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How to Craft a Culturally Responsive Teaching Approach

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As a student-centered instructional method, culturally responsive instruction is focused on catering to the social, emotional, and educational needs of the student.  Among the first goals that teachers must achieve in order to successfully create a culturally responsive environment is convincing their students that they genuinely care about their cultural, emotional, and intellectual needs. 

Get their names right. It may sound simple enough, but a teacher who does not take the time to even know the names of his or her students, exactly as they should be pronounced, shows a basic lack of respect for those students. Teachers should learn the proper pronunciation of student names and express interest in the etymology of interesting and diverse names. 

Encourage students to learn about each other. Teachers should have their students research and share information about their ethnic background as a means of fostering a trusting relationship with both fellow classmates.  Students are encouraged to analyze and celebrate differences in traditions, beliefs, and social behaviors.  It is of note that this task helps European-American students realize that their beliefs and traditions constitute a culture as well, which is a necessary breakthrough in the development of a truly culturally responsive classroom.

Give students a voice. Another important requirement for creating a nurturing environment for students is reducing the power differential between the instructor and students.  Students in an authoritarian classroom may sometimes display negative behaviors as a result of a perceived sense of social injustice; in the culturally diverse classroom, the teacher thus acts more like a facilitator than an instructor.  Providing students with questionnaires about what they find to be interesting or important provides them with a measure of power over what they get to learn and provides them with greater intrinsic motivation and connectedness to the material.  Allowing students to bring in their own reading material and present it to the class provides them with an opportunity to both interact with and share stories, thoughts, and ideas that are important to their cultural and social perspective.

Be aware of language constraints. Maintaining a strict level of sensitivity to language concerns is another important component of a culturally responsive classroom.  In traditional classrooms, students who are not native English speakers often feel marginalized, lost, and pressured into discarding their original language in favor of English.  In a culturally responsive classroom, diversity of language is celebrated and the level of instructional materials provided to non-native speakers are tailored to their level of English fluency.  Accompanying materials should be provided in the student's primary language and the student should be encouraged to master English.

Hand out praise accordingly. High expectations for student performance form the core of the motivational techniques used in culturally responsive instruction. Given that culturally responsive instruction is a student-centered philosophy, it should come as no surprise that expectations for achievement are determined and assigned individually for each student.  Students don't receive lavish praise for simple tasks but do receive praise in proportion to their accomplishments.  When expectations are not met then encouragement is the primary emotional currency used by the educator.  If a student is not completing her work, then one should engage the student positively and help guide the student toward explaining how to complete the initial steps that need to be done to complete a given assignment or task.  Once the student has successfully performed the initial steps for successful learning it will boost his sense of efficacy and help facilitate future learning attempts.

While popular among educators in traditional classrooms, reward systems should be considered with caution in a culturally responsive setting.  Reward systems can sometimes be useful for convincing unmotivated students to perform tasks in order to get a reward (and hopefully learn something in the process) but they have the undesirable long-term side effect of diminishing intrinsic motivation for learning.  This effect is particularly strong for students who were already intrinsically motivated to learn before shifting their focus toward earning rewards.  Given that one of the prime goals of culturally responsive instruction is to motivate students to become active participants in their learning, caution and forethought should be used before deciding to introduce a reward system into the equation.

A culturally responsive, student-centered classroom should never alienate any one student, but should bring all the different backgrounds together in a blended format. Teachers should develop their own strategies, as well as take cues from their students to make a culturally responsive classroom succeed.


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The opinions expressed in Education Futures: Emerging Trends in K-12 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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