Effective Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching

Effective Strategies for Culturally Responsive Teaching
portrait of Ciera Graham, Ph.D.
By Ciera Graham, Ph.D.

Published on December 8, 2020

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The increasing racial and cultural diversity seen in today's classrooms should empower and inspire us all to develop innovative and culturally relevant teaching strategies for diverse learners.

Research shows there isn't a single teaching strategy that can consistently engage all types of learners, lead to student mastery, and increase academic achievement. As a result, the most effective approach teachers can take in multicultural classrooms is to learn how to relate classroom content to students' cultural backgrounds.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted U.S. education at all levels in unique ways. Due to widespread closures of K-12 schools, colleges, and universities, educational institutions had to quickly adapt to online teaching while accommodating a multitude of learners.

The forced adoption of remote learning has proven challenging for both teachers and students, and has created barriers to achieving a truly equitable learning environment.

The forced adoption of remote learning has proven challenging for both teachers and students, and has created barriers to achieving a truly equitable learning environment. Many teachers struggled with the transition to fully remote learning due to a lack of support and an inadequate infrastructure for online teaching. Some also failed to receive appropriate guidance and mentorship on how to meet the needs of diverse students in an exclusively online environment.

Of the colleges and universities that relied mainly on in-person instruction, many underinvested in online learning tools and platforms. According to experts, the key to launching a successful online program is to provide instructors with several weeks — possibly even months — of in-depth preparation and training. But COVID-19 forced teachers to pivot to emergency remote learning with little notice, resulting in insufficient time and training.

For some educators, prioritizing equity and implementing culturally responsive teaching methods during a public health crisis may be difficult. But now more than ever, teachers need to incorporate culturally relevant pedagogy, as students experience social inequities brought on by COVID-19 and encounter and respond to racism.

Top 4 Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies

Make Learning Contextual

Contextual teaching makes learning relevant to the community outside the classroom, and shows students how they can apply the knowledge they've gained to their everyday lives.

Contextual learning offers many benefits and promotes students to take ownership of their learning while learning from one another. It also affirms the fact that learning occurs in multiple settings and contexts, and extends beyond the boundaries of a physical classroom.

A psychology instructor who requires their students to engage in public observations to understand how people abide by social norms is one example of contextual learning, since students learn to identify the impact of social norms in public interactions. A sociology or political science instructor who asks students to take part in activities or events focused on alleviating social inequality is also demonstrating contextual learning.

Contextual learning offers many benefits and promotes students to take ownership of their learning while learning from one another.

Contextual learning respects the uniqueness and diversity of cultures and contexts that students inhabit — and it ensures students understand that concepts discussed in class have real-world application.

Traditionally, we've relied on predominantly Eurocentric cultural objects and references to teach, which prevents many students of color and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds from readily understanding concepts.

A perfect example of this dilemma is the SAT. Experts have found that many of the concepts and vocabulary tested on the SAT reflect an overwhelmingly white, highbrow culture.

Institute Diverse Texts and Curricula

Developing an inclusive classroom and using culturally responsive pedagogy involves incorporating diverse texts and curricula. It's important for students of color and other students with marginalized identities to see their experiences reflected in the texts and lessons they receive. Those exposed to diverse texts learn to take pride in their identities, leading to higher self-esteem, better social-emotional functioning, and increased classroom engagement.

When we use texts and curricula written by and focusing on more dominant identities — i.e., white, heteronormative men — we're essentially giving only dominant and privileged groups the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the texts they read, leaving many historically underserved students to feel as if their voices and stories are not noteworthy.

When we use texts written by and focusing on more dominant identities, we’re essentially giving only dominant and privileged groups the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the texts they read.

In an effort to change the proliferation and usage of predominantly white-authored texts in the classroom, four English professors started the #DisruptTexts movement. The founders of this movement acknowledge that white-authored books still dominate many top-10 reading lists, while books by people of color continue to face challenges in having their literature exposed to the mainstream.

In order to help expose teachers to diverse literature, the official Disrupt Texts website provides resources for educators to diversify their English curricula.

Focus on Relationship-Building

The term "cultural broker" describes an individual who facilitates understanding between two cultures; it's also a strategy teachers use to build empathy and trust with their students. In large lecture-type courses, students tend to think of themselves as just a number on the attendance roster.

Similarly, in an online environment, it can be easy for students to remain inconspicuous. Many students find building relationships with their peers extremely challenging in an online course.

Relationship-building is a key culturally responsive teaching strategy. To build rapport with your own students, ask questions about their strengths, how they learn best, their personal and professional goals, and what they hope to get out of the course. Taking attendance in an online environment can also be important, as teachers get to practice learning students' names — and students will feel empowered and respected when teachers know their names.

Many students find building relationships with their peers extremely challenging in an online course.

While some may feel the online learning environment inhibits interaction among students, there are several interactive tools available through Zoom that teachers can utilize, such as breakout rooms for class discussions, polls and surveys, and even a digital whiteboard.

While getting to know your students is critical, teachers should also be sensitive to students' home environments. For example, undocumented students may feel uncomfortable disclosing personal information due to the fear of their institution misusing the information; therefore, it's important that professors establish trust with their students and understand how culture can influence conversational boundaries.

Understand Students' Holistic Needs

COVID-19 has forced many teachers to not simply focus on their students' academic success, but to also understand students' needs beyond the classroom. Doing this involves acknowledging the fact that students face many obstacles regarding situations like housing and food insecurity, childcare, safety, relationships, and mental health.

Along with the adoption of online learning, state lockdowns and the closure of retail businesses and restaurants have led to job insecurity and job loss for many students. Student parents are also juggling raising and homeschooling children with coursework, which can exacerbate stress and compound mental health challenges.

Moreover, students who are in tumultuous or violent home environments may struggle to stay on top of their school due to their fears of safety.

As a teacher, you can’t act as a superhero and attempt to save all of your students — but you can be sensitive to the needs of students’ home lives.

Obviously, as a teacher, you can't act as a superhero and attempt to save all of your students — but you can be sensitive to the needs of students' home lives as they navigate academics and the stress of the pandemic. Instituting flexible attendance policies, adopting multiple forms of assessment and learning, and encouraging students to use school and community resources is critical to their success.

Professors need to also demonstrate grace and foster an open line of communication with their students so students feel comfortable coming to them when emergencies arise. Instructors should incorporate resources such as student food pantries; contact information for crisis lines, financial aid advisors, and mental health counselors; and information on local shelters and domestic violence centers into course syllabi.

Additionally, professors should normalize the importance of asking for help and seeking aid in the event a student is in crisis. This reminder is even more critical for students as they remain both physically and socially isolated from others due to the pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed the delivery of education as we know it, but our students depend on our ability to be culturally responsive and adapt our pedagogies to best fit their needs. And the first step to helping them is to acknowledge that traditional teaching and learning methods no longer work or serve the needs of an increasingly diverse student population.


Feature Image: izusek / E+ / Getty Images

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