Culturally Responsive Teaching: Let’s Go Beyond the Surface

Culturally Responsive Teaching and culturally relevant pedagogy are terms that are used

quite often in schools and by buzzing speakers, facilitators, and trainers. However, if you were to talk to most teachers about what culturally responsive teaching is or what it means to have a culturally relevant pedagogical stance, I’m not sure how they would respond. In this piece, I urge readers to reflect on what these terms mean beyond scratching the surface.


Recently, Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the most widely respected researchers in

teacher-education reflected on her foundational work on culturally relevant pedagogy and more specifically on how her work has been misused over the years. Her original study in 1994 followed eight successful teachers of African-American students [both white and black] that were connected to their students, families, and the lives of those interconnected communities. The three central domains that emerged in her pivotal study following the work of these teachers were evidence of cultural competence, academic rigor, and sociopolitical consciousness. All three were significant and interwoven(1). What Dr. Ladson-Billings noted in her 2014 reflection was a sadness around the failure of teachers to push students to consider critical perspectives or to be change agents in ways that directly impact their lives and the lives of their communities(2).


Dr. Geneva Gay, another well-recognized researcher and teacher-educator, defines

culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences, and

perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them effectively” (Gay, 2002, p.106). Being a culturally responsive teacher is also rooted in building a learning community with high-expectations (Gay & Kipchoge Kirkland, 2003, Lucas & Villegas & Lucas, 2007).


Culturally responsive teachers see themselves as an extension of their students’ familial

community and work to establish ongoing and effective communication. They understand that culturally responsive teaching obligates them to value social justice, freedom, and equality(3). This social justice action-orientation is rooted in agency; both the teacher and the student are working together towards action after deeply examining their own social positions, experiences, and perspectives.


You might ask, who actually does this kind of work and what does it look like?

Furthermore, what does it look like in 21st-century learning environments? One model of a

program intersecting culturally responsive teaching and tech integration is COMPUGIRLS. 4 This program encouraged African-American and Latina girls to use multimedia, computational thinking and analytical skills to create projects that drew attention to important issues in their community while helping them develop positive self-concepts and reimagine their success in the field of technology. All the girls in the program also wrote reflections and engaged in critical dialogue to make sense of the challenges they faced while reflecting on their growth in meeting rigorous goals and objectives.


I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine whose daughter is in fifth grade

and is studying how climate change impacts penguins. She and her classmates hold virtual

conversations They ask each other about how the small things they do on the southside of

Chicago can have a great impact on the environment, global warming, and making our world safer for animals. I bring up this example because a ten-year-old can have age-appropriate, relevant, engaging, yet academically rigorous conversations about social impact. And, if teachers can design this type of instruction around how what we do impacts penguins, we can surely do the same when we design instruction in a culturally responsive classroom. We can expose students to asset-based and affirming historically accurate content about culturally diverse populations; we can examine environmental and social systems that contribute to inequitable situations as problems while offering solutions. And, we can connect traditional content to our students' lived experiences and those of those communities they live in.


Culturally responsive teaching is not collaborative group work. Culturally responsive

teaching is not watching a diverse movie, playing a rap song, or even eating soul food. There is not one-size-fits-all culturally responsive teaching, and there are several entry points. However, having conversations alone without critical components are merely scratching the surface. Being a culturally responsive teacher is high-level instruction and cultural bridge-making, it’s heart work, but it can be done. You don’t have to skim the surface. If you invest the time to find out what it is and seek out the resources, you’d be surprised at the possibilities.



Author: Elissa Joy

Twitter: @fraziersvision