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Teaching Opinion

‘Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy Honors the Humanity & Identity of Young People’

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 08, 2020 19 min read
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(This is the third post in a four-part series. You can see Part One here and Part Two here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are specific ways to make lessons more culturally responsive and culturally sustaining?

In Part One, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Lisa Stringfellow, Valentina Gonzalez, Maurice McDavid, and Cathery Yeh shared their suggestions. You can listen to a 10-minute conversation I had with Rocio, Lisa, Valentina, and Maurice on my BAM! Radio Show. You can also find a list of, and links to, previous shows here.

In Part Two, Nadine Sanchez, Guadalupe Carrasco Cardona, Jessica Torres, Michelle Knight-Manuel, Joanne Marciano, Paula J. Mellom, Rebecca K. Hixon, Jodi P. Weber, Shawn Wooton, and Dawn Mitchell contributed their commentaries.

Today, Kaitlin Popielarz, Sean Ruday, Laura Mitchell, Ed.D., Dr. Laura Greenstein, and Keisha Rembert provide their ideas.

Four examples of culturally sustaining pedagogy

Kaitlin Popielarz is a Ph.D. candidate and teacher educator in the College of Education at Wayne State University. Her research and teaching interests are centered upon community-based and culturally sustaining pedagogies within teacher education. You can contact her directly at KPopielarz@wayne.edu or follow her on Twitter @kaitpopielarz:

As a teacher educator, I introduce teacher-candidates (TCs) to culturally responsive (Gay, 2010), relevant (Ladson-Billings, 1995), and sustaining (Paris, 2012) pedagogies in order to support them in the co-creation of affirming and purposeful classroom learning communities. I familiarize TCs to culturally sustaining pedagogy by amplifying the local places and spaces surrounding our classrooms, while also centering the holistic identity of young people and their communities. Through this process, TCs began to develop the consciousness and awareness that is necessary for cultivating dynamic learning environments in which the knowledge, literacy, and cultural heritage of multicultural and multilingual students is celebrated.

Django Paris and H. Samy Alim implore “that schooling should be a site for sustaining the cultural practices of communities of color rather than eradicating them,” (2017). Such liberatory learning seeks to “sustain and support” students who have been marginalized within the education system (Paris & Alim, 2014). Culturally sustaining classrooms “name and conceptualize” how students and their communities become the purpose of teaching and learning practices (Paris & Alim, 2014). Above all, culturally sustaining pedagogy is grounded in “a love that can help us see our young people as whole versus broken when they enter schools, and love that can work to keep them whole as they grow and expand who they are and can be through education,” (Paris & Alim, 2017).

I have had the distinct pleasure of witnessing TCs create magic in their classrooms through culturally sustaining pedagogy. I would like to share specific, tangible examples:

  1. Zora utilizes care, respect, and affirming love to build authentic relationships with her students. By seeing and treating her students as whole human beings with a wealth of skills, knowledge, and interests to contribute to the classroom, Zora co-plans and co-teaches with her 6th grade students in order to center their identities through multimodal social studies learning experiences.

  2. Howard connects local history to his high school social studies classes in order to center students’ lived experiences into the curriculum. Through collaborative jigsaw activities, Howard supports his students in visualizing what key moments in U.S. and global history looked like within their communities. In this way, storytelling and personal knowledge are connected to the content standards in Howard’s classroom.

  3. Through intentional co-planning and co-teaching, Eliza and Madeleine collaborate to establish a classroom community in which students are teachers and teachers are facilitators. Eliza and Madeleine incorporate the NCSS C3 Framework into their world-history curriculum through peer-to-peer learning opportunities. This encourages students to critically analyze primary and secondary sources to understand the world around them.
  4. Grace recognizes that her 6th grade students are eager to learn about local and global issues in order to propose solutions for more loving futures. Being so, Grace designs units on the five themes of geography around the passionate interests of her students. In order to fully understand the theme of human-environment interaction, Grace connects the social studies curriculum to local water crises through an immersive cross-curricular unit. Grace’s students employ their agency in order to propose and present solutions for water crises in their community.

Culturally sustaining pedagogy honors the humanity and identity of young people and their communities. This type of teaching and learning is an act of freedom, which releases teachers and students from the confined power structures of the monotonous classroom. Culturally sustaining pedagogy encourages teachers to learn from and with their students as they seek to sustain and revitalize learning opportunities in the classroom, local community, and beyond. In turn, teachers and students may collaborate together to reimagine the classroom as a place of transformative social change.

See References here.

A four-step process

Sean Ruday is an associate professor of English education at Longwood University and a former classroom teacher. He has written nine books on literacy instruction, including Culturally Relevant Teaching in the English Language Arts Classroom: A Guide for Teachers. You can follow him on Twitter at @SeanRuday:

My personal experiences with culturally responsive teaching and its benefits began in my first year of teaching: I began my career as an English teacher at an urban middle school in Brooklyn, N.Y., and quickly found culturally responsive teaching to be an essential component of effective English instruction. My students further understood writing strategies through the analysis of song lyrics they identified, enhanced their awareness of characterization through their understandings of local dialects, and developed their critical-thinking skills while reflecting on the importance of community events. These instructional practices gave me firsthand confirmation of what research says about the importance of culturally responsive teaching: Making these connections to my students’ home lives and communities helped them master academic skills and strategies and see their work in school as related to their out-of-school lives.

Culturally responsive teaching is an outstanding practice that values students’ backgrounds and uses their out-of-school lives to help them learn academic content. How, then, should teachers put it into action in their classrooms? I recommend using the four-step process described here.

1. Introduce an academic concept to students.

I suggest beginning by introducing to students the key components of an academic concept, using a mini-lesson and examples to help students understand the fundamentals of the concept being described. For example, when teaching middle school students about prepositional phrases, I began by conducting a mini-lesson that conveyed the features of prepositional phrases and showed them what this concept looks like in practice.

2. Explain the significance of the concept to the students.

Once the students understand the features of the concept, I talk with them about why that concept is important to its subject area. For example, when talking about a grammatical concept or writing strategy with students, I explain why that concept or strategy is important to effective writing. Continuing with the example of prepositional phrases, I explained to my students that these phrases are tools that authors use purposefully to enhance the amount of detail in their works and provide published excerpts that use this concept to illustrate my point.

3. Create opportunities for students to apply the strategy to their out-of-school lives.

In this instructional step, students conduct authentic inquiries in which they look for connections between the material they learn in school and their out-of-school lives. I recommend asking students to look for examples in their out-of-school lives of the academic concept on which the class is focusing. For example, when discussing prepositional phrases, I asked students to look for examples of texts they engaged with outside of school that used prepositional phrases or to think about ways they use prepositional phrases in authentic situations outside of school. This practice builds students’ understandings of the importance of the concepts they learn in school and helps them see that the concepts are used in a wide range of authentic situations that are relevant to their home lives, cultures, and individual experiences.

4. Ask students to share how the strategy relates to their out-of-school lives.

In this final step, students share the out-of-school examples they developed of the academic concept being used. When I asked my middle schoolers for examples of prepositional phrases they noticed outside of school, some identified times when the concept was used in popular song lyrics, others noted times when they heard these phrases used when talking with friends, and others shared instances of them using prepositional phrases in conversations outside of school.

This process can be applied to a wide range of subject areas and academic concepts; it can make education relevant and culturally responsive for students by providing authentic, real-world connections between what students learn in school and their out-of-school lives. Culturally responsive teaching shows that the skills students learn in school aren’t just useful in the classroom: They have applications to all aspects of their lives.

“Culturally responsive teachers know their students well”

Laura Mitchell is currently an associate professor at the University of Houston-Downtown. Laura’s passion for teaching and learning led her to Fielding Graduate University, where she completed her doctorate of education in the School of Educational Leadership and Change. Laura has worked in elementary schools as a bilingual education teacher, a campus coordinator, and an assistant principal for 25 years. Now as an associate professor, she combines her passions for teaching multilingual students and leading teachers to discover their own passion for teaching. Laura’s e-mail is mitchelll@uhd.edu:

Culturally responsive teachers know more than just the multicultural background of various groups. They know how to respond to the social-emotional, cultural, and academic needs of the students. When they build on the theories of culturally responsive teaching described by Ladson-Billings (1995), they can begin to build an inclusive classroom for all students. Ladson-Billings stated that teachers need to integrate the following criteria into their teaching practices in order to create culturally responsive classrooms:

  • Students must experience academic success.
  • Students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence.
  • Students must develop a critical consciousness through which they challenge the status quo of the current social order. (p. 159)

By implementing these criteria into the classrooms, culturally responsive teachers engage students with the learning in meaningful work that creates inclusive classrooms for all students. Culturally responsive teachers use Think/Pair/Share and Wonder Questions (Barell, 2016) to learn more about their students and to encourage them to challenge the status quo of their learning environments.

Culturally responsive teachers know their students well. They understand more about their students by learning their family backgrounds, geography, home languages, traditions, and favorites. This knowledge goes beyond the basics of favorite foods, colors, or pets. It involves delving deep into conversations with students in order to really know them. This process takes time, and teachers who use these strategies at the beginning of the year are successful with using this information throughout the school year to draw reluctant learners into the learning process. As they teach lessons, the teachers know the students’ interests and family background. This will engage reluctant learners in participating in the learning process longer. They may also be willing to ask more questions because they know their teacher understands them.

Culturally responsive teachers build on success with their students by using strategies such as Think/Pair/Share, Turn and Talk, and Elbow Partners. These strategies give the teacher opportunities to listen to their students while the students share with partners about the topic they are discussing in class. In the Think mode of Think/Pair/Share, the students receive opportunities to form what they want to say in their heads. In the Pair mode, they turn to a partner and share those ideas. This gives the students time to format what they want to say and then rehearse it with their partners. Then, as the teacher moves into the Share mode, the students can choose to share what they said with their partner or have the partner share the ideas.

Culturally responsive teachers also encourage the students to ask questions. Students from various cultures are often taught to be quiet and do not challenge the adults in their lives. They are taught to respect their teachers, and by that respect, they should not question the teachers’ practices or what they do. This can become difficult in the learning process because by showing respect, the students will not ask questions in the classroom. Culturally responsive teachers know that they should teach their students to learn how to advocate for themselves by asking questions. They learn in a safe environment how to challenge the learning process and school system.

Students learn to ask questions by learning to take charge of their own learning process. Barrell described Wonder Questions as a way for students to ask open-ended questions that do not require the teachers to answer. They are encouraged to find the answers to their own questions. When students ask wonder questions, they are challenging the status quo and creating a critical consciousness about their own learning process.

These strategies are powerful for all students. Language learners, reluctant students, and shy/ quiet students often get left out of the conversations of their own learning process. They do not know how to navigate the education process like their successful classmates and they will opt out of the learning process by sitting quietly in the classroom. Their teachers may believe that they do not want to or cannot learn. When culturally responsive teachers use intentional strategies to bring them into the learning process, they learn how to take charge of and advocate their own learning process. They become engaged in the learning process while also bringing their voices and perspective into the classroom.


Barell, J. (2016). Why are the school buses always yellow?: Teaching for inquiry, K-8 (2nd ed.) Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). But that’s just good teaching! The case for culturally relevant pedagogy. Theory into Practice, (3), 159.

Culturally Responsive Assessment

A lifelong educator, Dr. Laura Greenstein has served as a teacher and school leader, professor, and professional-development specialist. Her passion for excellence in assessment is evident in her numerous books, articles, and blogs on the topic:

When I looked around my classroom on the first day of school, it occurred to me that while I was busy complying with mandates and expectations such as ADA, CBA, ELL, IEP, and RTI/MTSS, my classroom was also transforming. Not just from whiteboards to smartboards and paper to tablets, but my students were also changing, becoming more diverse ethnically, socioeconomically, linguistically, and culturally. At this aha moment, I realized that assessment also needed to be refurbished.

Starting with the end in mind, as Grant Williams and Jay McTighe taught us through their Backward Design model, means translating big-pictures standards into achievable classroom learning intentions and assessable outcomes.

It means relying on a range of evidence in support of a spectrum of outcomes. It also requires adapting assessments to meet the needs of all learners. While this may not be practical with large-scale standardized measures, it is sensible, as well as more realistic, to make modifications locally. Here are three practices you’ll want to consider for making assessment respectful, nonjudgmental, and adaptive for all learners.


Meaning and relevance are essential parts of all new learning, especially as students assimilate new ideas into existing schemas. Ms. Casey, an 8th grade teacher, recently relocated to her dream home, high on a ridge in a remote area of Alaska. Her students in the lower states were inspired and cautioned by Into the Wild, but her native Alaskan students just ridiculed the character’s ignorance. Julie of the Wolves and Flight of the Goose were more relevant options for them. She also adjusts math lessons to incorporate money management and measurement based on local commerce. Students rely on technology to design cost-effective fishing boats. Science includes pollution, climate change, the geography of earthquakes, and the role of electrons in the aurora borealis. Through interdisciplinary units, students make connections to previous learning and personalize their experiences. Over time and with practice, she envisions her students identifying scaffolds, supports, and resources they need to sustain their progress.

2. MULTIPLE MEASURES integrated throughout teaching and learning

PROCESS is primarily formative, beginning with recognizing incoming knowledge and skills, and including regular check-ins, tracking of progress. Strategies are interwoven with learning and rely on annotated checklists, find and fix the errors, and exit slips that implicitly support summative measures.

PRODUCTS of learning rely on consistent standards coupled with a choice of artifacts such as projects, exhibits, demonstrations, performances, multimedia summaries, collaborative, games, and nonlinguistic representations.

MEASURED by checklists, rubrics, self/peer assessment, learning logs, and anecdotal records.


These meters build on prior learning, provide meaningful and useful insights into progress, offer informative feedback, along with opportunities for improvement. They are most effective when standards are deconstructed and paired with individualized levels of progress and proficiency. Representations and evidence of a student’s learning clearly align with learning intentions. Students can choose speedometers, thermometers, or other indicators.

With an emphasis on improvement, scaffolds are embedded during learning. In doing so, students know where learning begins and can choose to jump right in, begin with a review of previous learning, or reach beyond the basics. Along the way, sequences can be adjusted and route guidance modified.

Growth gauges and progress trackers define goals and learning intentions, identify resources, and monitor progress. Collaboratively, the teacher and student determine the qualities of goal achievement using indicators such as:

Learning aims written in student’s words

Descriptions of steps taken

Errors made and adjustments/action taken in response

Analysis of results and outcomes in relation to intentions

Recommendations for improvement

Explanation of next steps

The bottom line is that culturally responsive assessment supports the achievement of all learners and sustains each one on the path to personal success.


Culturally Responsive Assessment Rating Scale from Indiana University

“It starts with my own base of knowledge”

Keisha Rembert is an 8th grade English and U.S. history teacher at Clifford Crone Middle School in Naperville, Ill. Keisha feeds her love of learning by continually refining her craft and has been the recipient of several grants affording her the opportunity to take courses at some of the world’s most renowned universities. She was named Illinois’ History Teacher of the Year for 2019:

It starts with my own base of knowledge. I must first educate myself. I must understand my bias and lean into the discomfort associated with understanding that I, too, carry bias. I must dive deep into history to understand any culture that I want to present in my classroom. I must understand the public narrative and then seek to find the personal narratives that really tell the true story of people, places, and events. I must seek to learn those stories that are often missing and rendered mute and invisible. I must center those stories in my classroom.

I must acknowledge any pain and trauma caused by a people, place, or event. I must find points of entry into the story for my students. I must humanize everyone. I must recognize the students who are in front of me, making them aware of their place, privilege, and power in the world through texts, activities, and, most importantly, the way I frame and talk about the topic.

Thanks to Kaitlin, Sean, Laura, Laura, and Keisha for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

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You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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