Tips to be a Culturally Responsive Educator: Perspective #2

As part of myON’s recent blog series on education and English language learners (ELLs), we’ve asked several educators to provide tips on how to provide excellent opportunities to the increasing number of ELLs in districts across the nation. Find the first educator perspective on ways to be a culturally responsive educator in our first blog post.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “More than half of the nation's children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group” by 2020. By my calculations, this is happening quite soon! As in three years! Do you have a good handle on the worldviews, beliefs, language, and values of the learners in your school? Today, it is more important than ever to create learning environments that acknowledge and value the culture of all students. The term “culturally relevant teaching” was initially coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994 to describe “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

From a pedagogical standpoint, the big takeaway I remember having while in the classroom was that being culturally responsive truly connects students’ prior knowledge by making cultural connections to what is currently known and to what is going to be learned and understood. The result is that I started to adapt my delivery of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners—rather than insisting my students interact with the lesson or content in a certain way. It was also an entry point for me to become more aware of the iceberg conception of culture. When we see an iceberg, the portion which is visible above water is only a small piece of a much larger whole. Similarly, people often think of culture as the numerous observable characteristics of a group that we can see with our eyes, like the food, dance, music, arts, or rituals associated with a particular culture. But it is so much more:

Part of the process that guided me towards raising awareness of the cultural “surround sound” that was present in my school and classroom was engaging in a cultural-proficiency investigation as part of a course facilitated by Research for Better Teaching. The objectives of the investigation covered a range of areas and helped me analyze my own practices within students’ school and classroom experience. This is the first step in acting as a catalyst for conversation and action within a learning environment. Just as good teaching asks us to pre-assess our learners before launching an instructional unit, we must also pre-assess ourselves to gauge where we fall on the continuum of cultural proficiency. 

To learn more about this investigation, check out the Research for Better Teaching website and the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.

After raising my awareness about cultural proficiency and its impact on teaching and learning, I was then able to develop a plan of action that would guide me towards being an advocate for all of my learners. 

What follows are a few entry points for educators to consider to enhance culturally relevant teaching in the classroom.

Passion Projects

When launching passion projects as a classroom teacher, I was amazed how the practice helped augment student voice and choice. The new knowledge of students and their personal, cultural knowledge was explicitly validated by a learning activity connected to the classroom. The combination of active work and the understanding that these projects were ultimately shared with their peers (and maybe even a global audience!) provides a fine example of using community as a source for curriculum experiences. As a real world example, I recently assisted in creating an empathy-driven experience for educators and students alongside Participate , which can be viewed at Learning Experiences.

Power of Being Seen

I love the story of a school in Nevada that makes student/teacher relationships a top priority. Early in the school year, teachers engaged in an activity to go through the entire student roster with colored markers and make check marks under columns labeled “Name/Face,” “Something Personal,” “Personal/Family Story,” and “Academic Standing,” to note whether they knew the child just by name or something more. The result is that some students had check marks next to all of the headings, while others did not—their story and background were shrouded in mystery. Implementing a similar activity in a classroom setting, either as a reflective experience for the teacher or among the entire class, can be a powerful path to fostering meaningful and lasting relationships. 

Skype in the Classroom

Talking about being culturally responsive is one thing, recognizing the wide range of backgrounds among students is another. However, literally knocking down your classroom walls and inviting in others from around the globe is something entirely different! Allowing students to connect with the world and become global citizens is a meaningful way to enrich and reinforce instructional content. After signing up for the Microsoft Educator Community, one can explore five avenues to bring the world to your students through virtual field trips, Skype lessons, Skype collaborations, mystery Skype, and guest speakers. 


I was recently reminded of this blog post where the author wrote about “3 tips to make any lesson more culturally responsive.” Two out of the three—“make it social” and “storify it,”—are very much at the core of the Flipgrid platform, which proclaims on the splash page of their website: social learning for everyone. The key here is to empower students to share their voice and amplify it for years to come. How can one begin to amplify student voice in their classroom? Simple: listen. Flipgrid allows not only a teacher to listen to their students, but also opens the conversation to an authentic audience and sharing with the world.

Consider just one example that also happens to connect nicely with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.2: Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral. A teacher may create a Flipgrid Topic that asks learners to seek out and share a story or folktale tied to their own culture. After posting their initial video responses, students can curate replies by sharing their topic with others. Through this process, Flipgrid can support students in becoming stronger communicators, involved digital citizens, and more culturally aware.

Crowdsource Classroom Library

Developing a culturally responsive classroom starts with a focus on empathy. A close colleague of mine, Jennifer Williams, recently developed a learning experience for educators around this question: How might we ignite emotions of empathy in our students by creating spaces that serve as “mirrors and windows” in terms of diversity? One possible solution is crowdsourcing your classroom library. The need for a diverse library speaks volumes to driving a culturally responsive classroom environment. Giving the power and ownership to those who will be reading the books, your students, can focus a powerful lens on valuing all learners. Students will dive into seeking out titles that include characters, cultures, settings, and topics that are to their interest and from a wide range of authors. 

Classroom Climate Survey

Getting a current and accurate picture of reality is key before making any plans to implement change. One way this can be accomplished is by completing a classroom climate survey to gauge where needs may be focused moving forward. This particular survey is organized to pull information from three categories: community and mutual support, risk-taking and confidence, and influence. 

The Teaching Tolerance website is also a helpful tool for its library of classroom resources and professional development opportunities.

Seeking out ways to embed more elements of a culturally responsive classroom can be challenging. The more one looks to embed these elements alongside the stated curriculum, the better. It should not be viewed as another thing teachers must do, but as an opportunity to enhance the work that is already being done. And it begins with you, the teacher: know your students, set the vibe for the classroom, seek out positive images/representations of diversity, leverage social media to connect with others, and finally, commit—you’re in this for the long haul. These changes will not occur overnight. The goal is for your classroom to integrate culturally responsive practices as an everyday experience, not a one-and-done activity in isolation. 

Billy Spicer

Billy currently teaches in Lake Zurich Community Unit School District 95 in suburban Chicago. After spending a decade teaching 3rd thru 5th grades, Billy served students and teachers as an instructional coach. He recently spent time in the Bahamas with the Shedd Aquarium where he lived on a research vessel for a week conducting scientific inquiry. Prior to teaching in Lake Zurich he worked at Walt Disney World as a member of the Animal Programs department in entertaining, educating, and inspiring conservation action. He facilitates a passion for literacy, passionate learning, and social media to discover creative ways for students to meet their individual learning needs. Authentic and purposeful technology integration is a non-negotiable aspect in providing students with the tools to be successful. Billy earned his BA in Elementary Education at Illinois State University and a MA in Literacy and Reading from Benedictine University. He also enjoys hot dogs, coffee, and his ever growing collection of records. To learn more about his interests and passions in and out of the classroom, follow him on Twitter-@MrBillySpicer