Teaching Tolerance Honors Five Educators for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching

Teaching Tolerance

On Dec. 9, 2011, at a special gathering in the nation's capital, Teacher Tolerance honored the five winners of its Culturally Responsive Teaching Award. The award was designed to recognize educators who have demonstrated excellence in teaching students from diverse racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds. The five winners, selected through a rigorous application and review process, each received $1,000. The awards event, organized by Education Week Teacher, also included panel discussions exploring the facets of culturally responsive pedagogy, as well as a keynote address by acclaimed scholar Sonia Nieto. Archived video of the entire event is below; video clips highlighting the teacher-awardees' work appear in the right-hand column.

The Winners:

(Click on each winner for additional details.)

Silvestre Arcos ArcosSilvestre Arcos, middle school math teacher, the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology, New YorkWhen he first surveyed the program for English-language learners at his school, Arcos—who holds an master's in bilingual/bi-cultural education from Teachers College at Columbia University—was disappointed by the use of the traditional, "subtractive" model of weaning students from their first language as they learn English...

The English-only focus had caused "a serious divide," he says. In 2007, Arcos' principal asked him to direct a new, dual-language program that would emphasize cross-cultural learning and the development of Spanish-language as well as English skills. As a result, the students have a renewed respect for both languages and soaring proficiency scores. "We do not see them coming in with zero knowledge," says Arcos of Spanish-dominant students. "We see them coming in with a wealth of knowledge. They are just adding a second language to their repertoire."

Sonia GalavizSonia Galaviz, 5th grade teacher, Endeavor Elementary School in Nampa, Idaho.Galaviz' school serves many students from low-income families and has the highest English-language learning population in her district. "Building relationships is at the heart of my pedagogy," says Galaviz, who holds a master's degree in curriculum and instruction (bilingual ed. emphasis) from Boise State University...

She starts by visiting the homes of each of her students during the first two weeks of school to learn more about each student's hidden strengths and how to work best with each family. In class, Galaviz, supplements the curriculum with authentic materials and experiences that reflect the cultures of her Mexican-American, Asian, Native American, and white Idahoan students. Galaviz sees her approach to teaching as a responsibility. "I don't have the right to ask families to invest in my classroom if not investing in them first," she says. And her students show very few behavior issues. "They know I'm invested," she says with a laugh. "I know where they live!"

Katy LaCroixKaty LaCroix, literacy specialist and 4th and 5th grade teacher, Logan Elementary School, Ann Arbor, MichiganIn addition to teaching an ethnically and academically diverse mix of students, LaCroix—who holds a master's degree in educational leadership from Eastern Michigan—heads up her school's "equity team," a group of faculty members that meets throughout the year to share culturally inclusive teaching strategies...

One of her key strategies is to learn as much as she can about her students. She does this in part by going to lunch with them and, when she's invited, attending important events outside of school—like church services and basketball games. "This strategy is at the heart of culturally relevant teaching," she says. "Using what I know about my students, I can incorporate their interests, hopes, and aspirations into my classroom." This also helps Logan's equity team evaluate and revise its methods. Elementary students "are often hesitant to share their feelings about race," says LaCroix. "But we want to keep them talking."

Amber MakaiauAmber Makaiau, National Board-certified social studies teacher, Kailua High School, Oahu, Hawaii.She teaches "Hawaiian" students, meaning those from native Polynesian populations as well as from around the Pacific Rim, including Japan and China. Her students, most of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, often struggle to understand what "being Hawaiian means. ..."

Today, they are addressing that struggle through an innovative course in ethnic studies that Makaiau, who has a Ph.D in curriculum and instruction from the University of Hawaii, helped to develop. Now mandatory for 9th graders, the course has been successful in reducing school violence and violence-related suspensions. Students see it as successful as well. In a recent essay, one student wrote, "I blossomed into something more [in this class]; my growth increases every day. … I am a girl who honors all of my family names, I am a proud leader, and I am Hawaiian."

Tracy Oliver-GaryTracy Oliver-Gary, history teacher, Paint Branch High School, Burtonsville, Maryland.Oliver-Gary teaches open enrollment AP history classes to a mix of Asian, African, Latino, black, and white students, ensuring that all students have opportunities to tackle rigorous content...

She believes that any teacher working with a diverse group of students faces a learning curve. "One thing I had to learn is that just because I'm black doesn't mean I know how to teach black kids," says Oliver-Gary, who has been teaching for 12 years. With more diverse classrooms—both in terms of academic skill and ethnicity—Oliver-Gary says she "had to be more intentional" in her teaching. For instance, despite studies showing that students of color—including black and Latino students—work well in groups, she has often found that "some students just really hate to work with other kids." She now creates lesson plans as diverse as her students. And Oliver-Gary often finds herself teaching study skills as well as the curriculum. But she has learned how to access her talent for teaching in new ways. Giving her students a voice, she says, also allows her to "paint a picture of their future."

The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, administered the Culturally Responsive Teaching award in collaboration with several professional organizations, including the National Education Association. The award is supported by a grant from The Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University.

Video: Learn More About the Honorees and Their Practice

Resources on Culturally Responsive Teaching

  • Awards Event Handout (PDF) provides an overview of the research on culturally responsive teaching and explores the role of such instruction in schools today.
  • Engaging English Language Learners is a case study explores what educators can do to meet the language and literacy needs of ELL students in a content area like science.
  • Keeping Spec. Ed. in Proportion, an article from the Teacher PD Sourcebook, looks at how improvements in school instructional cultures can keep some struggling minority kids out of special education.