Creating a Culturally Responsive Learning Environment

Saddleback Educational Publishing conducts a Webinar Series to spread information and resources for online learning programs. The following article is an enhanced summary based on our webinar Creating A Culturally Responsive Environment hosted by Valentina Gonzalez, Educational Consultant at Seidlitz Education on July 30th 2020.

I really love culturally responsive teaching, and this is a topic that’s truly near and dear to my heart. I’m honored that I get to share this with you all. My family immigrated here from the former Yugoslavia back when I was just a toddler myself, so coming here was definitely a culture shock for us. My family didn’t speak any English when we came here. My parents were a young married couple. They had two toddlers in hand, and they didn’t have a job lined up. Coming here was a choice they made to have a better future and a better life for their family and for my brother and me. They wanted us to have a better education. They wanted us to grow up in a nation where we could have a great life for our own kids and jobs and neighbors that loved one another. That’s why we came to America when we did. It wasn’t because my dad had a job lined up or because we had a lot of family already here. We took a huge leap of faith and so when we came to America and started learning English in elementary school, my brother and I really had a difficult time.

That experience in itself helped me to understand what I wanted to do when I graduated from high school and went on to college and became a teacher. I share that little bit of my story with you not because I think it’s super special, but in all honesty, because it is actually more prevalent today than it was back then. In our nation, over 10 percent of our public school students are English learners. We have over 400 languages spoken in the United States. This story happens more today than it did over 40 years ago when I came to America.

What Comes To Mind When You Think Of Culturally Responsive Teaching?

It’s even more important now for us to be culturally responsive educators and to know how to serve not only our English learners but all students and assure that they are in safe and comfortable environments in their classrooms, that are conducive to learning academics and possibly learning a second language or a third language. I want to ask you, what comes to your mind when you think of culturally responsive teaching?

Sometimes these are buzz words that we hear, and they’re really not quantified. They’re really not explained or discussed in depth.

One thing I want to just put out there from the beginning is that culturally responsive teaching is not about a one-day event. It’s not about celebrating one-time events here and there for a certain culture. That’s a good step in the right direction and I know a lot of us are already doing things like that. I’m not saying we shouldn’t but that’s not in essence what culturally responsive teaching is. When we think of culturally responsive teaching and creating a culturally responsive environment, it’s more about the daily practices that we do in our classrooms that bring students’ culture into the instruction; when we value each student and what they bring to the table and we teach them as people first and really maximize their potential as contributors in our classroom. This can be said about bringing their families’ cultures into our instruction as well, valuing our families for what they bring to the table and making sure that we’re maximizing our families’ potential in our student’s education.

Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies

The key in culturally responsive teaching is, first and foremost, using students’ cultural experiences in daily instruction. In order to do that, we have to know our kids individually. We can’t use their cultural experiences without truly knowing our students.

Secondly, embrace native language and students’ families as assets. Kids need to know if they speak another language, if they know another language, that is an asset in itself and is encouraged and invited in our environment.

Third, create a classroom environment that represents and respects all students. When I look around my classroom, I see myself, I see my friends, I see my colleagues and classmates, and I know that I value what I see in this classroom.

Finally, communicate clear and high expectations for everyone. We set the ceiling for our kids and it can either be a very high ceiling or a very low one and they will rise to either the low one or they’ll rise to the high one. We have to set that ceiling very high for all of those students, and if they need scaffolds and

accommodations to reach it, then we provide those, but set those expectations high for all kiddos.

Zoretta Hammond- Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain

One of my favorite authors and researchers on culturally responsive teaching is Zoretta Hammond. She says that neuroscience tells us that when the brain feels safe and relaxed, the brain is connected to people that trust and treat us well. If we don’t trust and know that we’re being treated well, then we can’t feel safe and relaxed. This applies really naturally to students in our classrooms. If our students are not feeling safe in the classroom, if they are not feeling that they trust their classmates and their teachers, then the brain is not going to feel that it is safe and it cannot relax. It cannot take in new information. The brain will not allow academics and language to progress. This is really important for us as educators, whether we are ESL teachers or general education teachers. We can capitalize on this information. We can leverage this and know that the environment we create can either help language progress or stifle language development as well as academic development.

One key thing we have to do in order to create that culturally responsive environment, whether we are teaching virtually or we’re teaching in a brick and mortar setting, is tap into our students’ culture first and foremost. We have to get to know our kids and build those relationships by tapping into their culture, know who they are, what their passions are, what they do at home, how their family works. We do this by understanding that each family has its own culture no matter if our students are new to the country or if our students are born here in the United States. All of our students and all of us have culture.

Pathways To Greatness For ELL Newcomers

One of my favorite authors, Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo, wrote the book Pathways to Greatness for ELL Newcomers and she says that culture is the sum of social behaviors and norms that distinguish one group of people from another. To truly tap into our students’ cultures, we have to understand where they’re coming from, why they do the things they do, embrace their culture, and understand that the reason our students and families do what they do, or interact with us the way they do, is because of their culture. A lot of us have probably seen the cultural iceberg. It’s a great representation of culture. One thing that often happens is we tend to focus more on surface culture: what families eat, the music that they listen to, the clothing that they wear, the festivals, their language. In order to truly tap into families’ and students’ culture, knowing their deep culture is going to be where we make the biggest impact on how we interact. Creating that culturally responsive environment in our classrooms, the deep culture is going to help us interact better. This is where communication style and rules play a part; concepts of time, family relationships in gender and authority; notions of leadership and friendship and beauty;attitudes towards rules, age, and work; these things all differ from culture to culture. Deep culture is where we’re going to make the biggest impact as we’re getting to know our students and our families.

Supporting Student Identity

You might be wondering, how am I going to get to know my students’ and my families’ deep culture? All of this is tied into our students’ identities, and in order to find out more about our students, we can amplify their voice by reducing our footprint. We can learn more about them and their families by providing a safe time and space them to share in either breakout rooms, or if we’re in a brick and mortar setting, providing space for students to communicate with one another, with partners or in groups, ensuring that we’re giving them a choice in reading and writing and products so that they have more autonomy in their work in the classroom. Focus on students, listening more when they share, truly listening to what they have to say. These are some ways to get to know our students and their passions and where they’re coming from. We want to affirm their cultures, validate what they’re coming to the table with, and honor their culture.

I know many of my students in the past have come to class with books in their home languages and one way to honor their home language is to let them read in their home language or ask them to read aloud to the class in their home language. It just gives them that sense of pride that we want them to have, and we want other kids to see that this is a great thing to be bilingual. We want our kids to feel proud of who they are, feel proud that they have this culture, that we all are different and being different is a good thing.

Culture In The Classroom

The next thing that we want to highlight as we’re making a culturally responsive environment for our classroom, whether it is online, or it is in a brick and mortar setting, is to survey the actual environment. We’re going to take a look at the walls and the space and ensure that it is representative of the students that we have. We’re going to look at what is valued in this classroom because the things that are in our physical space are what we value, and our kids can see that. Families can see that when they walk in as well. Are we placing student work on the walls? Are we highlighting student writing and artwork? If we have posters on the walls, do they represent the demographics of our classroom?

One key factor is taking a deep look at our bookshelves. This is really important for all of our kids but especially for our English learners and our students who are marginalized. We want our students to engage with books. Books hold value. This is where our students are going to learn a great deal of vocabulary. But if they don’t connect with the books that they’re reading, they’re less likely to continue reading and find a love of reading. So take a look at the books on your bookshelves in your classroom and on your campus to make sure that they do match up with your student demographics. I actually did this a few years ago because I saw research on how many books represent white students versus Hispanic students and Asian students, and how many books have characters that are just animals or inanimate objects and I was appalled. I thought there’s no way my bookshelf is like this. Well I audited my bookshelf and I was really disappointed at how my bookshelf fared. I didn’t have a bookshelf that represented my students and it was at that moment that I took action.

As soon as my district started providing extra funds, I allocated that money to buying books that were representative of the students in my classroom and on our campus, too. I made sure to include books in our top 10 languages on our campus. I made sure that I hooked up with my librarian and we bought books for our library in our primary languages, and those were wildly popular books. Even our native English speakers wanted to see those books and wanted to get their hands on them. We want books that are mirrors for our students so they can see themselves,but also windows where they can see others and others’ experiences. This is a great opportunity to build empathy in our classrooms and in this day and age, it’s really important for us to work hard at building community and empathy and connecting students with one another. Books are the best place for us to start that important work with our students, younger and older.

Connecting With ELL Families

This is another example, and this is really important because when our families walk into our campus or our classroom, we want them to feel welcome. A lot of times when our families that don’t speak English yet walk into the front office and have a difficult time communicating, they can instantly feel like they don’t belong and that may affect whether or not they want to come back. Creating a bulletin board with your top five to ten languages on it at the front office or in your classroom can instantly help your families feel more welcome. On this bulletin board, as you can see, at the top it says welcome in many languages and then on the top it has English. It says How may I help you? What language do you speak? What is your child’s name? What is your name? and so on. Then it has the same statements in Bengali, Arabic, Spanish, Russian, and Albanian. This way when parents walk in, if they speak a language that’s listed here, they can point to it in their language and you can know what it says in English. It’s a quick way to make families feel super welcome. We want our walls to be representative of the families and students in the building, not just in our classroom but throughout the campus.

Student Centered Instructional Strategies

The next thing I want to share about culturally responsive environments is that it’s important we create student-centered instruction. So this means that we become more facilitators in the classroom and students take ownership of the learning journey. This might mean that we create a morning online. In this example, the teacher has created a large circle in the classroom and they’re going to gather together and hold their morning meeting. Morning meetings can also be done online. You just set a certain time and date. Everyone gathers at the same time and we get together to discuss how things are going. If it’s a primary grade we might sing a song together. If it’s an older grade we might read a poem. We might have a common question we discuss. Morning meetings help to build that community of learners in a common area.

Student-centered classrooms are going to have cooperative learning environments. We’re going to work together in teams face-to-face or online. Even in this day and age in face-to-face classrooms, we still might have to be physically spaced apart. We’re still going to have cooperative learning set up. If we’re in a physical classroom but we can’t sit close together, we’re still going to create learning assignments and learning activities where students are cooperatively working together to achieve a common goal. It might be that everyone is working on their computer, on a padlet or a book creator, or some task so that everyone is contributing to an assignment online. It might look like breakout rooms. We’re still discussing and sharing information together.

Incorporating Games Into ESL Learning

Finally, we are incorporating games. Games are great ways to get kids engaged and participating together while having fun and learning at the same time. Zoretta Hammond mentions three practical ways to make any lesson more culturally responsive. Gamify, so adding games to instruction; Storify, which means add stories, either your own or letting kids tell stories; and Make it Social. You can see that actually all three of these do just that. Gamify, Make it Social, and Storify. We’re allowing kids to add their own story or share their own kind of narrative about what’s happening in their day or what’s happening during their morning or their weekend.

Supporting Newcomers

The important thing is when we’re creating that student-centered classroom environment, we’re embracing acculturation in our environment. We want students to feel that they belong just the way they are. They don’t have to change to be part of this classroom. They don’t have to change who they are. We don’t want kids to feel that they have to fit in or be like everybody else. This is a big struggle for many kids, especially for students who are newcomers or students who are English learners and feel like they have to fit in to be like the rest of the kids. I’ll tell you from my own personal experience, in junior high, those years are really difficult years for kids. There’s that social idea that we have to be like everybody else and we’re struggling to fit in, but in reality, we want our kids to be empowered by their uniqueness. We want them to know that your power is being different.

If there’s one thing I could tell myself, my young self, my junior high self, is that being different is your superpower. Now when I work with kids, especially those kids from fourth to eighth grade, I tell them if you speak another language, if you’re from a different country, if you’re different, which we all are…that’s your superpower. Embrace it and be so proud of it. Don’t try to be like everybody else. That’s boring and that’s what we want our kids to learn to feel from such a young age and never let go of.

Culturally Responsive Teachers

The next thing we have to embrace as culturally responsive teachers and in a culturally responsive environment is how important names are. Names are tied directly to our identity and pronouncing them is critical for our students. One thing we can do is ask our kids at the beginning of the year to video themselves on Flipgrid or whatever platform you might be using and ask them to tell us how they like to be called. Ask them to share their name with us and we can play that over and over again. Their classmates can too. This is one way that we can really ensure that we’re pronouncing our kids’ names correctly.

Years ago, I happened to be in a classroom where the teacher loved to call kids by nicknames that the teacher made up. This is probably something I would say try not to do, especially for our kids who are English learners or our kids who are going into those awkward middle grade years when there may be some teasing going on. Ask the kids what they like to be called, stick to their names the way they like to be pronounced even if you have to ask them several times or ask if you pronounced it correctly. At least they know you care enough to call them by their name. If you’re not sure how to pronounce the student’s name correctly, definitely ask the kid or the parent. There are kids who will go a day or even more days without hearing their name because maybe we’re not sure how to pronounce it or we’re afraid we’re going to say it wrong. Instead, just ask. They’d rather know you care.

Learn Your Students Native Language

The next idea about culturally responsive environments is learning a few words in students’ primary languages. It doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it can mean a lot to a kid who is learning English when they walk in and see a word in their primary language. This can feel so welcoming. Just imagine if you moved to a new country where you didn’t speak the language and you saw a word in your primary language. Imagine how you would feel. It’s just so welcoming and validating to see something you know, and it makes you feel honored. We want to honor and validate our students for who they are and what they come with. This example on the slide is from teaching grade one. I have to give a shout out to this teacher; she gave me permission to share this picture. She’s on twitter and she shared how she created an affirmation station in English and in Spanish. She teaches both students who speak English and Spanish, and she wanted them to see the words in both languages.

My point is that no matter what languages your students speak, we’re validating what they come to us with. We’re capitalizing on their language repertoires and we’re just learning a few words to help them feel validated and honored. Primary language is important to our students’ identities. Making room for that is going to make a huge difference in how they learn academics and how welcome they feel in our classrooms. The more welcome they feel, the safer they’re going to feel, the more they’re going to trust us and the more they’re going to learn. This investment is going to be huge. We’re going to make sure that our students know that their primary language is an asset and we’re not just going to say your primary language is an asset, we’re going to quantify it by learning a few words and posting them on the wall: welcome, hello, thank you, whatever words we can. We’re going to share those words with our students and guess what? The rest of the class, maybe our students who speak English only can also learn a few words or they can see that language is valued here, that cultures are valued here, that people are valued here and that is a beautiful thing. We’re building love and empathy and we’re building a community, and who can say no to that? That’s what we want.

Setting Goals With Students

The next idea is that we’re going to communicate goals with students. We’re going to communicate what we want students to know and be able to do. We’re not just going to write it in our lesson plans. Students are going to know what their goals are. This is really important for our English learners. They are bombarded with so much information on a daily basis. They are hearing their classmates talk. They’re seeing the environmental print all over the walls. There’s just so much going on that when we communicate those goals to them, we’re narrowing the focus. I’ve always said that content and language objectives are like writing a grocery list. When I go to the grocery store and I have a list written out, I know exactly what I should get at the grocery store. I go in with a purpose and I even go in systematically and get what I need. At the end, before I get to the register, I check my list and I’m very metacognitive about what I do if I didn’t get what I needed.

The same thing happens with our students when we communicate the goals with them. They know what they need to get out of the lesson and they’re paying attention to get those things. At the end of the lesson, we review those goals and I teach them to be metacognitive. If you didn’t get it this time, what will you do? Will you ask for help? Will you re-read your notes? Will you talk about it with your parents? What are your choices, and what will you do? You’re part of this learning journey. You’re a part of this, so you have to know what your options are, what to do next. We have to communicate those content and language objectives and individualize our goal setting with our English learners. Make sure that our students know what they need to achieve and set those goals high. We don’t want to simplify the lesson for them. We want to amplify it. We want to make sure that they are getting grade level curriculum with support.

How Can We Amplify Student Learning?

I want to show you an excellent example of amplifying, not simplifying. Huge shout out to Carmen Nguyen, who did an amazing job of taking grade level curriculum here. This is the original text and adapting it. The other day, Larry Ferlazzo shared this, and he called it engineering the text. I love that because it is totally engineered. It’s not simplified. This is the same information. It’s engineered so that now our English learners are still learning the same content but it’s so scaffolded and accommodated that our students will be able to access the information.

Asset-based Approach

The next idea is that we’re going to embrace an asset-based mindset. We’re going to come from a place of understanding that our students and families are coming to us with great assets, not deficits. We’re not fixing something here. We’re not fixing anything. What we’re doing is adding to what they have. They have so much that they’re bringing to the table. We are not fixing them. We’re adding to their repertoire. With an asset-based mindset, we’re recognizing that these students are coming to us with first languages, with traditions from their home, things that their families do on a daily basis, their own cultures, and experiences that we need to learn about. They have their own beliefs. They have valuable background knowledge. We have to tap into it. These are things that we need to learn about so that we can capitalize and leverage this information in our academic classroom.

The key here is that our minds have to be flexible. If we’re going into remote learning or not, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter what our seating looks like, what our classrooms look like, where we’re teaching and learning from. The key is that our mind has to be flexible. We have to take a mindset that understands that not everyone has the same culture or perspective that we do. Our mind is the one that has to be flexible, because in essence, we all see the world through our own cultural lenses. Everyone does–our kids, our colleagues,our families. Those experiences shape the way we think and act. Your experiences shape the way you teach.

Our kids’ experiences shape and molds the way they act in our classrooms. The more lenses we see through, the better we can create culturally responsive classrooms. We need to look through more lenses, attend more events throughout our community so we see what our families see. Visit their communities, go to different restaurants, have experiences that we don’t normally have. The more lenses we have, the better we will be as educators of kids that are coming to us with varied culture and tradition.

One of my favorite educators, Cornelius Minor, talks a lot about cultural proficiency and culturally responsive teaching. He says that we have to invest time in this. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. We can’t buy culturally responsive teaching in a program or a box. There’s no easy way. There’s no shortcut. It just takes a lot of time and reflection and we’re always working at it. We have to examine what we’re doing on a daily basis, each of us, internally. No one’s perfect at it. We’re all growing and it’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. Culturally relevant teaching is a pedagogy. It’s not a strategy. All of the things I’ve shared with you come from mindset approaches that we take on a daily basis that help to empower students intellectually, socially, emotionally, by using cultural reference to help students increase their academics and linguistics.

Importance Of Reflection In Teaching

Take a moment to reflect on yourself. What are your expectations for student participation in the classroom? What do you think the teacher’s role is in education and in the classroom? We all see these answers through our own cultural lenses, and our students and families come to us with their own ideas of culture in the classroom as well. Here are a few more questions for you. Do you expect students to work independently or cooperatively, and how do you determine that? How do you feel about punctuality? Remember that your answers are based on your culture and the way that you were raised, how you went to school.

Our students may not have the same beliefs, so as we’re working with students and they’re late, or our families are late to a parent meeting, or our kids are not working cooperatively. Think about where they’re coming from and why they may not be doing what we think they should be doing. Culture plays a part and culturally responsive teaching is valuing and incorporating our students’ cultures into daily instruction. Not our culture, but our students’ cultures, into daily instruction. We’re helping to ensure that their voices and their experiences are embedded into daily instruction. In school, here are some practical ideas that we can keep in mind and many of these are in the book pathways to greatness by Michelle Yzquierdo. We’re going to ensure that diversity is recognized and is really embedded in meetings and planning time, so it’s discussed throughout; that activities and events honor all cultures and they’re not just towards one culture solely; that our cultures are represented around the schools and hallways; that books and materials are available in native languages; that we’re seeing maps and flags and symbols of our students’ home cultures displayed and used in the classroom; students’ holidays are discussed and celebrated; and multiculturalism and diversity is seen as an asset and incorporated in lessons. As the teacher, we are using cultural knowledge and experiences to make learning appropriate and effective and teach students to know and praise their own cultural heritage. So we’re really empowering kids as cultural beings and we’re making sure that they know how important this is.

Preparing For Back To School During Covid

As we go into the next school year and we may be faced with distance learning, we want to keep a pulse on how COVID-19 has affected our kids socially and emotionally, and the importance of keeping connected with our students and families. Sometimes you hear this as social distancing but really, it’s physical distancing. We don’t want to be socially distant. We have to be physically distant. We have to keep separated physically from each other, but we don’t want to be socially distant from each other. We can keep in touch using technology and stay social with our kids and our families. One of my absolute favorite researchers and writers, Dr. Brene Brown, says that we are all hardwired for connection and without it, there is suffering. This is true in normal circumstances, but if we’re in virtual learning settings, this is even more important. We have to stay connected with our kids and families. This is going to be so important for us in the fall if our families are learning virtually and we’re having to stay separated.

Distance learning means we’re going to have to keep empathy in mind, ensuring that our families have what they need physically and emotionally first and foremost, then we worry about the academics. Give them multiple entry points to instruction and meet them where they are. I know you’ve heard this many times, but less is more when it comes to distance learning. We can’t do as much when it’s virtual. We have to pick and choose what’s most important and keep safety at the forefront when it comes to technology and the devices our kids are using. Prioritize that curriculum because we’re not going to be able to fit it all in.

I’m going to share with you these ideas for distance learning at home. These are ways we can tap into our students’ cultures and ensure that language is growing. I’m not going through all of these ideas, but they’re ways that we can keep engaged with our families and ensure that their culture and traditions are embedded in our distance learning. I’m going to leave you with this quote: Diversity is the one true thing we all have in common. Celebrate it every day.

I want you to know that I’ve enjoyed this time with you immensely. If you’d like more information on culturally responsive teaching and the author of the book Pathways to Greatness, Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo has a wonderful full day training and some sessions as well, so you’ll have to check those out.

Thank you so much.