Why culturally responsive teaching matters now more than ever

Why culturally responsive teaching matters now more than ever

The Layers of Culture

Culturally responsive teaching (CRT)–also called culturally relevant teaching–is not a new method of teaching. Gloria Ladson-Billings first introduced the term “culturally relevant pedagogy” in the 1990s. But despite its 30-year history and its recent increase in popularity, it remains frequently misunderstood. At its core, CRT is a research-based teaching method that acknowledges the central role of culture in learning. 

Culture has layers. Think of it like an iceberg. On the surface, there are the most visible aspects of culture; clothing, food, and holidays are all examples. They may be what we think of first when we hear the word “culture,” but they represent just a tiny sliver. Deeper down, there are norms, values, and assumptions that guide behavior. What are the different roles in your family? How do you relate to your elders? Your peers? How do you approach education? How do you express your gender? How do you form friendships? All of this is part of your culture and part of your students’ diverse cultures, too. 

What Culturally Responsive Teaching Is–and What It Isn’t

CRT practitioners connect learning to their students’ diverse cultural knowledge. This includes their experiences, background, frames of reference, performance style, linguistic style, and more. Doing so helps make learning more relevant and meaningful. After all, our brains are hardwired to make connections, and studies have shown that it is easier to process new information when it is linked to what we already know and understand. 

But CRT is not using diverse names in the curriculum or celebrating a world cultures day (although these are important, too). Such examples speak only to the surface layers of culture. And sometimes attempts to connect with students at only that level can run the risk of making students feel pandered to and disconnected from their learning, which is the exact opposite of what CRT aims to achieve.

In an interview with EdWeek, educator and author Zaretta Hammond put the distinction this way:

“Teachers rapping their content isn’t culturally responsive. That’s just a reason for kids to break out their cellphones and giggle. Doing call and response at the beginning of a lesson to get kids excited isn’t culturally responsive teaching. Culturally responsive teaching is when the teacher grounds the lesson in community issues that is relevant and meaningful to students’ daily life as a vehicle for teaching content. Or when, the teacher uses students’ natural cultural learning tools like talk and word play to help them process new content.” 

In other words, culturally responsive teaching is engaging learners by tapping into the deep layers of culture. This helps all students learn, but is especially important for students whose cultures or identities have long been excluded from the mainstream classroom setting.

Now More than Ever

Students will be returning for the 2021-2022 school year after a period of unprecedented change. For many, this has included disruptions to learning, missed milestones, loss of normalcy, health concerns, and the deaths of friends and loved ones. What is being called “learning loss” is demanding innovative new approaches to teaching and learning. And it has not affected all students equally either; black and brown students are at a higher risk to suffer the long-lasting effects of so-called “learning loss.” These students are also poised to benefit most from culturally responsive teaching practices.

Relationships and trust–core components of a culturally responsive classroom–have also never been more critical. As we aim to get students back in a place where they feel safe enough for the vulnerability of learning, CRT will be an invaluable tool to make students feel respected, connected, and safe with their teachers and peers.

Much has been written about the importance of social and emotional learning (SEL) in the wake of COVID-related disruptions to learning. CRT helps teachers get to know students and helps students get to know themselves and one another. In that way, it can amplify the impact of an effective SEL program. Together, SEL and CRT can help create a learning environment where students recover “lost” learning and make tremendous gains academically and personally. 

How Flocabulary Can Help 

Flocabulary was created with the principles of CRT front of mind. Below are three tips for how to use Flocabulary as part of your culturally responsive classroom. 

  1. Honor the origins of hip-hop. Hip-hop music is not only rich in vocabulary but it is also frequently described as global youth culture due to its continued popularity with young people around the world. As you use Flocab videos, it’s important to acknowledge the origin of the genre. Hip-hop was born in the South Bronx in the 1970s, when poor black and brown youth began experimenting with vinyl records and rapping over beats. Have your students honor hip-hop’s roots by exploring the circumstances that birthed it and the early founders of hip-hop. Don’t fall into stereotypes about rap and help your students avoid these too. Instead, appreciate all the depths of the artform. You can analyze lyrics that speak to you and your students and discover the craft and poetry behind the verses. Use our Hip-Hop Fundamentals lesson to get started. 
  1. Elevate student voice with Lyric Lab. Every lesson on Flocabulary is accompanied by Lyric Lab, a feature where students can write their own academic raps. Lyric Lab has built-in scaffolds, including vocab words and rhyme banks, and students are guided through a four-step process to help them get started. Lyric Lab is also a rigorous writing task–it isn’t easy to write a rap! As students show their mastery of a topic and develop their rhyme-writing skills, they will also be engaging creatively in a form of self-expression. Invite them to share their raps with one another in a celebratory performance of what they’ve created. 
  1. Facilitate conversations about Racial and Social Justice. Our Racial & Social Justice topic page contains lessons that can foster critical conversations in the classroom for students at all ages. As you watch the videos, invite students to share their background knowledge, connect with the topics, and empathize with the stories. Turn on “Discuss Mode” for built-in questions that can help generate conversations. For more ideas on how to use these lessons in a culturally responsive way, check out our Racial Justice Resource Guide.  

The CRT Journey As you work to build a culturally responsive classroom, remember it is a journey, and you are a learner, too. You don’t have to be an expert in all cultural groups and identities; that’s because your students are experts in their own cultures and identities and they can teach you and learn from one another. There are lots of resources out there. We recommend Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain.  We encourage you to join the Flocabulary Educator Group on Facebook or an upcoming #NearpodChat (each Wednesday at 8pm ET) to engage with peers on these important topics.

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