October 10, 2019

By Billy Spicer, Instructional Coach

According to the US Census Bureau, “More than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group” by 2020. By my calculations, this is quite soon! Do you have a good handle on the worldviews, beliefs, language, and values of the learners in your school? Today, it’s more important than ever to create learning environments that acknowledge and value the culture of all students.

The term “culturally relevant teaching” was coined by Gloria Ladson-Billings in 1994 to describe “a pedagogy that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.” From a pedagogical standpoint, my big takeaway was that being culturally responsive truly connects students’ prior knowledge by making cultural connections to what is currently known and to what is going to be learned and understood. The result is that I started to adapt my delivery of instruction to meet the needs of a diverse group of learners—rather than insisting that all my students interact with the lesson or content in a certain way.

This was also an entry point for me to become more aware of the “iceberg” concept of culture. When we see an iceberg, the portion that is visible above water is only a small piece of a much larger whole. Similarly, people often think of culture as the observable characteristics of a group that we can see with our eyes, like food, dance, music, arts, or rituals. But it is so much more:


Part of the process that guided me towards raising awareness of the cultural “surround sound” that was present in my school and classroom was engaging in a cultural-proficiency investigation as part of a course facilitated by Research for Better Teaching. The objectives of the investigation covered a range of areas and helped me analyze my own practices within students’ school and classroom experience. Just as good teaching asks us to pre-assess our learners before launching an instructional unit, we must also pre-assess ourselves to gauge where we fall on the continuum of cultural proficiency.

After raising my awareness about cultural proficiency and its impact on teaching and learning, I was then able to develop a plan of action that would guide me towards being an advocate for all my learners.

Here are a few entry points for educators to consider for enhancing culturally relevant teaching in the classroom:

Passion projects

When launching passion projects as a classroom teacher, I was amazed how the practice helped augment student voice and choice. The new knowledge of students and their personal, cultural knowledge was explicitly validated by a learning activity connected to the classroom. The combination of active work and the understanding that these projects were ultimately shared with their peers (and maybe even a global audience!) provides a fine example of using community as a source for curriculum experiences.

As a real-world example, I recently assisted in creating an empathy-driven experience for educators and students alongside Participate, which can be viewed at Learning Experiences.

Power of being seen

I love the story of a school in Nevada that makes student/teacher relationships a top priority. Early in the school year, teachers engaged in an activity to go through the entire student roster with colored markers and make check marks under columns labeled “Name/Face,” “Something Personal,” “Personal/Family Story,” and “Academic Standing,” to note whether they knew the child just by name or something more. The result is that some students had check marks next to all of the headings, while others did not—their story and background were shrouded in mystery.

Implementing a similar activity in a classroom setting, either as a reflective experience for the teacher or among the entire class, can be a powerful path to fostering meaningful and lasting relationships.

Skype in the classroom

Talking about being culturally responsive is one thing, but recognizing the wide range of backgrounds among students is another. However, literally knocking down your classroom walls and inviting in others from around the globe is something entirely different. Allowing students to connect with the world and become global citizens is a meaningful way to enrich and reinforce instructional content. After signing up for the Microsoft Educator Community, you can explore five avenues to bring the world to your students through virtual field trips, Skype lessons, Skype collaborations, mystery Skype, and guest speakers.


I was recently reminded of this blog post where the author provides three tips to make any lesson more culturally responsive. Two out of the three—“Make It Social” and “Storify It”—are very much at the core of the Flipgrid platform, which proclaims on the splash page of their website: social learning for everyone. The key here is to empower students to share their voice and amplify it for years to come. How can you begin to amplify student voice in your classroom? Simple: listen. Flipgrid not only allows teachers to listen to their students but also opens the conversation to an authentic audience and sharing with the world.

Consider one example that also happens to connect nicely with CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RL.2.2: Recount stories, including fables and folktales from diverse cultures, and determine their central message, lesson, or moral. A teacher might create a Flipgrid Topic that asks learners to seek out and share a story or folktale tied to their own culture. After posting their initial video responses, students can curate replies by sharing their topic with others. Through this process, Flipgrid can support students in becoming stronger communicators, involved digital citizens, and more culturally aware.

Crowdsource a classroom library

Developing a culturally responsive classroom starts with a focus on empathy. A close colleague of mine, Jennifer Williams, recently developed a learning experience for educators around this question: How might we ignite emotions of empathy in our students by creating spaces that serve as “mirrors and windows” in terms of diversity?

One possible solution is crowdsourcing your classroom library. The need for a diverse library speaks volumes to driving a culturally responsive classroom environment. Giving the power and ownership to those who will be reading the books—your students—can focus a powerful lens on valuing all learners.

Students will dive into seeking out titles that include characters, cultures, settings, and topics that match their interests and from a wide range of authors.

Classroom climate survey

Getting an accurate picture of reality is key before making any plans to implement change. One way this can be accomplished is by completing a classroom climate survey to gauge current needs. This particular survey is organized to pull information from three categories: community and mutual support, risk-taking and confidence, and influence.

The Teaching Tolerance website is also a helpful tool for its library of classroom resources and professional development opportunities.

The teacher’s critical role

Seeking out ways to embed more elements of a culturally responsive classroom can be challenging. The more one looks to embed these elements alongside the stated curriculum, the better. It should not be viewed as another thing teachers must do, but as an opportunity to enhance the work that is already being done. And it begins with you, the teacher: know your students, set the vibe for the classroom, seek out positive images/representations of diversity, leverage social media to connect with others, and finally, commit—you’re in this for the long haul.

These changes will not occur overnight. And remember: The goal is for your classroom to integrate culturally responsive practices as an everyday experience, not a “one-and-done” activity in isolation.

Learn more

Looking to give your students greater voice and choice in what they read? Check out myON, which gives students access to thousands of engaging digital books and daily news articles in English, Spanish, and other languages.

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