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Culturally Responsive Classrooms

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Experienced educators understand that developmental differences exist between even the youngest of students and may widen dramatically if proper steps are not actively taken to find solutions. Likewise, children from diverse backgrounds often experience a cultural gap: differences between what they learn in school and what they experience at home. A culturally responsive classroom acknowledges all aspects of students’ lives — including the various combinations of language, religion, race and traditions — and celebrates the variety.

Why is that important? According to Marcus Guido from Prodigy, “No single teaching approach will engage each student at once, but building a strategy to consistently deliver culturally-responsive lessons will help you appeal to diverse learners with distinct backgrounds.”

Self-awareness is key for teachers in culturally diverse classrooms. Educators must be mindful of their personal biases and avoid “simple” assignments that show an inherent bias, such as the one from the viral story of Erica Bullock-James’ daughter.

On her original Facebook post, Erica recounts how her kids were given an assignment in school to document how their families came to ‘immigrate’ to the U.S. and the ‘push and pull of the decision.’ The teacher “really made it sound like a light-hearted assignment,” Erica said. However, Erica and her children are Black and descendants of slaves, and her daughter pointed out in her assignment that the family had forcibly come to the United States. There was no “push and pull” about a decision.

Although Erica’s daughter crafted a well-written response, the fact is that assignments like these are extremely problematic. Race and racism are important topics in the lives of all students, and school is unable to acknowledge differences in students’ backgrounds can negatively impact a child’s development and willingness to learn.

In a country where most teachers come from privileged backgrounds, there is a risk of unconsciously prioritizing material that is does not represent people or color or lower income communities, especially when choosing books, assignments, films and other materials and activities. This causes a lack of representation for students who have non-traditional or culturally different experiences.

Shannon B. Wanless and Patricia A. Crawford from the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) presented important research on classrooms, particularly in early education: “In the absence of intentional teaching, children are left to come to their own conclusions about how to think about their own race and others’ races.” Wanless and Crawford suggest that children be given opportunities to engage with this topic, through books and artwork, that showcase people of different races in a positive light. A step further would be to encourage them to learn about and even participate in age-appropriate social justice action.

Of course, diversity reaches beyond race. Children who have immigrated may have a similar appearance to their classmates, but come from significantly different backgrounds. Other students live with a non-conventional parental arrangement.

To help students understand all aspects of cultural diversity, educators can bring in guest speakers who may offer a different perspective, delivering content that relates to real-world issues by use interactive apps and platforms. By encouraging children to bring in their own ideas for class projects and assignments, teachers help them personalize and acknowledge what is happening in their own lives. It is the devoted teacher’s responsibility to help students find common ground with their peers while respecting the differences each child brings to the classroom. 

Culturally responsive classrooms are then built by linking “content — from delivery to assessment — with students’ ancestral and contemporary cultures.” By learning about your students and responding appropriately, you will create a space in which students feel seen for who they are and safe enough to share their experiences. Students who learn in an environment that embraces cultural differences are more engaged, proactive and excel in their academic endeavors.

Learn more about Southern Oregon University’s Master of Science in Education with a Concentration in Leadership in Early Childhood Education online program.


National Association for the Education of Young Children: Reading Your Way to a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Prodigy: 15 Culturally-Responsive Teaching Strategies and Examples + Downloadable List

Upworthy: Student’s Response to a School Assignment Bravely Challenges Its Cultural Assumptions

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