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Social Studies Opinion

18 Ways to Make Social Studies Class More Culturally Responsive

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 29, 2022 17 min read
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(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 social studies classes culturally responsive?

There are so many reasons why we need to make our classes culturally responsive, not the least being that the majority of students in public schools right now are students of color.

Many previous posts here over the years have taken a look at applying culturally responsive teaching in most of the content areas and in social-emotional learning. But none has ever covered specifically what it might look like in social studies classes.

This three-part series will do just that.

Today, Denise Facey, Sarah Cooper, Dennisha Murf, and Keisha Rembert “kick” 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.

‘Go Beyond the Textbook’

Denise Fawcett Facey was an award-winning classroom teacher for more than two decades and now writes on education issues. Among her books, The Social Studies Helper offers projects and assignments that make social studies vibrant and more engaging for students:

As a history teacher, on the first day of school every year, I asked my students to admit how many of them hated history. Hands always went up, as many students were honest enough to say that they found history boring, even irrelevant. While presentation is partly to blame for that—assigning students merely to read the book, answer unit questions, memorize dates—it’s just as much the content itself, bereft of anyone and anything relatable to students, particularly students of color.

That’s why culturally responsive education (CRE) matters. Incorporating the cultures, languages, and experiences of all students into learning, not just those of the dominant culture, CRE is ideally suited to social studies classes. Implementing it enlivens the content, making it more relevant, accessible, and engaging simply because students can see themselves in it.

While there are many ways to make our social studies classes more culturally responsive, here are five that are foundational:

  • Be intentional. Let’s check our biases and expand our knowledge, for a start. Although it’s easy to believe we know about a culture we’ve seen, that’s also the way stereotypes arise. Instead, we need to be intentional about assessing our cultural biases on a regular basis and committed to relinquishing them. And little things count, from focusing on learning and saying names correctly to simply refusing to make our own culture the standard against which all others are measured, just to name a couple. Equally important, making a concerted effort to increase our understanding through research enables us to connect our students to the content in meaningful, culturally aware ways that can make all the difference in transforming our classes from typical social studies classes into ones that are culturally responsive.
  • Diversify our classroom environments. As we glance around our classrooms, anything that predominately portrays one culture needs to be changed. After all, how will students know they are welcome and valued—have any assurance that they belong—if nothing in the room represents who they are? Because representation matters, a culturally responsive social studies classroom reflects a wide array of cultures in its bulletin boards, posters, books, and other educational accoutrement, including dolls, in the early grades. From a bulletin board displaying faces around the world, for instance, to a genuinely diverse classroom library, there are myriad easy ways to make a classroom environment culturally responsive.
  • Go beyond the textbook. Since social studies textbooks often are one-dimensional in their approach to content, our lessons plans need to be panoramic, so to speak, augmented by that research mentioned earlier as well as by materials that illustrate and support it, such as novels, movies, art, etc. Likewise, assignments and projects that empower students to be the experts on their own culture, and those that encourage them to view cultures and societies from multiple perspectives, add to cultural responsiveness as well. The former might include, for example, projects in which students research and present their own heritage while the latter might encompass projects that require students to research and role-play historic events from another culture’s perspective. It’s the inclusiveness that enhances cultural responsiveness.
  • Let parents and other community members be the experts. The wealth of information, experience, and cultural richness that parents, grandparents, and other community members can bring to our social studies classrooms is a cultural jackpot. By stepping aside, from time to time, we can integrate these guests into our lessons in authentic ways—inviting immigrant parents to give first-person accounts during a unit on immigration, or Japanese Americans to discuss their families’ experiences in internment camps during World War II lessons, or African American veterans to recount experiences during lessons on any 20th century war, among other opportunities—effectively contextualizing their contributions and invigorating our lessons. That is culturally responsive. What’s more, what these experts provide can’t be found anywhere else.
  • Celebrate, don’t relegate, cultures. Neither highlighting a few foods, festivals, and famous people nor relegating cultural acknowledgements to “heritage months” makes a social studies class responsive to culture. Making culture integral in all its forms, all year long, is. From a wide variety of experiences, especially as expressed through genuine voices, to historic events, real cultural responsiveness shuns caricature and tokenism to broaden and deepen all students’ understanding of content in full context.

CRE in the social studies classroom enables students to see themselves represented not only in the curriculum but also as part of the larger world. This changes their perspective of social studies while being life changing as well. Of course, this all makes learning more memorable, too.

culturallyresponsivefacey

‘Keep Growing In Cultural Competency Myself’

Sarah Cooper teaches 8th grade U.S. history and civics and is associate head of school at Flintridge Preparatory School in La Canada, Calif. She is the author of two books, Creating Citizens: Teaching Civics and Current Events in the History Classroom (Routledge) and Making History Mine (Stenhouse). Sarah speaks at conferences and writes for a range of educational sites, including MiddleWeb, Well-Schooled, and CivXNow:

Culturally responsive teaching can take many different forms. An excellent recent EdWeek article defined it as taking into account “students’ customs, characteristics, experience, and perspectives as tools for better classroom instruction.”

Although I often feel I’m only partially engaging with students’ backgrounds and experiences in my 8th U.S. history and civics classes, here are a few guidelines I try to follow:

  • Offer choices that can connect with identity.

In a reformers research project I’m always tinkering with, students choose from a list that expands each year to include more underrepresented voices. This spring, the other 8th history teacher and I added more LGBTQ+ icons, such as poet Elsa Gidlow and activist Kiyoshi Kuromiya, based on requests from students. The previous year we had added more Asian American and Black female historical figures.

In addition, each week several students present and field questions on a current event of their choice. Often they pick intense topics I would not necessarily have chosen to present myself, and then they link these stories to their identity. Recently one student talked about the United States finally passing an anti-lynching law. In his reflection on the story, he shared: “While I have been fortunate enough to not experience the large amounts of hatred that were demonstrated on an everyday basis, it is still important to me to educate the younger generation, such as my cousins, to understand that they should never be afraid to speak for what is right. Though I don’t want to sadden this moment, as I feel like this bill being passed is a ginormous step to help heal the wounds of the past and prevent wounds of the future.”

  • Talk about what I’m reading and listening to, either to the whole class or with individuals.

While chatting with two students who had chosen Frederick Douglass for their reformers project, I mentioned that I had just listened to a podcast with Yale professor David Blight, who wrote a landmark biography of the abolitionist and women’s rights advocate. For a student who chose Harvey Milk as his icon, I mentioned that the best book I ever read about the AIDS crisis was by Randy Shilts, also the author of the Milk biography The Mayor of Castro Street.

Such connections don’t have to involve a whole book or podcast. For instance, this year I sent a link about bystander training from Right to Be (formerly Hollaback!) to an Asian American girl who brought in a piece about the surge in hate crimes against people of AAPI background.

I hope that, by noting where my interests intersect with those of my students, they feel a little more seen.

  • Keep growing in cultural competency myself.

I always have so much more to learn. As just one recent example, at the end of this past school year, I gave a survey asking students what advice they would offer 8th graders taking my class next year, how they would describe the class to someone taking it in the future, and anything else they wanted to share.

For advice to future students, one girl wrote: “Don’t be afraid to share your opinions. They make things more interesting and bring a new point of view to class because we all have different experiences.” Of course, I loved this!

However, in a question later in the survey, she wrote something that landed hard with me: that she felt that history and current events that center Hispanic Americans “were glossed over in this class,” sometimes in favor of women’s history and Black history. She later came to talk with me about this, and I was grateful to her for pointing out this blind spot. I am hoping to read a lot this summer, including Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s Our America: A Hispanic History of the United States, in order to embed more of the Hispanic American experience into my classes next year. Particularly after more than two decades as a history teacher, I’m grateful to her and others for helping me continue to grow.

offerchoicescooper

Assist ‘Students To Develop Critical Consciousness’

Dennisha Murff, Ph.D. is an administrator, author, adjunct professor, consultant, and relentless advocate for equitable education. Throughout her career, she has worked to incorporate equity, inclusion, and cultural responsiveness in her work:

Imagine walking into a social studies classroom in the middle of a sensational lesson grounded in culturally responsive practices. The students are engaged in deep conversations and the level of participation is high. The topic is the Western Expansion.

From the energy resonating around the room, students have lots of opinions to share. It is clear from the small group discussions that all participants are not in agreement as they share pros and cons of the expansion. One group highlights the impact this movement had on the Indigenous people as well as enslaved Africans. These students did not hesitate to share evidence that reinforced their views. The other group shared information on the impact the Western Expansion had on the country as a whole. They also shared evidence to support their views.

As the groups delved deeper into their discussions, it was apparent the teacher had established clear norms for the discussions. Students were adhering to these norms and sharing perspectives, including some that were not popular. The teacher reminded students to focus on the additional steps that could have been taken to prevent the disparities that were experienced by both of these historically marginalized groups. This lesson was creatively developed and from watching this in action it was clear that many adults could learn from these students. Students were engaged in dialogue despite opposing views while ultimately creating beneficial solutions. There didn’t have to be a clear “winner” in this lesson, just a willingness to listen, learn, collaborate, and grow.

When students are given the opportunity to share and discuss multiple perspectives they are more open to diverse viewpoints. They have additional opportunities to create solutions that are beneficial for all. It comes as no surprise to many educators across the country that the need for culturally responsive practices is great! The diversity represented in today’s classrooms is a gift that cannot be taken for granted. This invaluable gift must be nurtured as we prepare our students to live and work in a global society.

I have spent several years studying the impact culturally responsive practices have on student learning outcomes. The social studies classroom is the opportune setting for implementing these practices. The results of this work continue to demonstrate that effectively implementing culturally responsive practices in the classroom has a positive impact on student achievement. The work does not have to be a daunting task. When creating social studies learning activities, keep the following tips in mind:

  1. Take a look at the curriculum and develop activities that embrace the lived experiences of students.
  2. Identify tasks that invite opportunities for students to discuss diverse viewpoints.
  3. Develop norms for collaborative discussions with the students (this must be done with them, not for them).
  4. Ensure all students have the opportunity to share their voice during lessons.
  5. Allow students to see how various viewpoints can positively or negatively impact people in their community and around the world.
  6. Create opportunities for students to develop critical consciousness through experiences that allow for active application of the knowledge and skills being taught.

It is important to remember that relationships and trust are at the heart of this work. The relationships developed in the classroom allow for teachers to know students at a deeper level. This knowledge is a vital part of developing culturally responsive learning activities.

The controversy surrounding culturally responsive teaching was heard across the country. Unfortunately, this fear has come from a lack of knowledge. Culturally responsive practices create learning environments where students can feel seen, heard, valued, and respected. When students experience these practices in action, they are able to gain a sense of belonging and security in the school setting. The need for culturally responsive teaching in social studies allows students to walk away with a deeper understanding of others. This deeper understanding opens a world of opportunity for our students as they learn the value of collaboration to create an equitable and inclusive world for future generations.

culturallyresponsivemurff

‘Centering Historically Excluded Perspectives And Counternarratives’

Keisha Rembert is an award-winning educator who is passionate about anti-racism and equity in schools. Currently, Keisha is a doctoral student and an assistant professor of teacher preparation at National Louis University:

Social studies is a subject ripe for culturally responsive teaching as it is steeped in white normative learning traditions and master narratives. It is also a subject that provides a foundation for students to grow to be better citizens of the world who think beyond themselves and actively work to transform society and its lands for the better. Being the subject that outlines justice for students, culturally responsive teaching and learning in social studies is an educational imperative. Making social studies classes culturally responsive requires:

  • An understanding of culture as foundational to all learning. According to Zaretta Hammond, culture is one of the primary lenses through which we process our world. If our cultural framing is paramount to understanding, our social studies classrooms must be cultural meccas and we must choose content based on the cultural and intellectual traditions of our students.
  • Centering historically excluded perspectives and counternarratives. Presenting myriad voices and stories of those who have been historically and presently maligned provides students opportunities to humanize themselves and others, past and present. The inclusion of counternarratives offers resistance to traditional [master] narratives and widens the lens of history reassessing and redefining its truths. This leads to the restoration of dignity of those on the margins.
  • Authentic connection to students lives along with agency and action. Social studies content can seem disconnected to the present day realities of students, yet, being culturally responsive means bridging that divide. It means connecting all content to the present and giving student authentic agency to create change.
  • Classrooms without walls. If agency begets action, then culturally responsive social studies classrooms can not be confined to one place. Students need to see where civics is enacted, they need to touch the geography, they need to meet history and talk to their elders and see government in action. The world is filled with culture; get students in it. Equipping and supporting students engagement and understanding of the power and problems in their own communities and society at large is an essential component of growing culturally responsive students.
socialstudiesiskeisha

Thanks to Denise, Sarah, Dennisha, and Keisha 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.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all EdWeek articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones are not yet available). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 11 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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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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