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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

Nine Ways to Implement Culturally Responsive Teaching During Distance Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 06, 2020 15 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new “question-of-the-week” is:

What are specific online strategies you have used to apply culturally responsive teaching in an online or hybrid environment?

Part One‘s contributors were Shelly M. Jones, Ph.D., Gina Laura Gullo, Isabel Becerra, and Candace Hines.

Today, Vivian Yun, Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., Andrew Dryden, and Valentina Gonzalez offer their responses.

“It is imperative to consider students’ identities as learners”

Vivian Yun is an educator in Northern Virginia and a Ph.D. student at George Mason University specializing in multilingual/multicultural education and education leadership:

As a culturally responsive educator, it is imperative to consider students’ identities as learners. With an asset-based mindset, I focus on building strong relationships and holding high expectations. I tell my students that “practice makes permanent” through taking risks and making mistakes. In an online environment, we are learning together as a family. I provide scaffolds to help my students meet high expectations. I consider the sensory, graphic, interactive, linguistic, and behavior and wellness supports as I deliver high-quality core instruction. Referencing Zaretta Hammond’s (2015) Ready for Rigor Framework, I will share how I apply this framework to specific online teaching strategies.

  1. Awareness: First, I ask, what do I need to know about my students when teaching in an online environment? How can I seek to understand and apply what I know and put it into action? I provide opportunities for my students to show me their prior knowledge. I activate their prior knowledge by using digital tools such as Pear Deck and Google Forms to gain a deeper understanding of their background knowledge. I design breakout groups to allow my students to be successful. I create groups of four or five and provide support by creating opportunities for my students to negotiate meaning with one another in intellectually stimulating ways. I incorporate their interests by building on their strengths and helping them apply their learning to new content. As I support each breakout group, I encourage them and provide any supports needed to help them be successful on the tasks.

  2. Information Processing: How can I guide my students to be critical and creative thinkers in an online environment? I provide my students choices on how they want to demonstrate their learning. What are the multiple entry points available for my students when accessing this content? My students create goals at the beginning of the school year focused on language learning and Portrait of a Graduate attributes. Providing timely feedback and monitoring their goals is a frequent and revisited process. Sentence starters are provided to help my students have academic conversations with their peers.

  3. Relationships and Partnerships: One way I build relationships is to honor each student’s name. I intentionally learn how to correctly pronounce their names and have students share the story of their names through identity webs. Greeting each of my students with a warm welcome when they enter my online classroom and saying goodbye at the end of every class period is a daily routine. If a student arrives late, I privately message the student, say hello, and say how happy I am to see them. I focus on the positives and encourage my students to learn in a caring and welcoming environment. I do social-emotional check-ins each class period to learn more about their interests both in school and out of school. I walk my talk by following through on my actions and addressing their needs. Birthdays are also celebrated as a class. I sing Happy Birthday and encourage students to wish each other a happy birthday in a virtual environment!

  4. Community of Learners: Our online classroom is a family. We are learning together and growing with one another. I model each task to ensure students understand the expectation. At the beginning of the year, we brainstormed what learning a language looks, feels, and sounds like. I compiled the responses and established collective ownership and commitment by creating class- period norms that were devised by students. Lowering the affective filter so all students can thrive in our classroom is critically important. I consider my students’ social and emotional well-being by providing time for students to have brain breaks. When students return from the break, we create community by greeting each classmate using our microphone or chat.

With equity at the forefront of all classroom interactions and decisions, I am reflective on how to incorporate students’ knowledge and interest into the instruction. As a culturally responsive educator, I focus on how to connect to all students’ lived experiences by affirming and validating their own identities. In an online environment, it is about being intentional and taking action through continued commitment to teach every child by name and by need.

Science & culturally responsive teaching

Andrew Dryden is currently a STEM teacher and coach. He is in his ninth year of teaching in Aurora public schools (Colo.) and has taught at both the middle school and high school level.

Adeyemi Stembridge, Ph.D., provides technical assistance for school improvement with a specific focus on equity. He works with districts around the country to identify root causes of achievement gaps and formulate pedagogy- and policy-based efforts to redress the underperformance of vulnerable student populations. He is the author of Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: An Equity Framework for Pedagogy (2019):

The goals of culturally responsive teaching are to provide fair and meaningful opportunities for all students—with special attention to our most vulnerable learners—to engage in rigorous thinking that allows them to draw on their social and cultural fluencies in order to build and deepen understandings. When we teachers consistently and reliably are able to create the pathways, spaces, and trusted relationships that enable students to make the emotional and intellectual investments necessary for deep learning, we can say that our teaching is equitable.

Activities that are intentionally designed to position students to connect big ideas and pivotal concepts to their own experiences, understandings, identities, and ways of knowing the world (i.e., culture) support these kinds of connections for our students, thus making it more likely that they will engage deeply and become partners with us in an authentic experience of co-constructing understandings. If we don’t do this with our pedagogy, in addition to myriad circumstances within school systems and in broader society, our teaching will serve to further marginalize the students who most require effective instruction to sustain their engagement.

The strategies described here are a sample of those we’ve incorporated into secondary science instruction, but they can be modified for any content area and tailored to match the specific assets of your students:

Life Connection

Our primary goal in instruction is to engineer connections for students between their lives and the big ideas of the content. We think of these connections and our ability to facilitate them as responsiveness. We can feel more confident that we are being responsive when we hear our kiddos making statements like, “Oh, this is like (insert example from their lives).” In the prepandemic world, we would design experiences that primed kiddos to make connections, then rove around the classroom, listening for the opportunities to validate students when they had a “this-is-like” thought. The Life Connection task creates an opportunity for kiddos to reflect on and virtually share an experience that can be validated and synthesized within the whole group in order to model connections to the concepts that we are investigating in the content.

A Life Connection activity needs to be broad enough that conceivably every human can identify with it. It’s reasonable to assume that all of our students have considered what they want to do in a day or at some point have thought to themselves “that was a good/bad day.” Likewise, it needs to be an open-ended activity in which a variety of responses are equally valid. The survey format is useful in that we are looking at who we are as a collection of human beings, rather than looking at how many of us got the right answer.

As an example of what the Life Connection looks like in practice, we recently created a simple Google Form in which the students selected options for their perfect day. We then reviewed, commented on, and validated the Google Form results in front of the whole class—launching a discussion on the concepts of conductors and insulators. We wanted our students to understand that when we are designing our days, we are really deciding where we are and are not going to assign our energy. Similarly, insulators and conductors determine where electrical and thermal energy will and will not go. When placed at the start of the unit, a Life Connection activity can be quite useful in creating momentum to better engage kiddos with the science concepts and the subsequent instruction/activities.


A Build-Your-Own activity is essentially a design challenge with the added creative element of completing the science/engineering process with objects that students can find in their home lives and learning spaces. For example, we recently had our students working on an adapted domino challenge. The first round of this challenge requires students to find objects in their learning spaces that can function as dominos. After attempting three different iterations of a “domino” chain reaction, students set up their design, take note of the results of each iteration, record their favorite iteration using Flipgrid, and then attempt to explain how that interaction worked using the concepts we have been thinking about in class. Our hope is these experiences will contribute to lasting understandings that are recalled by seeing those objects, as in, “Oh yeah, my sister’s makeup bottles transferred kinetic energy to each other when I set them up like dominos.”

The entire challenge is contained in one Google Doc. At least for the first several rounds, we’ve found that any more complicated of a layout decreases engagement. We want the cognitive load to be on the design and the analysis, not on navigating the document. Like the Life Connection, the Build-Your-Own activity must be open enough so that the students can think creatively and use any object they have in their environment. This requires us to think carefully about how fundamental science concepts show up in the lives of conceivably every human and also sets us up to highlight and validate the resourcefulness of our students. We have made the conscious decision to embrace the constraints of virtual learning. We choose to believe in the dynamic thinking and creativity of our kiddos as they discover that they can bring science concepts to life with all sorts of items. These Build-Your-Own challenges can be repeated with increasing complexity.

Teaching remotely demands that we live in the understanding that scientific concepts are universal and can be experienced and understood by every human if we thoughtfully facilitate access. Our argument is that this understanding was necessary for brilliant STEM instruction even before the pandemic. We have the opportunity to practice teaching this way now, and someday, we’ll need to make sure we bring that understanding back to the classroom.

“Cultural responsiveness is about daily practices that bring students’ cultures into instruction”

Valentina Gonzalez has served 20+ years in education as a teacher, district facilitator for English-learners, a professional-development specialist for ELs, and as an educational consultant. Valentina delivers professional development and coaches teachers on sheltered- instruction strategies. She works with teachers of ELs to support language and literacy instruction. Her work can be found on Seidlitz Education and on MiddleWeb. You can reach her through her website or on Twitter @ValentinaESL:

No need to remind anyone in education of how challenging the times are. Learning environments have been drastically affected by the pandemic. Beyond physically removing students and teachers from classrooms, COVID-19 has reached deeply into our lives and filled the minds of students, families, and faculty with fear, anxiety, and frustration. And we know that when it comes to learning, students are affected by what’s in the background in their minds.

Culturally responsive teaching is probably of greater importance today than it was yesterday. Our students are faced with unusual life challenges that they can’t just tuck away while we turn on our Zoom meeting or open our classroom door. No matter what your district’s circumstance is, hybrid, face-to-face, or fully online, students and families are hearing about COVID-19. They are being affected by it one way or another. It may be financial or it may be mental or physical.

The way stress is handled varies between cultures and families. As culturally responsive teachers, it’s important that we step back and allow ourselves to understand our students and their families. See them and their situations. Hear their circumstances, listening with open ears and open hearts. Keeping in mind that our way is not the only way.

Our goal is to affirm, validate, and honor students each class period and each day. Cultural responsiveness is about daily practices that bring students’ cultures into instruction, valuing each student, and recognizing what they bring, teaching them as people first in order to maximize their potential as students. And we can do this in hybrid or online settings as well. Practical ideas for culturally responsive teaching include using students’ life experiences in daily instruction and embracing their assets and creating classroom environments (even online) that represent and respect each of them and communicating clear high expectations for every student.

These are a few practical strategies that embrace culture in hybrid or online environments:

  1. Take a look at the learning environment. Does it represent your students? Will students be able to see themselves reflected in this environment? Some teachers are creating virtual classrooms using bitmoji. These can be engaging especially for younger audiences. Others are using Canvas or Google Classroom. No matter the program, the important part is taking a look at what is accessible to all students. For example, if you have digital posters, digital books, or resources available, are they available in multiple languages, and do they reflect the demographics of your classroom.

  2. Take an audit of your lessons. Creating student-centered instruction even in hybrid or online environments will allow students to share their ideas and amplify their voice. Using breakout rooms or cooperative documents gives students opportunities to learn from one another and negotiate for meaning. My favorites include Jamboards, Padlet, and shared Google Docs, for cooperative learning opportunities.

  3. Teach students to make sketchnotes and give them time to do it! Sketchnoting provides a way for students to process, summarize, and internalize information using their own personal lens. There is room for choice, voice, and autonomy in sketchnoting. All students bring their own personal lived experiences to the classroom and instruction. When students create sketches that accompany written notes, it pushes them to pull from their own schema and bridge it to the new learning.

No matter your current teaching circumstances, the need for culturally responsive teaching practices is at its height. The more we can bond and build relationships with students and let students bond with one another, the better off we all will be. Only then will the learning matter and become important. One of my favorite authors and researchers, Dr. Brene Brown, says that we are all hard-wired for connection, and without it, there is suffering. Connection is key.

Thanks to Vivian, Adeyemi, Andrew, and Valentina for their contributions!

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