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'Culturally Responsive Teaching': An Interview With Zaretta Hammond


It's that time of year again, and I will be alternating between publishing thematic collections of past posts and sharing interviews with authors of recent books I consider important and useful to us educators.  New questions will begin in September.

I'm kicking off this summer series with an interview with Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain.

Zaretta Hammond, a former writing teacher, is an education consultant who supports schools around the country in creating more culturally responsive instruction. She blogs at www.ready4rigor.com and offers a 2-day workshop based on her book. More information at www.CulturallyResponsiveTeachingandtheBrain.com.

LF: I suspect that many educators are not familiar with "Culturally Responsive Teaching."   Unfortunately, as you indicate in your book, even some who have heard of it think it might be more like a "bag of tricks."

Could you briefly describe CRT, perhaps including some examples of what it is and what it is not?

Zaretta Hammond:

I've been doing equity-focused professional development and school support for over 18 years and I wrote the book in order to get dispel the urban myths and misconceptions about what culturally responsive teaching. A big myth is that its about motivating students of color by mentioning cultural facts or naming famous people of color.

Culturally responsive teaching is not just about motivating disengaged students. It's about rebuilding trust with them through a learning partnership, using that rapport and trust to get permission from students to push them into their zone of proximal development. When students are in their ZPD, the brain responds by growing more neurons and dendrites - brainpower. With more brain power and cognitive routines they are able to do more rigorous work and build their background knowledge and deepen understanding.

In a nutshell, culturally responsive teaching is about helping culturally and linguistically diverse students who have been marginalized in schools build their skill and capacity to do rigorous work. The focus isn't on motivation but on improving their brainpower and information processing skills.   Motivation is only a small part of it.

For example, teachers rapping their content isn't culturally responsive. That's just a reason for kids to break out their cellphones and giggle. Doing call and response at the beginning of a lesson to get kids excited isn't culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is when the teacher grounds the lesson in community issues that is relevant and meaningful to students' daily life as a vehicle for teaching content. Or when, the teacher uses students' natural cultural learning tools like talk and word play to help them process new content. Now, the reality is that most teachers don't know what those cultural learning tools are. My goal is to help them learn what they are and how to use them.

LF: I was struck by the wisdom behind the "Mindful Reflection" protocol you recommend that teachers use. Can you give a brief description and explain its purpose?

Zaretta Hammond:

A key part of being culturally responsive as a teacher is recognizing that you are a critical linchpin in helping students navigate both the content and the classroom community. Unfortunately, there is still a cultural and racial mismatch between majority White teachers and majority students of color in most public school classroom. Too often, implicit bias leads teachers to not see the cultural and linguistic assets and skills diverse students use to navigate the content. Too often teachers see culturally diverse students' behaviors as problematic (even if a White student engages in the same behavior without any consequences). This is implicit bias in action. The remedy is to help teachers expand their ability to recognize different ways of making meaning and engaging socially.

A lot of school leaders and instructional coaches are trying to figure out how to help teachers interrupt implicit bias, but they usually don't have a process to help teachers see how their negative interpretation of a student's behavior contributes to watering down the curriculum for that student or disproportionately disciplining students of color.

The Mindful Reflection Protocol is process that can help a teacher see their implicit bias in action. I have to give credit where credit is due. This protocol was developed teacher educators, Barbara J. Dray and Debora Basler Wisneski. The protocol is simple. It asks teachers to look at an incident through three lens: description, interpretation, and evaluation. Teachers are asked to just describe what is going on literally with no judgment. Then, they are asked to focus on interpreting the action. What does it mean to you when the child does that? Still with no judgment. Once you've interpreted, then try to reflect on how you judge the action or behavior - what value to you give to your interpretation. I'd also ask teachers to notice how the interpret the same behavior from two students from different racial backgrounds.

This process allows teachers to create some distance from thinking and actions that are some times on autopilot because things are happening so fast in the classroom.



LF: Your comments on culturally responsive feedback also stood out to me. Could you briefly describe what it might look like and why it's important?

Zaretta Hammond:

One of the biggest challenges in closing the achievement gap is that because of implicit bias and not preparing students for rigor work, they lose confidence in themselves as learners. Research is very clear: feedback is critical in helping students become self-directed learners. John Hattie says it is as close as we can come to a silver bullet. Couple this with what neuroscience tells us: the brain operates on the "progress principle." It craves information on its progress toward a learning target so that it can change its learning moves if necessary. Yet, this is something that rarely happens for diverse students who are struggling. We just say "good job" or "needs improvement." Instead, we need to give what Claude Steele calls, "wise feedback." It has four distinct parts:

  • State your confidence in the student's ability to master this concept, process or skills ("I know you are a very capable student.")
  • Point out explicitly what the student got right and where he went wrong. (Here is where things got off track...")
  • Name specific actions he needs to take (i.e., review the steps, learn the procedure , etc.) ( "How would you fix that? Here's where I'd like you to go back and review," or "When you get to this part, rethink this move here...")
  • Re-affirm your belief in the student's capacity and effort to reach the target (i.e., "You got this...")

To make this work, teachers have to make time for conferencing with students so they can give meaningful and timely corrective feedback on a regular basis. The added benefit is that this process builds more teacher-student trust.

LF: You talk about the "learned helplessness" affecting some students of color that educators can teach and reinforce. Can you elaborate on that concept, and share some actions teachers can take to change?

Zaretta Hammond:

In my experience, out the goodness of their heart , teachers often over-scaffold instruction for struggling students. For students of color who have gotten negative messages about their capacity and who have internalized these messages, this can be crippling. In the long run, over-scaffolding is counter-productive. Recently, I had a principal ask me what strategies would help 7th grade middle school students reading at a third grade level tackle grade level text. He wanted more scaffolding techniques. I told him the best strategy is to teach students to read well. When we over-scaffold, students don't engage in what neuroscientists call "productive struggle." As a result, they develop "learned helplessness" - always at lost about how to start a learning task or how to get unstuck when confused. It's the struggle that grows the brain's gray matter, literally.

Two most powerful things teachers can do to help students move out of learned helplessness are:

  1. Reframe failure or mistakes as information. Live this principle in the classroom everyday.
  2. Help struggling students create a "counter-narrative' about their capacity as a learners and get them to use "refuting" self-talk when feelings of helplessness come up.

LF: Many teachers are certainly aware of race, but feel it's too "scary" to talk about. They might mask that fear by claiming they are "colorblind." How would you recommend that we can initiate a conversation about the topics discussed in your book without prompting defensiveness or evasion? And if we get that type of reaction, how can we break through it?

Zaretta Hammond:

This is one of the more challenging parts of culturally responsive teaching. Too often teachers think culturally responsive instructional strategies have to mention race. But that's not where race fits in. More specifically, it's about recognizing the social-emotional impact of living in a racialized society where some people have unearned privilege and others have unearned disadvantage. Some times this is hard for teachers to address in a meaningful way that doesn't make them or students feel awkward. But it has to be acknowledged. Unacknowledged Implicit bias and racial stress have a negative impact on culturally and linguistically diverse students. It erodes their trust in us as the adults charged with cultivating our learning potential and helping them navigate school culture.

We have to first give teachers the tools to engage in conversations about racialization, which is different from racism. I find they don't have adequate vocabulary. They also don't have the social-emotional stamina to manage their fight or flight response when looking at social inequities. This leads to those "scary" feelings when talking about race. Robin DiAngelo calls this white fragility. The antidote is building what Dr. Howard Stevenson at University of Penn calls, racial literacy. As teachers of culturally diverse students, we need to educate ourselves about the realities of structural racialization in society and recognizing how colorblindness is just another a form of implicit bias.


LF: Is there anything I haven't asked about that you'd like to share?

Zaretta Hammond:

It's important to point out that culturally responsive teaching is not about using a few strategies. It's about your stance as an educator. It takes time to master but teachers can put core practices into place now. It's really important to not begin this journey alone; do it in community, with other teachers. That is one of my major goals - to build communities of practice around culturally responsive teaching so that we can point to classrooms that help culturally and linguistically diverse students leverage their cultural learning tools and accelerate their own learning.

LF: Thanks, Zaretta!

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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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