“Why won’t he look at me when I talk to him?”
“Why does she dress that way?”
“Why won’t they just speak English?”
It is no secret that our students are individuals, but it sometimes can seem that they are from different planets! As educators, it’s important for us to understand culture and how to be supportive of our English language learners’ (ELLs) culture and backgrounds.
If you look in the Merriam Webster Dictionary, there are many definitions of the word “culture,” but these two speak to me:
A: The integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.
B: The customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group; also: the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
The words that jump out at me? Generations, everyday existence. Those are some words with impact! The word that was implied: language. We come to school with our own language, traditions and customs—our own culture. It shapes who we are, and it is our foundation. Many of our students come to school from similar backgrounds and have much in common, especially language. What about those students that come from a very different background and/or speak a different language? We must find ways to include them in our classrooms and help them realize that their culture is important and must be preserved. They belong! What is it that we do in our classrooms to celebrate, acknowledge, and respect this? Why is this so important?
Tips for Being a Culturally Responsive Educator
I have thought about this long and hard over the many years in my classroom. I asked friends, I researched, I read, I observed, and eventually I changed many of the things that I did.
- Talk to your families. Find out about them. Ask them questions.
- Look around your classroom. Do the pictures on your wall represent the children in your class? Do you have printed words on your door, window, cabinets, etc.? What language(s) are those words in? Get where I’m going? If your ELL students are comfortable, have them tell the class words in their language. If not, you do it.
- Have a family member visit and tell folktales or legends that they were raised with. Have them use vocabulary both in English and their language. Find books that tell the same tale with a different spin. Let your ELL students hear their language, even if you don’t pronounce it correctly! Let them see you struggle as they are struggling.
- Check out your classroom library. How are your students represented? Do you have books in their language(s)? What do those books look like? When I really checked, I realized I had a few torn and tattered books in Spanish. Do you have books that include different cultures, or just yours? Are you easily able to lead your students to literature that is relevant to them? Are your students encouraged to learn about cultures other than their own? Are they encouraged to explore different languages, beliefs, and traditions? Is your library diverse? Can a student find not only themselves, but others? Digital literacy platforms like myON include a massive amount of content where students can see themselves represented in books and learn about other cultures besides their own.
- Ask yourself: What is it that we do in our classroom to celebrate, acknowledge, and respect different cultures? Why is this so important? It is hard enough to be a kid, but what about a kid whose culture is different? Does not speak the language? They need to see themselves in the classroom, they need to be accepted, and they need to learn to accept others.