(This is the first post in a three-part series.)
The new question of the week is:
What are your suggestions for how to make English classes culturally responsive?
This series is the latest of many focusing on how we can be more culturally responsive teachers in all the content areas.
You can see all those previous posts here.
Today, Jacquleyn Fabian, Marina Rodriguez, Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., and Jennifer Yoo-Brannon share their responses.
‘Take Stock of Your Own Biases’
Jacquleyn Fabian, a senior manager of Candidate Experience focused on DEI at the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, is a former English and social studies teacher and school leader. She leads professional development on anti-racist practices and culturally responsive teaching and is a member of the Teach to Change Now Collaborative:
The English classroom can be a magical place: The soul can be poured onto a sheet of paper, the heart can be transported to another time, and the mind can be engaged in new ideas and learning. It should be a place where all students feel safe and welcomed and where they know their identities are seen and valued. Culturally responsive teaching must be at the center of an ELA classroom. Below are some steps to consider as you dive into this next school year:
Focus on your own learning and unlearning
Take stock of your own biases, beliefs, and experiences. Before you do anything else, you must understand why you teach texts, writing, and discussion the way you do. Do you teach To Kill a Mockingbird in a way that centers Atticus as a hero? Did you lack exposure to texts written by Black women in your own academic journey? Do you use the phrase “proper English”? If so, what does that mean? How comfortable do you feel bringing up discussion questions related to topics outside your own culture or experiences?
One way to help you is reflecting on the resources you use in the classroom: What voices and experiences have space on your syllabus? Another way is to take an equity self-audit. The audit will provide an opportunity for you to think critically about your own beliefs and how they show up in your current classroom structure. You may need to unlearn a lot before you begin learning more, and that is OK. Recognize your needs and move forward.
Collaborate on your classroom environment
In order for students to feel like they can share with you and their peers, they need to feel safe. Think of ways in which they can feel comfortable with themselves, with you, and with their peers. At the beginning of one year, students created vision boards and shared those with the class. Students were able to hear each other’s names (and see spellings), to find commonality, and to learn about one another’s goals and passions. It also gave each individual student the chance to reflect on what makes them unique. After a week or so of school, together, we would create expectations and norms for class. We would hang them in the room and refer back to them or change them if the need arose.
Another activity we did was a partnered project based off Humans of New York. Students interviewed each other to build both their speaking and writing skills. It also gave them room to practice empathy and listening, which is crucial to ensuring your space is culturally responsive.
Designate space for student voice
No matter how much control you have over your curriculum, add opportunities for students to discuss their culture and experiences. Students can begin class by responding to journal prompts. The most powerful writing comes from simple check-ins: “How are you?” “What is going on in your news?” Another way to create space for student voice is in allowing students to choose texts that align with the goals of your unit. This could be through book club circles (one year, students read novels focused on a societal issue and researched ways in which their community could advocate for that issue) or through independent reading (librarians are amazing resources here!). If you cannot choose your whole-class text, create opportunities for students to bring in supplemental texts, like songs, that may help analyze a theme or characterization in a text.
Teach important vocabulary
When you introduce texts that are rich and diverse, there is an incredible opportunity to teach vocabulary students will see in their current world. When I taught American Born Chinese in my 9th grade English class, I knew I needed students to have common vocabulary to discuss stereotyping, racism, empathy, and prejudice. As a class, we created definitions together and talked through examples. Students even shared examples from their own lives.
Students need to have this vocabulary in order to speak up against injustice in any context, and your classroom should be a safe space for students to ask questions, clarify, and learn about ways they see or experience these ideas in their everyday lives.
Marina Rodriguez is a 6th grade dual-language arts teacher at a Title I school in College Station, Texas. She has taught in a dual-language program 16 years, leads an after-school writing club for multilingual students, and is a former co-author of Two Writing Teachers. She can be reached through her website, marinarodz.com or on Twitter @mrodz308:
There are a number of labels that have been traditionally used to describe my cultural identity. I’ve been labeled Hispanic, Latina, and even Chicana, among others. Having to carry an ethnic label or specific cultural identity has not granted me the ability to magically perfect a culturally responsive English classroom. There is a lot to learn about cultural responsiveness. I have a lot more to learn, but in my many years of working with multilingual students of all cultural backgrounds, I have learned a few things.
As an adult, I have learned to intentionally disconnect myself from learning environments that have caused me to feel less than valued. Sometimes I could pinpoint the cause, and other times, my best option is to simply walk away.
Walking away from environments that cause us to feel less than valued is not a freedom allotted to students.
So many schools, as well as countless educators, work hard to create rich culturally sensitive environments where students thrive. Many go beyond that and create spaces we can only dream of having in the classroom. Sometimes, many times with the best intentions, we simply fall short.
- We celebrate “Diversity Week” or “Culture Night” in the hope of celebrating our cultural differences, but these events can sometimes cause cultures to be stereotyped.
- We can sometimes lean into teaching in ways that cause more harm than good. I once witnessed a teacher point to a Hispanic child and tell a non-Hispanic child, “What do you infer when you see him?” There was no malice intended, but the error was clearly missed.
- Some teachers, non-Black teachers, use AAVE
(African-American Vernacular English) to intentionally and instructionally communicate with Black students. If you are a non-Black teacher and you have done this, please stop.
There are better ways, more culturally responsive ways, to nurture learning for students.
Suggestions on Where to Begin
Creating environments where all students can integrate into the culture of a classroom is hard but essential work. We know it’s important for students to feel accepted and valued in a classroom.
What can we add to what we already do to continue the effort of cultivating thriving culturally responsive English classrooms?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Be curious. Take authentic interest and ask questions. Genuine interest through open-ended questions about culture help students feel appreciated.
- Talk and learn about cultures, but go beyond race and ethnicity. Culture is more than food, music, or skin color. It is the result of life experiences and is not always easily visible.
- Reach out to families and organizations for support and information. There is no need to take on the learning alone. Call on local organizations or colleges to learn more.
- Share stories. Sharing experiences through storytelling can go beyond culture. It’s a practice of vulnerability that creates connection. Teachers must model it before asking students to share.
Creating a culturally responsive classroom requires a commitment to learning. It requires a combination of continuously evolving intentional decisions. It is, in many ways, challenging but absolutely possible.
Developing the cultural competence to serve students and help them thrive is the responsibility of every adult within an educational environment. This includes teachers, school leaders, specialists, coaches, school volunteers, and any other adult with the opportunity to impact students. We are all responsible. We are responsible for developing enough cultural knowledge to deem ourselves culturally competent.
The suggestions above can help teachers continue the work of creating culturally responsive English classrooms, but the commitment to learn more and understand is where we must all begin.
‘Readings Should Reach Beyond the Traditional’
Stephanie Smith Budhai, Ph.D., is the 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:
The study of literature, linguistics, and language provides a pathway for culturally responsive teaching in English classes. An important aspect of culturally responsive teaching is integrating the lived experiences, perspectives, and beliefs of students within the curriculum. Too often, students are exposed to singular types of literary work, mostly written by white authors, based on their worldview and lived experiences, which is quite dichotomous from the majority of students in the classroom. This is not to say that those works should not be used; however, to make English classes more culturally responsive, the readings should reach beyond the traditional and be diversified in content, perspective, and authorship.
Students will connect with learning activities and the content being taught when they are interested in what they are learning. Interest derives from many places including when there is a connection, familiarity, and shared experience. When choosing books in English classes, pull from a wide range of authors to include people of color and Indigenous people. Just as books use illustrations of things and animals to complement the narrative, select books that represent the students in your class, school district, and around the world.
It is also important to prepare students to be critical consumers of literature and understand how bias and stereotypes can impact how different demographic groups are written about and how stories are told. This may also require teachers to be aware of their own biases.
The use of diverse writing genres such as poetry, drama, and fiction can provide approachable ways to introduce writing to students, while encouraging them to use their own cultural backgrounds and creativity. Incorporate bilingual and picture books into class libraries for students whose native language may not be English or for students who read best through imagery. Assign personal narratives as learning assignments.
Not only will they serve as an informal assessment of students’ writing, but they will also create an opportunity to hear the stories of students, learn where they are from and what they believe in, and use the information to shape culturally responsive English lessons.
Not ‘a List of Do’s and Don’ts’
Jennifer Yoo-Brannon is an instructional coach and current English-language development teacher in El Monte, Calif., with over 16 years of experience teaching high school students, mentoring teachers, and designing and facilitating professional learning. She is an Edsurge Voices of Change Writing Fellow and has written for Edsurge.com and The California Educator:
The starting place in the English class or in any class for that matter is to get to know your students. One simple way you can acknowledge students’ experiences and cultures is to pronounce students’ names the way they prefer them to be pronounced. This may mean different things to different students. This may mean that some students prefer the Anglicized pronunciation of their names or it may mean that you, as the instructor, have to practice a name with unfamiliar accents and tones. I have also Googled pronunciations or just watched Youtube videos that provide pronunciation guides when needed.
I recommend you do not take a lot of time during class to do this kind of practice or draw attention to it. At the beginning of the school year, send out a Google form survey asking students some “get to know you”-type questions like what name they prefer to be called and the pronouns they use. That is one practical way to orient yourself around how students identify themselves and how they want to be perceived by others. Please do not say things like “Why don’t you go by your Chinese name? It is so pretty!” when that student is asking to be called Paige.
Also, as an educator, I recommend first locating yourself in the broader power dynamics of your school community. Reflect on what space you occupy as a white cis male or a Korean woman or a multilingual or monolingual person in the context of your classroom and the school community. Understanding your identities in the broader cultural contexts of your school community will help you understand how some students may perceive you before getting to know you.
Years ago, I told a group of students that I was Korean and that I lived in a neighboring town a little west of them. They immediately assumed I was wealthy, and some believed I spoke Chinese. At that time, my students had very little prior knowledge of Korean people, Korean culture, or Korean language. All of that has changed since, and now I see that several students at my predominately Latinx school have memorized all the Korean lyrics to every BTS song. Bring your own culture to work by telling students about yourself. Tell your stories and encourage them to tell theirs.
I also recommend taking the time to do the self-work necessary for uncovering implicit and unconscious biases. This work is not a prerequisite for culturally responsive teaching, it is a process that will unfold your entire career. What is a prerequisite to a culturally responsive classroom is reflection. Reflect on how your own culture(s) shaped how you perceive students, the learning process, and, as an English teacher, what you read. What do you see as “canon” literature? What do you perceive as acceptable or appropriate ways to communicate thoughts and opinions? What did academic discourse look and sound like in your school settings growing up? How do you want it to look in your classroom?
Be explicit about setting up norms of communication that are sensitive to diverse communication styles. Co-create these norms with your students by asking them to reflect and articulate what learning and discourse looks like in their families, in their cultures. Be intentional and mindful of choosing texts that provide diverse perspectives from diverse authors. This doesn’t necessarily mean just ticking off a checklist of BIPOC authors, but rather, consider the relational power dynamics within narratives and the relational power dynamics of the author’s voice in the broader sociopolitical context of the time of publication. Then, invite students into those same reflections.
Rather than focusing on a list of do’s and don’ts, think of culturally responsive pedagogy as being present and responsive to the whole learner and everything they bring to class with them every day—their cultures, past experiences, languages, and perceptions of school and learning.
Thanks to Jacquleyn, Marina, Stephanie, and Jennifer for contributing their thoughts!
Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at firstname.lastname@example.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.
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