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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Social Studies Opinion

8 Practical Ideas for Teaching Social Studies in Culturally Responsive Ways

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 03, 2022 11 min read
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(This is the second post in a three-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are your suggestions for how to make social studies classes culturally responsive?

In Part One, Denise Facey, Sarah Cooper, Dennisha Murf, and Keisha Rembert kicked things off.

Denise, Sarah, Dennisha, and Keisha were also guests on my 10-minute BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

Today, Don Vu, Kiera Beddes, and Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., contribute their reflections.

‘We Have a Lot of Work to Do’

Don Vu is an award-winning elementary school principal and teacher with 24 years of experience. Vu is the author of Life, Literacy, and the Pursuit of Happiness: Supporting Our Immigrant and Refugee Children Through the Power of Reading, published by Scholastic:

When I was a kid growing up in the Central Valley of California, Asian Americans were mentioned only once in my social studies classes. Even when we learned about World War II and the Japanese internment camps, we never learned about the individual stories of heroism and courage. We didn’t learn about the young Japanese men who enlisted in the army to fight for a country that had imprisoned their parents or about people like Fred Korematsu, who took his case all the way up to the Supreme Court to ensure that Japanese Americans would be given their constitutional rights under the law.

We have a lot of work to do to ensure that our history books reflect all people and their contributions to this great nation. However, we are making some progress. Here are some ideas on making social studies classes more culturally responsive.

  • Learn about your students on a more personal level. It’s critical to explore any cultural, social, or linguistic assets (as well as challenges) your students possess. For example, some of your refugee students (or their parents) may provide critical insight on the American Civil War if they’ve already experienced a civil war in their home country. Can your Asian American students talk about the personal impact of the rise of anti-Asian hate during the global pandemic? Not only will you use important primary sources for teaching history, you will add voice and depth to the content that will enhance learning for all. Teaching a culturally responsive curriculum connects students’ cultures, languages, and lived experiences to what they learn in school.
  • You have to be a scholar before you can be a teacher. It’s important to know the historical, cultural, and social contributions of all Americans. That means to take time to learn about the footnotes in history that involve people of color, immigrants, and refugees and bring them to the forefront. Learn about the important events that shape American history, from every perspective. Study the non-white trailblazers who pushed the envelope and made significant contributions to America. The Zinn Education Project provides great resources for educators who want to learn and teach more about our multicultural history.

Finally, realize that a culturally responsive social studies curriculum is important for all students and communities. If you don’t teach in a culturally diverse community, your work in schools is now more important than ever. Your students will see the nation and world from a more inclusive and multicultural perspective. If we want a more united America and to develop global citizens who will thrive in the world, this work must be a priority for all.


‘Intentional Unlearning’ Is Required by White Educators

Kiera Beddes has been a secondary English/language arts and history teacher for 10 years, and is now working as a digital teaching and learning specialist in Utah. She is part of the network leader team for the Utah Teacher Fellows and is passionate about social science, literature, and technology in education:

Human beings are social creatures, and therefore it is important we understand how society shapes our learning and worldview. Is it any wonder then why our social studies classes need to accurately reflect the culture of everyone in the class? We cannot learn something if we are not aware of it first.

Because so much of the educator workforce is white, female, and middle-class, being culturally responsive may come into direct conflict with the teacher’s personal worldview and, therefore, require intentional unlearning on the part of the educator. Educators who hope to be culturally responsive need to do the work of assessing their own culture and biases. We all have them. It is essential that we identify them and work to overcome them. If we as educators cannot or will not identify and overcome our biases, we run the risk of alienating our students and putting up unnecessary barriers to their learning.

Here are three specific things social studies teachers can do to make their classes more culturally responsive:

  • Craft lessons in response to the cultures of your students. History is the story of the past, so every culture has a story to share. The trick for educators is to do so in a way that is respectful of the culture and true to the discipline. In doing so, it is important to avoid tokenism and window-dressing, as students will regard it as insincere and inaccurate. As teachers, we have to go deeper than the surface-level characteristics of students’ culture. Instead of looking at a student’s cultural heritage as a costume, take a more holistic approach by coordinating with local history societies or museums or having the students make modern day connections to historical themes by recording ethnographies from their cultures. Doing so will help make the learning more concrete for students, but also allow them to see how their culture fits into the overall historical narrative.
  • Draw attention to untold stories, particularly to people of color, LGBTQIA+, and women. There is an African proverb that served as my mantra when I taught history: “Until the lions have their historians, tales of hunting will always glorify the hunter.” There are remarkable people throughout history from minority groups, and these are great stories to highlight. However, there are many more stories that were not recorded, so as teachers, we can teach our students to ask questions of the traditional historical narrative. In partnership with your students, acknowledge history is a collection of written events; it is important to recognize who is doing the writing, and more importantly, who is not. Culturally responsive educators can help students ask questions about their cultural past and connect it to modern day events, acknowledging where the historical record may be scarce and investigating why it is that way.
  • Draw connections between current events and the larger historical context. Something does not come from nothing. Race, economics, religion, and politics all work to create the current cultural milieu. Students want to know why learning matters. This is a great way to make that connection plain to learners. Teachers can start by incorporating a “news minute activity” where they look at an informational text about a current event and then trace the events that led to it. Over time, students will start to recognize larger patterns that govern history, as well as modern life.

At the end of the day, exactly how we utilize culturally responsive pedagogy will be dependent on the cultural context of our students and school. All educators can make the effort to be more culturally responsive in their teaching. Only when students are aware of the impact of history on their culture, can they then have an impact in turn.


Don’t ‘Avoid Discussing Difficult Historical Periods’

Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., is co-author of the book Culturally Responsive Teaching Online and In-Person: An Action Planner for Dynamic Equitable Learning Environments. She is also a certified K-12 teacher and teaches pre and in-service teachers culturally responsive and anti-racist teaching practices:

Social studies is one of the easier subject areas to integrate culturally responsive teaching. As social studies include myriad disciplines including history, geography, civics, economics, and sociology, the opportunities for culturally responsive instruction, activities, and assessment are endless.

When teaching history in a culturally responsive way, it is important to provide students with an accurate historical representation of events that have shaped the country and world. In doing this, the perspectives of all groups involved should be shared. So often, textbooks provide one-sided information, largely from a Eurocentric perspective, which ignores and/or misrepresents the voices of minoritized groups. Or, when historical events are told, they are romanticized in a way that do not teach students the true reality and severity of them. Considering that classrooms are becoming more and more diverse, it is critical that students learn history from the voices of people they share lineage with along with others who they may not have a connection with.

To make geography and sociology-based lessons culturally responsive, introduce students to lands around the world. When teaching about the pyramids and ancient cultures, connect students to cultures that they may be part of. Allow students to see themselves in a positive lens and other students to see where their classmates’ ancestral heritage originated, and the contributions that they have made to the larger society. Given geographical constraints, leveraging free online tools such as Google Earth and Google Arts and Culture may be helpful.

When teaching civics and economics, make students aware of not only the three branches of the government and what it means to be a good citizen, but include what it means to be an ethical and respectful citizen who considers the unique needs of diverse individuals. Spend time teaching students about how laws and policies may may disproportionately impact certain demographic groups; some of who their classmates and other teachers may be a part of. Above all else, when making social studies culturally responsive, it is important not avoid discussing difficult historical periods such as slavery and the Holocaust. Yes, age appropriateness will be required regarding the level of detail that is provided but, at all grade levels, being forthright about the nation and world’s history is absolutely necessary in providing students true, robust, and authentic social studies classes that are culturally responsive.


Thanks to Don, Kiera, and Stephanie for contributing their thoughts!

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@educationweek.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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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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