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A 6-Step Guide to Understanding Your Students' Cultures

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You probably already know that as an educator, you will be constantly challenged to examine your own cultural beliefs, values and biases. While you are in the process of doing this, you are also in the perfect position to start learning about other cultures.

Researchers have theorized that diverse cultures show common patterns of thought and behavior. If you want to explore these cognitive and behavioral patterns, you must be willing to spend some time reading about and observing the practices of various cultural groups that you will be dealing within the classroom.

To help you along your journey, here is your six-step quick guide to exploring and respecting the cultural backgrounds of your students.

1. Gather a wide base of knowledge about other cultures. This is one of the most critical steps that you as a teacher must take in order to educate students in a culturally responsive way. If you're an educator, or you're aspiring to become one, you'd better become familiar with the cultural values, traditions, communication styles, learning preferences, contributions to society, and relationship patterns of their future students.

2. Don't just limit yourself to book learning. Granted, you can get some of the education you need by simply reading about cultural diversity. But there is something to be said for genuine interaction and discourse with members of students' cultures.

3. Use your knowledge to understand your students better. Yes, it's true that book knowledge about diverse cultural groups can come in handy when you're designing lesson plans and educational materials. But taking it one step further, you can often interpret your students' attitudes and behaviors a lot better if you know more about the cultures they belong to.

Traditional teaching environments force students from those and other groups to modify their thought and behavior patterns to fit standard European-American norms or else face academic and behavioral consequences. However, in a culturally responsive classroom, the onus is instead placed on the instructor to learn about and adapt to the cultural intricacies of the students that they teach.

4. Avoid stereotyping. This is a big problem that often comes when you are beginning to learn about other cultures. And at first glance, it does seem difficult to apply knowledge about culturally-influenced thoughts and behaviors to the classroom without falling into the traps of over-generalization and stereotyping.

But in order to avoid these problems, your next step is to engage in a rigorous examination of the general cultural practices of their students. This is the beginning of the personal dimension of culturally responsive pedagogy: learning about the specifics of students' cultural backgrounds and how those cultural patterns and beliefs can be most positively expressed in a real classroom setting.

And how can you do this, exactly? Read the next step.

5. View each student's culture as a dynamic and individualized concept. Remember this: a person's culture represents the sum of many spheres of influence, including context within history, gender, age, religion, family relationships, group memberships, cultural beliefs and practices, historical context, and level of education. Therefore, to avoid stereotyping, the educator must view each student as possessing a personalized culture instead of as a member of a homogenous group.

A bit intimidating? It may seem so at first. However, in practice, there are a variety of methods that can be employed to learn more about a student's cultural heritage and identity. Read on to Step 6 for some tips on this.

6. Finally, use classroom assignments as a primary window into your students' beliefs. Writing assignments can play a significant role in gathering information about student thought patterns and tendencies. Interviews with family members, assignments asking students to write about learning experiences that occur outside of school, and assignments involving family stories and traditions all can play a significant role in discovering information about a students' cultural heritage. Students' parents can often be solicited as sources of useful personal information and visiting the neighborhoods where diverse students live can help give educators an idea about the level of social support present and the types of challenges that the student might face outside of the classroom.

I hope you found this short guide to building a culturally welcoming classroom helpful. What are your suggestions on learning about your students and their cultural backgrounds? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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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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