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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.

Teaching Opinion

Making Culturally Responsive Teaching Work: Zaretta Hammond Corrects 3 Big Misconceptions

By Larry Ferlazzo — September 26, 2023 10 min read
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Several years ago, I interviewed Zaretta Hammond about the elements of culturally responsive teaching.

Today, she’s back, and this time, she’s here to discuss the common mistakes when doing it ...

‘Translating’ Culturally Responsive Teaching

Zaretta Hammond, M.A., is a former high school and community college writing instructor. She is a national consultant and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (Corwin, 2015):

Fall is usually a busy time of year for me. I get a high volume of calls from schools requesting PD on culturally responsive teaching practices for their teachers. Why the growing interest in culturally responsive teaching professional development? An increasing number of school districts, state departments of education, schools of education, and curriculum publishers are naming culturally responsive teaching principles in their teaching standards and leadership competencies.

Despite the controversy around critical race theory (the other CRT) and the “war on woke,” they are making culturally responsive education a part of their mission statements, school improvement plans, and instructional programs.

And on its face, it appears to be a positive move toward educational equity. Yet, too often, I find that their translation of culturally responsive teaching into practice is rooted in misconceptions that make implementation performative at best and, at its worst, that uphold negative dominant narratives about diverse students as learners.

Here are the three most common misconceptions I come across regularly.

Misconception #1: Culturally responsive education is synonymous with implicit bias/anti-racism work. Therefore, if we work to eliminate our personal implicit biases in the classroom, it will foster a sense of connection for students of color that will increase their motivation to learn.

Most educators acknowledge the legacy of racism in our education system. Unfortunately, some schools use culturally responsive teaching as a euphemism for anti-racism and focus on implicit-bias training only.

This misconception misleads us into thinking we’re culturally responsive only when we are talking to students about racism and leading adults in self-examination of their biases without changes in policies to reduce microaggressions and racial bullying. I’ve seen schools spend years engaged in the courageous conversation and never address ineffective instruction for diverse students as an equity issue.

What can we do to correct this misconception?

The first step is to broaden how we talk about it. School systems and schools of education must do anti-racism work to address subtle and not so subtle inequities that teachers are routinely socialized into. We must create conditions where students can feel less race-based and language-based stereotype threat so they can be vulnerable as learners. This is what anti-racist educators do.

Moving from being an anti-racist educator toward becoming a culturally responsive educator means you not only know what to say “no” to, but you also know what to say “yes” to—like normalizing structures, routines, and rituals from collectivist culture that increases a sense of authentic belonging in the classroom and in adult communities within schools.

becomingzaretta

Culturally responsive educators understand that collectivist cultural practices don’t mean simply doing more group activities with students. Teachers need to develop their understanding of the pro-social cultural ways of interacting rooted in a particular group’s community that go beyond a checklist or one-off strategies. As we came out of the pandemic with a desire not to go back to business as usual, I shared a number of these strategies in my 2021 article in American Educator magazine, Liberatory Education: Integrating the Science of Learning and Culturally Responsive Practice (Summer 2021).

Misconception #2: Culturally responsive teaching is all about relationship building and “honoring students’ cultural identities.”

You can think of this next misconception as the flip side of the “CRT as implicit bias/anti-racism work only” misconception. In schools where they’ve moved beyond simply doing implicit-bias training, leaders turn their attention to training around culturally responsive teaching to connect across difference, build relationships, and affirm students’ cultural identities.

Granted, a holistic approach to teaching and learning that integrates social-emotional well-being and affirms students’ cultural assets is necessary. But, as I point out in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain (Corwin, 2015), relationship building is a means to an end, not the endpoint itself as this misconception suggests.

The thinking behind this misconception goes like this: If we build relationships with students of color and include more references relevant to their racial and cultural identities, then they will reengage in the classroom and be motivated to apply themselves during instruction. This belief fails to honor diverse students’ cultural ways of learning.

What can we do to correct this misconception?

The goal isn’t to simply have a friendly relationship. Culturally responsive teaching is a holistic approach that uses the relational trust developed between teacher and student to move the student into her zone of proximal development where deep learning happens and students “get ready for rigor.”

One way to correct the misconception is to authentically honor students’ cultural and racial identities and processes as learners. Regardless of whether a student comes from an immigrant family or a low-income neighborhood, their communities have traditions of learning. Our diverse students come to school with a positive learner identity, which is often eroded because of a pedagogy of compliance and marginalization they experience.

The culturally responsive educator assumes the role of “warm demander of students’ cognitive development,” where knowing students well is coupled with apprenticelike supports, not overscaffolding.

theculturallyresponsivezaretta

We do this by noticing and naming the ways we see students stretching their thinking, making connections between what they already know and the new content being taught in a lesson. The goal isn’t to give a pep talk or cheer them on, but to witness and appreciate the ways they use their brainpower as they engage in productive struggle.

This is the deep training I lead teams through in my current program, The Culturally Responsive Education by Design® PLC. Teams learn to work building rapport and trust in a way that results in students giving teachers permission to push and stretch them academically.

In the article, The Power of Protocols for Equity (Education Leadership, April 2020), I offer ways to use discussion protocols as a structure and process where students can make their thinking visible, providing opportunities to notice and name.

Misconception #3: Culturally responsive instruction, in particular, is only about social justice and teaching students to recognize and critique social inequities.

For schools and educators who avoid falling into the traps of misconception #1 and #2, they often get caught in this misconception. They believe that being culturally responsive means adding more diversity to curricular materials. More brown faces in books. More content focused on social-justice themes.

The misconception suggests that by making content more “inclusive” or social-justice-oriented, it will be more motivating to historically marginalized students. The biggest problem with this misconception is that is prevents us from addressing the pedagogy of compliance too many Black and Brown students experience in these same schools despite the call for high expectations. Again, we lean into the lack of motivation as the source of the problem.

What can we do to correct this misconception?

Yes, we need a curriculum that is inclusive and provides accurate history and facts. That doesn’t mean it only needs to be centered around social-justice themes. Students of color care about a variety of topics that interest them. They are interested in more than just civil rights.

The more we learn about our students, the more we can contextualize the curriculum in age-appropriate ways. This begins with teachers asking what matters to their students, what topics get them excited, where is their intellectual curiosity. In addition, we must balance high expectations with effective instruction where teachers avoid overscaffolding, which I discuss in an Amplify podcast interview (March 2023).

themorewelearn

Conclusion

We will need to expand our understanding of how culturally responsive pedagogies work. Educators need high-quality professional learning around an interdisciplinary approach to child development in a diverse society. That means recognizing and moving beyond the oversimplified definitions and performative actions too many educators have developed. It isn’t too late to move beyond checklists and motivational engagement strategies to realize the real promise and potential of culturally responsive teaching as a method to help students own and level up their learning.

Thanks to Zaretta for contributing her thoughts.


Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.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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