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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Strategies for Implementing Online Culturally Responsive Teaching

By Larry Ferlazzo — October 05, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the first post in a two-part series.)

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?

In the midst of pandemic craziness, it’s safe to say that at least some educators might be losing sight of prioritizing issues of equity and cultural responsive teaching. This reaction is, unfortunately, typical of what has happened in the past—there are always “more pressing” challenges to deal with, and “we’ll get to it after this [latest] crisis has passed.”

I would argue that now, more than ever, is the time for teachers to prioritize culturally responsive pedagogy and responding to racism. Many of the family members of our students, and some of our students themselves, are dying as a direct result of the legacy and existence of racism as they are hit hard by COVID-19.

This two-part series will explore strategies that we can use in an online and hybrid environment to no longer delay many of us changing our practices to further support students of color and their families.

You might also be interested in collections of these columns focusing on:

Race & Racism in Schools

School Closures & the Coronavirus Crisis

Today’s contributors are Shelly M. Jones, Ph.D., Gina Laura Gullo, Isabel Becerra, and Candace Hines.

Math and culturally responsive teaching

Shelly M. Jones, Ph.D., is a 27-year veteran educator. She is a mathematics education professor at Central Connecticut State University and the author of Women Who Count: Honoring African American Women Mathematicians and will co-author a forthcoming set of books on culturally responsive teaching in mathematics from Corwin Press:

Over the last decade, I’ve advocated culturally relevant teaching in mathematics. Gloria Ladson-Billings (2009) defines culturally relevant pedagogy (CRP) as an approach to teaching that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally and politically. As we think about what we consider as culturally responsive/relevant teaching in an online environment, we must first ask, “How can we empower our students?” In a mathematics classroom, students are empowered when they have a positive mathematics identity. Educators must get to know their students in order to make instructional decisions that build students’ math identities.

Many educators are tuning into social media to share their experiences of virtual activities at the heart of relationship building and identity development. Who are our students? Marian Dingle, a 22-year veteran teacher in Georgia, says she is good at eliciting the trust of her students, and if she is not aware of their culture, she asks questions until she becomes more comfortable. Another educator, Xi Yu (DismantelingMathematics.com) shares an activity that she used to have students introduce themselves. The students answered the following three questions on virtual Post-it Notes: 1) What is your name? 2) How are you feeling? and 3) How do you like your rice prepared? Before we jump into the math, we (teachers) need to humanize the space. Students need to feel seen and safe so they can learn. I love that Ms. Dingle has students unmute their devices on the first day of school so they can pronounce their names because pronouncing a student’s name correctly is part of becoming culturally competent, which is one of the propositions of CRP. Another proposition of CRP that is commonly overlooked (Jones, 2018; Ladson-Billings, Spring 2014) is helping students develop a critical consciousness. We can do this by facilitating opportunities for students to use math to explore issues of inequity.

When teachers choose mathematics activities that are open-ended and mathematically rich, they will empower students intellectually, especially if the activities are connected to students’ lived experiences. Teachers can empower their students socially by building community through virtual engagement strategies. They can empower students emotionally by creating a safe virtual environment with nonverbal communication tools. Finally, teachers must find ways to empower their students politically by using resources that reflect the voices of all students especially Black, Indigenous, and students of color. As my colleague Lou Matthews says, “Free your math, and justice will follow.”

Four culturally responsive teaching strategies

Gina Laura Gullo is an educational equity consultant with GLG Consulting and a researcher of unintentional bias and interventions that serve to lessen the impact of such biases. She also adjuncts and mentors in educational leadership at several Mid-Atlantic universities:

While I teach most of my online hybrid courses to college-level students and K-12 teachers and leaders, many strategies I use to apply culturally responsive teaching remain relevant to current K-12 teachers. These four strategies can be applied to students at any level and will help to ensure equity and inclusion in your classes.

  1. Get to know your students on their terms.

A core tenet of culturally responsive pedagogy is getting to know your students, which becomes difficult with limited face-to-face interactions. Teachers can use online forums to allow students to introduce themselves on their own terms. Start by introducing yourself including culturally meaningful aspects of your self-identification. Then, assign all students to similarly introduce themselves to you and the whole class. Younger students might do this with a picture or recorded video while older students can simply write an introduction. This allows students to tell you what they find most relevant about their identities while also self-defining who they are in the context of the classroom environment.

  1. Engage students in critical self-reflection.

Critical self-reflection offers students the opportunity to consider how and whether material relates to their own experiences and perspectives of the world and then making meaning of the learning in that context. While not limited to online hybrid learning, critical self-reflection lends itself well to this format. Students can learn material during online sessions, reflect before class, and then discuss the material when meeting face to face to help others reflect on the culturally contextualized material. This can be as simple as journaling after a history lesson or as intricate as working in synchronous online groups to break down inequities from the same lesson. Teachers can use writing prompts and breakout groups to encourage students to reflect on related experiences and build background knowledge and respect for others’ individual experiences. Critical self-reflection offers a segue into experiential learning and internalization to create long-term learning.

  1. Create multimodal learning stations.

Typical of classrooms, especially for younger students, learning stations offer engagement with learning materials in a variety of formats to meet the learning styles of various students. Online hybrid learning offers a unique opportunity for this kind of learning where students can engage with material in a variety of manners. For example, a science lesson on dinosaurs might include a reading, a video lecture, an educational game, an online museum visit, an at-home craft, and a face-to-face discussion. Each of these modalities would teach about dinosaurs but in a way that allows students from different learning backgrounds to excel. Learning styles often reflect cultural norm, hence relating to culturally relevant pedagogy, but they also reflect an inclusive learning environment that attends to equity beyond ethno-racial demographics.

  1. Use counter-stereotypic exemplars.

Counter-stereotypic exemplars are images that represent individuals in ways that are not consistent with stereotypes such as a Black male teacher, a female construction worker, or a Latina surgeon. Research suggests that such images can help to reduce implicit biases based on stereotypic norms. By including pictures that represent counter-stereotypes, students can see themselves and others represented in different manners. Not only will this contribute to a reduction in their own biases, but it can also encourage students to excel in a wider variety of occupational fields.

I used these strategies both face to face and online but find that each translates well to online hybrid learning. I encourage teachers to avoid discovering brand-new strategies during this time where quick transitions to online learning are commonplace and instead explore how they can adapt currently evidenced strategies for inclusive learning to hybrid learning environments.

“Sheltered Instruction” to support diverse learners

Isabel Becerra is a sheltered-instruction specialist for the ELL Department in Garland ISD, in Texas. She was born in Bolivia and has been an educator since 1992. She is a passionate advocate for English-language learners:

As a sheltered-instruction specialist, I advocate the learning of our diverse learners. I make sure that teachers have access to strategies that will allow ALL learners to participate in activities and assignments that will engage them in the learning process. Among these strategies, we promote those that are culturally responsive to the population that we serve.

The sheltered-instruction framework we use is based on the 7 Steps to a Language-Rich Interactive Classroom. Each step promotes strategies that will allow ALL students to access content and develop their linguistic skills. We have modeled and developed PD for teachers to use these strategies in the classroom and remotely. Among these strategies, we have those that nurture accessibility to academic vocabulary, structured conversations, purpose for reading and writing, and those that include sentence stems, visuals, and checking for understanding in real time. All these strategies help those strategies that are culturally responsive in giving students the ability to access and participate with content in a nonthreatening way.

Among the most effective culturally responsive teaching strategies that we model for teachers to incorporate into their online lessons are interactive games. These are the power strategy for culturally grounded learning because they get the brain’s attention and require active processing, and most games employ a lot of cultural tools. Culturally diverse stories will allow students to learn content more effectively by creating a more coherent narrative about a topic. Boosting Vocabulary is an important equity strategy, engaging students in building word consciousness in their community, home, and home language. Showing videos, documentaries, and movies depicts a range of cultures that are relevant to students, and presenting real-world problems for students to solve is a strategy where two cultural connections will typically occur, and students may use unique cultural perspectives to solve the problem.

One of the most important elements that we encourage our teachers to develop while planning for culturally responsive online teaching is to establish inclusion. It involves developing a foundation of respect and connectedness through established routines, mutually agreed norms, and equitable treatment of all learners. We want all of our students and their families to feel included in the online learning community, as well as to engage them to voice their feelings and share their experiences, so creating those opportunities through discussion and chat sessions can be useful. We want teachers to ask students questions about their cultural identities and backgrounds. This can help students feel comfortable in sharing their stories.

During online teaching, it is very common for students to become easily frustrated and tune out from online courses that lack structure and relevance. This is why we highly recommend teachers to allow students to take charge of their own learning by providing choice. It gives students options of selecting from a variety of learning activities and styles. This will establish a learning environment that is relevant to the students’ lives, as well as one in which they feel autonomy over their learning. It will also help the teacher to develop a collection of culturally relevant materials related to his or her course and will engage students to become independent learners.

Delivering culturally responsive strategies in an online environment can help teachers to motivate and engage students, facilitate brain processing, cultivate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, strengthen cultural identities, and promote a sense of safety and belonging. Culturally responsive educators are those who continually examine their own cultural perspectives and biases to ensure that they are creating environments that are supportive to all learners. This is the number one responsibility we have as educators in a world where diversity is growing every day.

Five questions

Candace Hines is a multiclassroom leader at Memphis Scholars. She is also a regional presenter and has trained teachers across various districts in Tennessee. She has served as a facilitator for Teach Plus, leading their Teacher-Led Professional Learning Network. She has also served as a fellow for Collaborative for Student Success, Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow, Common Core math coach, and the Tennessee Teacher Ambassador Network:

During the COVID pandemic, virtual learning has become one of our primary forms of education. That being said, as educators, we must continue to include culturally responsive teaching strategies in our online classrooms. Culturally responsive teaching aids in students growth and overall academic success. I have found the following strategies to be critical when providing culturally responsive cyber learning environments:

  • Hybrid Classes
  • Curate Inclusion
  • Equitable Instruction

It has been said that online learning layers on complications to the development of culturally responsive teachers and classrooms, as described by Heitner and Jennings:

”...a lack of understanding about culturally responsive issues and practices to meet the needs and expectations of online students can lead to miscommunication, mistrust, poor guidance, frustration, attrition, and delayed program completion. These issues may be exacerbated in the online classroom due to the nature of faculty/student interaction, the nonparallel nature of the instruction, the broad cultural and geographic diversity of the student body, and the lack of visual cues in the interactions.” [1]

Before the coronavirus pandemic, equitable technology amongst our students was always a challenge. Supplying students with Wi-Fi and devices does not guarantee that we are teaching with culturally responsive strategies. We are in a radically different school structure from the one to which we are most accustomed. Part of this newness has meant more frequent adaptations as we learn what works and what does not. We must take into account that students have been greatly impacted by this pandemic.

We began the school year 100 percent virtual, with teachers participating in live instruction from 7:45 a.m. until 4:00 p.m. Data was collected from a staff survey, from the teacher committee meeting, and from our parents. All three spoke to concerns about student stamina. In response to these data points, a hybrid class schedule was implemented. Scholars now have a blend of live, synchronous, half-day instruction, and the other portion of the day is used to engage in asynchronous subject-specific, academic content. As a result, students’ biweekly assessment data, exit ticket submissions, polls, parental participation, and attendance reports have shown consistent growth!

Next, we must examine what intentional moments are embedded during sessions that allow students to share their voice, engaging socially and culturally. Educators must lay the foundation for culturally responsive environments before class starts. This strategy should include a series of questions that establish inclusion amongst scholars. As you consider what implementation will look like in your learning environment, please be advised that these components are not to be completed once and marked off; continuously use them as a reference. Another helpful strategy is to examine your teaching practice using these questions:

1.What are scholars interested in?

2.What do students see as valuable?

3.How can I encourage students to engage on a meaningful level?

4.How can I incorporate diverse material and resources?

5.Have students taken ownership of their learning?

Our last strategy requires us to monitor and adjust. Teachers have been known to struggle with amending due dates. During these unprecedented times, we must consider the effects that COVID may have had on parents and students’ schedules and overall lives. Adjusting assignment-submission dates is a strategy that has been successful. Scholars have the autonomy to complete certain tasks at their own pace. For example, classwork given on a Monday can be submitted weekly or biweekly for full credit. Along with this system, asynchronous instructional materials should be kept to a minimum to not overwhelm participants; limit the amount of tools, apps, and platforms. Resources should also be in direct correlation with the curriculum and current learning target for that content. Effective planning, hybrid schedules, and reliable content are key strategies to cultivate culturally responsive classrooms.

[1] Heitner, K. L. and Jennings, M. Culturally responsive teaching knowledge and practices of online faculty. Online Learning 20, 4 (2016).

Thanks to Dr. Jones, Gina, Isabel, and Candace for their contributions!

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