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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Steps to Make Classrooms More Culturally Responsive

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 01, 2020 21 min read
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Culturally responsive—and culturally sustaining—instruction are both widely recognized instructional mindsets and strategies. Gloria Ladson-Billings is the primary developer of these ideas, and Django Paris built on her work. You can read Professor Ladson-Billings previous contribution to this column at The Importance of ‘White Students Having Black Teachers': Gloria Ladson-Billings on Education and Professor Paris’ commentary at Response: ‘It Is Long Past Time to Meet the Needs of Students of Color.’

This four-part series will look at examples of what these kinds of lessons might look like in the classroom.

Today, Dr. Rocio del Castillo, Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat, Lisa Stringfellow, Valentina Gonzalez, Maurice McDavid, and Cathery Yeh share 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.

You might also be interested in The Best Resources About “Culturally Responsive Teaching” & “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy.”

Five steps toward equity

Dr. Rocio del Castillo began her career as a school psychologist in Peru and has dedicated her professional career to being an advocate for educational equity and social justice. Her rich and diverse experience includes serving for over 20 years in both public and private school systems, where she has received recognition and accolades for her work in the special education, bilingual, and dual- language settings. Rocio currently serves as assistant superintendent for special services in Huntley Community School District 158 (Illinois) and as an adjunct professor.

Dr. Julia Stearns Cloat has spent the past 25 years working in unit school districts in roles including literacy specialist, instructional coach, and curriculum director and has earned awards for her work in student services. Her areas of expertise and passion include educational equity, literacy, curriculum development, instructional coaching, and RtI/MTSS. Julia currently works as a coordinator in Kaneland School District 302 (also in Illinois) and as an adjunct professor at Northern Illinois University:

How to promote a culture in which teachers facilitate lessons that are culturally responsive is a challenge currently being faced by many school districts. The type of institutionalized change that is needed to make lessons culturally sustaining cannot occur through a single initiative or concrete practice. In truth, we must keep in mind that equity is a foundation, mindset, and approach. There are however, steps that school districts can encourage in order to make the learning environment in classrooms more culturally responsive.

1. Assess your own personal biases

This is a hard ask, but there is a reason why it is first on the list of ways to make lessons more culturally responsive. As educators, we must first acknowledge the institutional inequities that exist, then each take a hard look at our own personal biases. The Conage Continuum of Educational Equity (2016) outlines four steps toward systemic educational equity and explains the importance of working to address our own bias so we no longer perpetuate inequities toward marginalized groups and privilege toward populations in the majority.

2. Get to know your students

Getting to know your students and the factors that make up the students’ personal and family lives will help teachers make lessons more culturally responsive and build relationships with their students. Taking factors such as socioeconomic status, family make-up, the educational expectations and goals that a family has for the child, student interests and experiences will enhance the teacher/student relationship and provide opportunities to make the learning experiences more personalized and better meet the students’ needs.

3. Adapt your teaching and curriculum

The process of adapting your teaching and curriculum begins by first responding to the assessment of your own personal biases, by considering if your biases are reflected in your current practices, then making strides to correct and to become more culturally responsive. The next step is to consider what you have learned about your students and making sure that your focus, standards, instructional approaches, and materials reflect the cultures of your students and expose them to different cultures. Additionally, authentic forms of assessment tools (e.g., observations, rubrics, conferring, performance tasks) are a more culturally and linguistically responsive way to assess student performance and progress than a more traditional classroom assessment.

4. Elevate the students’ culture and native language

There is truth in Menken’s (2017) assertion that “not only is English typically privileged in school curricula, but also in ideology” in that schools operate from the assumption that emergent bilinguals lack the resources to be successful in school. As emerging bilingual students are learning English, we must do what Beeman (2019) refers to as “elevating the status” of the language. It is likely that most collective experiences that are a part of the school culture are conducted in English. As a result, we must make efforts to assure emerging bilingual students that first language has value and will benefit the student’s literacy life as they become more proficient in English.

5. Involve family and community

Make the learning environment in your classroom more culturally responsive means engaging families and communities in the academic lives of students. By supporting students’ bicultural and multicultural identity development, families will feel more included and more comfortable, ultimately, making it more likely that they become partners with their children’s school (WIDA Consortium, 2013).

Intent and impact

Lisa Stringfellow has taught middle school English for over 24 years. In her work, she focuses on culturally responsive literacy and issues of equity and social justice in the classroom. She currently teaches 5th & 6th grade English at the Winsor School in Boston, where she serves in numerous roles including grade-level co-sponsor, educational technology co-coordinator, and co-facilitator of Sisters/Somos, an affinity group for black and Latina students. Connect with her on Twitter @EngageReaders:

Dr. Gloria J. Ladson-Billings first published her work on culturally relevant pedagogy in the early ‘90s, but in recent years, her ideas about honoring students’ cultural experiences and developing a critical stance around educational inequities have become increasingly important.

As a middle school English teacher, I have tried to integrate her findings into my practice and made reflection an ongoing process in my professional life. I have focused on making my classroom more inclusive and culturally responsive. One of the ways I do that is by interrogating my practices and my curriculum.

For books that I have on my classroom library shelf, I ask the following:

  • What books might serve as mirrors for my students of color?
  • What books are written by authors of color?
  • What books are #ownvoices (written by an author that shares an identity with the character)
  • What books have problematic representations that I should consider weeding?

There are numerous people doing great work in this area. Tools you can use are the Classroom Library Questionnaire from Lee & Low Books or Tricia Ebarvia’s How Inclusive Is Your Classroom Library Really? Dr. Debbie Reese’s blog, American Indians in Children’s Literature, is an excellent resource for evaluating Native and Indigenous children’s literature.

For the books that I teach, I consider:

  • Whose voices are included?
  • Whose voices are left out?
  • Who holds power and who doesn’t?
  • Where am I placing voices of color (as core texts or independent reading)
  • When I consider “rigor,” is that coded language for anything?
  • Am I valuing multiply types of literacies?

When discussing books that have challenging or difficult content, it is also important to unpack the texts with students and teach them to take a critical stance. Teaching students to ask questions and look critically at issues of racism, power, and oppression and draw connections to their lives and the real world.

For my practices, I think about:

  • What is the intention of this practice? What is the impact?
  • Are there any texts or practices that I’ve “pledged allegiance” to? Why? How might those negatively impact students of color?

There have been some excellent recent articles around the impact of educational practices on marginalized students, particularly around gamification. Read Benjamin Doxtdator’s blog post on Gamifying Settler Colonialism.

The following are some practical suggestions I have used in trying to center students’ needs in my teaching.

Names are powerful and personal. Many students start the first day of school hearing teachers mispronounce their names. Rather than reading names, considering going around the room and having students say their names to you first. Even better, have students record themselves saying their names using an app like FlipGrid. Bonus—you can listen to them again later.

Educate yourself on racial-equity issues. How are your own biases shaping what you value and teach? Have you added “diverse” books to your library or curriculum? If so, it’s a great start, but consider how that might be problematic, too. Adding still centers often majority-white voices in the curriculum. Instead, consider whether the structure of your curriculum needs to be different. A great workshop that has influenced my recent thinking is the Institute on Racial Equity in Literacy facilitated by Tricia Ebarvia and Dr. Sonya Cherry-Paul. For reading, teachers should consider We Got This by Cornelius Minor and Being the Change by Sara Ahmed.

Listen to your students. If you want to know how you’re doing, ask your students. Do you know how students of color in your class or school feel about their school experience? Where do they see themselves in the curriculum? Who is centered? What practices do you or your school have that makes things harder for them? Open yourself to listen deeply and taking feedback for those who matter most. The kids.

Further Reading

Class meetings

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:

”... culture is visible and large and if we’re not careful, our classroom and school culture can work to silence, exclude, and oppress children."—Cornelius Minor

The words Cornelius uses are strong and hit me hard ..."silence, exclude, and oppress children.” Three things I never want to do. In fact, I aim to do the exact opposite. To amplify, embrace, and empower children.

Culturally responsive teaching builds a safe, sturdy bridge between students’ home and personal lives to classroom instruction. Culturally responsive teaching is not a program we can purchase. It’s not a box of curriculum. It’s about how we weave our students’ lives into daily instruction. We create the culture in our classrooms: the routines, what is valued, what we shine a light upon, how we celebrate, what is respected, how we interact with students and families.

Often culture is viewed only through the lens of a person’s race or ethnicity. But culture is more than race and ethnicity, such as age, gender, socioeconomic status, disability, sexual orientation, religion, etc.

The question becomes how are we giving all students no matter their cultural groups equitable access to the curriculum (math, reading, writing, science, history, music, art, physical education, etc.).

Culturally responsive teaching requires:

  • Knowing students individually
  • Valuing students’ assets
  • An openness to one’s own biases
  • Building community

Class meetings aim to amplify, embrace, and empower children and foster a culturally responsive environment throughout the school year.

What are class meetings?

Class meetings are brief (15-30 minutes), regularly held gatherings. They are teacher-facilitated but student-led. Class meetings build community and empathy among students while allowing teachers to learn more about the kids in the classroom. Students look forward to class meetings. They know that this is a time when they can share and discuss with one another. The meeting also provides a safe space to encourage individuality.

Class meetings may look and sound a bit different depending on whether you teach primary or secondary students, but in essence they hold the same critical characteristics. In primary classrooms, students may gather in a circle on the floor; however, in secondary classrooms, students may be more comfortable seated in chairs. This physical seating arrangement is important because it brings all students into the conversation much like sitting around the dinner table together versus standing around at a cocktail party. In primary grades, teachers may offer a song, chant, or game for students to play. This may be appropriate for older students, too, depending on the content or context. Some teachers like to give students an object to hold when it’s their turn to talk. I’ve seen classrooms that use a classroom mascot stuffed animal and others that toss a small ball.

One teacher effectively implemented class meetings by intentionally planning for them. She created a schedule that was similar to this but changed weekly to meet the needs of her students:

Monday: Students share what they did over the weekend or share what they are looking forward to about the week ahead.

Tuesday: Students discuss their goals for the week. What do they hope to accomplish?

Wednesday: Students discuss a topic that was in the news (changes weekly).

Thursday: Students share what they love doing for fun.

Friday: Students reflect on their goals.

Culturally responsive teaching can only happen when we know our students deeply. Class meetings provide us with information that we can infuse into instruction. Regular class meetings allow us to sustain culturally responsive teaching throughout the year.

Infusing what you learned from a class meeting

Classroom Scenario 1:

It’s September, and school has been in session for a month now. Mr. Ruby has held regular class meetings for his students through which he learned that many of his students are bilingual. He values all languages and literacy and would like to ensure that his bilingual students feel empowered by their ability. He has decided to ask the students to share more about their languages and teach the class some key words in their primary languages.

Classroom Scenario 2:

The students did an amazing job sharing their primary language with their classmates. While sharing, one student mentioned that he was born in Brazil. Since the class was soon to be studying major landforms, Mr. Ruby asked the student if he had any experiences with the rainforest or Amazon River in Brazil. The student shared stories and pictures of his father who had visited both.

Steps to implementing class meetings:

  1. Designate a time for regular class meetings.
  2. Plan intentional discussions, activities, and/or events for the meetings.
  3. Model expectations for students.
  4. Facilitate the student-led discussion/activity.
  5. Be consistent. Don’t skip a day.
  6. Take notes and use them to guide instruction.

The routine of class meetings has a powerful and positive impact on student engagement but can also give us a window into their world. Not only can we use the class meeting as a means to embed students’ lives into future learning, but the actual act of the class meeting itself is culturally responsive. By giving students a platform to amplify their voice and allowing them to share their stories and who they are, we are creating environments that are culturally inclusive.

Summing it up

Creating and sustaining an environment that is culturally responsive means amplifying, embracing, and empowering children each day each lesson. In this environment, students’ voices are heard and strengthened, students are welcomed for who they are rather than made to feel they need to conform, and the environment shares power with students. Class meetings hold the power to do just that.

You can read more ideas about culturally responsive teaching in this article for NCTE or this one here for MiddleWeb.

Image by Valentina Gonzalez

Four ways to implement culturally responsive teaching

Maurice McDavid earned his bachelor’s degree in elementary education with a minor in history and Spanish. He has taught middle school history, English, and Spanish, as well as high school geography. He was dean of students for three years and is now in his first year as assistant principal at a bilingual elementary school:

Gloria Ladson Billings argues that culturally responsive teaching must include, at minimum, the following: bringing native language into the classroom, family involvement, understanding history and culture and community culture into the classroom.

Looking for connections between English and other languages as related to the content you’re teaching is important. For example, when teaching about “vaqueros,” some of America’s first cowboys, you can relate the word vaquero to vaca, which means cow in Spanish. In math, you can talk about the numeric prefixes and their relationship to Latin-based languages.

In terms of family involvement, many lessons allow for parents to come into the classroom and be the experts. One teacher that I work with recorded parents explaining how they use math in their jobs. She recorded one parent for each unit theme. This gave parents an opportunity to feel like experts and students an opportunity to feel proud about their parents.

Understanding the history and culture of our nation and more specifically the state and community in which you teach is powerful. When developing lessons for my middle school American History class, I was always very intentional in acknowledging the authors of our history books and how their place in culture impacted their telling of the story. I often presented information on how people who didn’t seem to be the main characters in the story were indeed major actors. Asking students to think about the role of gender, race, or financial status can impact any lesson in any content area.

Finally, looking specifically at the community culture is a way to make connections to the students. Students cannot be known apart from the context in which they live. Lessons that include landmarks specific to the community or discuss industry that is important in the community allow students to utilize their background information. In my hometown, we are known for our excellent farmland. Whether science, math, or history, the agricultural culture of our community will connect students. At a surface level, lessons can use the topics from the community. At a deeper level, students can begin to inquire about what has made their community what it is and figure out ways in which they can be a part of its future development.

Six categories of a “culturally responsive framework”

Cathery Yeh, @YehCathery, is an assistant professor of teacher education at Chapman University with 20+ years in education. As a teacher, she visited over 300 student homes to develop partnerships with caregivers and centered curriculum on students’ lived experiences and perspectives. Dr. Yeh has published over 40+ articles on mathematics education, culturally and linguistically responsive teaching, and video-based professional developments and is the lead author of the NCTM book Reimagining the Mathematics Classroom:

Our students arrive in our classroom with a mosaic of identities. Lessons that are culturally responsive and sustaining need intentional focus on cultural preservation which require us, as educators, to critically analyze how much of U.S. schooling has focused on assimilation and colonization. Education is a system of policies and practices that currently serves to privilege a few at the expense of many. Too many of our students do not see themselves represented in the curriculum: solving problems in a process that is not their own, in a language different from their native tongue, and solving mathematics problems irrelevant to their interests and experiences.

Culturally responsive and sustaining lessons honor our students and their histories, culture, language, and unique ways of knowing and being in the world. I use a framework to design lessons; it builds from a culturally responsive framework developed by Aguirre and Zavala (2012). The framework includes six categories: cognitive demand, student thinking, discourse, power and participation, cultural/community knowledge, and critical knowledge.

Below are a series of questions related to each category that I ask myself during lesson design and reflection:

Cognitive demand: How does my lesson provide students opportunities to grapple with and make sense of important disciplinary ideas and their use? Students learn best when they are challenged to take risks and be authors of their own ideas.

Student thinking: How does my lesson make student thinking/understanding visible and deep? What are the different places in the lesson and ways (e.g., written, verbal, embodied) in which student thinking is made visible?

Discourse: How does the lesson allow students to engage in the ways of thinking and using language relevant to the discipline? How does the lesson allow alternative forms for expression, representation and engagement—beyond verbal talk and written text—to better capture ways of communicating and interacting representative of all students, including emergent bilingual students, students classified with disabilities, and students who may express themselves nonverbally?

Power and participation: Whose experiences and perspectives are valued in this lesson? How does my lesson distribute knowledge authority, value all students’ contributions, and address status differences among students?

Cultural/Community: How does the lesson build on students’ cultural and community knowledge? How does the lesson build from resources available in students’ daily experiences and their community? How does the lesson honor students’ and their ancestral histories and stories? How does the lesson allow students to deepen their appreciation of their own culture and the culture of others?

Critical knowledge: How does the lesson allow students to critically examine the world and to take action to promote change?


Aguirre, J. M., & Zavala, M. (2013). Making culturally responsive mathematics teaching explicit: A lesson analysis tool. Pedagogies: An International Journal, 8(2), 163-190.

Thanks to Rocio, Julia, Lisa, Valentina, Maurice, and Cathery for their contributions!

(This is the first post in a four-part series)

The new question-of-the-week is:

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

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

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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