging, ancestral belonging and physical belonging.  The next question that followed was, “how do you feel like you have had to adapt to this local community?”  The answers from the students ranged from, my diet has adapted because I can’t find the food I am accustomed to, my language and accent has changed, my clothes have changed, who I interact with has changed and how open I am with others.  This exercise helped students that did identify strictly with the local community realize that there were other options, other ways of life and that their peers had the capacity to adapt but also had other cultural norms and values that they could share.  

2. Allow students to interact with each other as much as possible, this creates a safe learning environment where students feel safe to become vulnerable to learn with and from their classmates. In turn, students feel valued for who they are and what they bring to the classroom.  

Some possible activities for them to interact with each other include:

Turn and Talk: Instruct the students to ‘turn and talk’ to a neighbor for a set amount of time about a discussion question posed in the lesson.  A turn and talk provides space for thoughts to be vetted, for introverted students to comfortably share in front of a small group, and to build confidence to share ideas with a larger group.

An example of Turn and Talk: Teacher says, “Take 2 minutes to Turn and Talk to your neighbor about why you think Lincoln signed the 13th amendment.”  Teacher circulates around the class, noting what students are saying and then can call on specific students to share ideas the teacher heard during the turn and talk.   

Walkabout: teacher asks the class to line up two by two and take a walk around the school or sports fields where the students spend 2 minutes talking to each other about provided questions.  This works best when students don’t know what the next questions are, otherwise they might move forward in the questions. The questions should be related to the lesson topic and objective, but also have space for them to share personal experiences and stories.  Five to six questions is usually enough for a ten minute walk.  If the teacher is not going to be at the front of the line, it helps to let the students leading the walkabout know the path of the walk prior to beginning.

An example of a Walkabout: Teacher informs the class that we are going to go on a walkabout. Students will line up two by two, so that each student has one partner and the walkabout begins outside the main entrance of the building.  Students will be provided with a question every two minutes, by the teacher, during the walkabout, allowing one minute for each student to share their answer with their partner.  We will walk around the perimeter of the school, using the sidewalk.

Speed Sessions: The class will sit in two circles, the circle on the inside faces outward so students are face each other. The purpose of this is to have the students talk to people they may not talk with, to ensure they have a limited time to think of their answers and share answers.  Once students are facing each other, teacher poses a question that student pairs share answers.  The questions shouldn’t take longer than 20-30 seconds each to answer, so that students have to think and respond quickly.  At the teacher’s signal, conversation is silenced and teacher instructs inside circle to move right 2 people (this can be changed to create suspense and the unknown of you a student might talk to next).  Continue this for as many rounds as you have questions.  4-5 rounds is usually a good target.  Conclude by having students return to their seats and write a reflection about what they learned from their peers.  

An example of Speed Sessions: In a social studies class students were asked to consider what issues needed to be addressed in their own communities and what things could be duplicated because they were going well. The teacher asked the students to form two circles for the Speed Session.  Once the students got into the circles, the teacher reminded the students that they had 1 minute total, so each student needed to use about 30 seconds to answer the question.  

The questions posed were:

  1. What is community to you?

  2. What are some communities you belong to?

  3. What is going well, what do you enjoy about those communities?

  4. What could be going better in those communities?

  5. What are two dreams that you have for a community you belong to?  

3. Honor each student and where they may be coming from, as teachers we may feel compelled to be superhuman, never make mistakes or make people feel unwelcome and unloved, but this can happen accidentally and it is our responsibility to teach in that moment with grace and compassion… how to apologize and acknowledge and show appreciation that someone was able to come forward for making them feel sad about who they are.

Use of any of these strategies in the classroom will lead to increased engagement for all students, and when students are engaged they are more likely to learn material for that moment and long-term. These practices allow students to be more of themselves in the classroom and with their school community, which creates a safe place for students to feel vulnerable. In these moments of vulnerability, students can allow themselves to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes because they know they are seen as a person, not just a student, classmate or seat partner. Teaching is important work and as the classroom demographics begin to change, teachers remain at the frontline of teaching everyone how to learn from and about one another.  Building greater cultural responsivity in the classroom is a step in that direction.

Good luck on the journey in creating more culturally responsive classrooms and comment below additional ideas and strategies you have used to be culturally responsive in the classroom.