In second grade, I had a fabulous teacher named Mrs. Jones. She was young, a traveler, and always sought out different ways to connect with me. She had recently returned from a trip to Machu Picchu, Peru, and was excited to have a Peruvian student in her class. During a before school tutoring session, she proudly slipped me my morning assignment. It had llamas all over it, decorating the corners of the pages. The word problems were even about llamas. As a llama-loving eight-year-old, I was so excited to do math that connected to my heritage so splendidly. Mrs. Jones continued to motivate me to enjoy math sessions with her by finding cute llama stickers, and even buying me an adorable llama plush toy at the end of the year. (I actually still have it). I mean, who doesn’t love llamas?
Unfortunately, llama story problems and llama stickers did not help me gain access to the math material I was struggling with. It was cute, and a very well-intentioned effort to connect with me, for sure. But I didn’t get better at understanding the math.
There are lots of definitions out there for what makes a culturally responsive classroom, but plainly put, this is a classroom where we tailor instructional practices to suit the cultural learning needs of our students. Despite our best intentions, deciding on which culturally responsive strategies are best suited for our kids is not a cake walk. The word cultural can actually misguide us. I’ll admit, when I hear the word cultural, I think of tribal wear and drums. I think of Africa. For Mrs. Jones, she thought of llamas (and I’m guessing pan-flutes and chullo hats). It’s easy to address the things we see about culture, but what we need to address (so desperately) are the things about culture that are invisible.
Culturally responsive practices are about knowing your students deeply; not just their ethnicity, but also taking into account their generational culture and the culture of their home. There is plenty of research that supports the notion that African Americans and Latinos (as well as a number of other ethnicities) benefit from more oral tradition brought to the classroom: story-telling, rhyming, chanting, etc. And although this is helpful information, it can cause teachers to feel overwhelmed by the amount of differentiation they have to provide. Culturally responsive teaching is, most easily, about changing it up a little– providing lots of different ways to process and connect with new information.
Thankfully, technology can help us create a more culturally responsive classroom in no time. Below, you’ll find some strategies and apps that can help along the journey!
Use that camera phone! This works for making reminder posters, teaching routines, creating engaging stories for your students, and tons more! You can never have enough visuals in a culturally responsive classroom, no matter the grade level.
Talk, talk talk. Think-pair-share is great, but widen those options. Consider groups of 4 or 6.
Use reciprocal teaching.
All the Kagen cooperative learning strategies.
Interactive notebooks (where the teacher or other students write back to the original writer).
Student blogging and commenting.
Change seating frequently. If you go the tech route, there are tech programs out there available with a Google search (but watch out, they aren’t free!) Personally, I go sans-tech on this one.
Teach socialization and habits of conversation September through June. SEL practices are not only for little kids in the culturally responsive world. Post sentence frames for starting a conversation. Explicitly teach how to disagree. Model effective relationship building. It sounds obvious, but sometimes these things are so obvious, we forget to teach them! Providing social skill support every day in the classroom contributes to a very happy culturally responsive team.
Consistent and immediate feedback. It can be tough to make time for it, but there are ways of building it into your day. If you teach the littles, like I do, make sure you get creative with sticky notes, visuals, and color coding. If you teach the upper grades, a clear and direct sentence or two can make a huge difference. Feedback is communication, a conversation, and a relationship tool. No matter the age, feedback is always critical.
Refresh those GLAD strategies and use Google images for some quality non-fiction photographs to connect vocabulary development!
Explore books and films with diverse characters. Culturally relevant literature is definitely a growing market, but it takes a teacher to search for these titles explicitly. Pinterest offers great lists!
Live stream events. There is nothing more culturally responsive than to actually respond to the culture around you. Tie this in with discussion and reflection, and you’ve got yourself a great lesson! You can live stream anything from a presidential inauguration to the daily feeding of penguins.
Use apps for communication with parents, like Class Dojo, Remind, Bloomz. I’ve written about ClassDojo a hundred times because it has completely changed the way I manage my classroom. Whichever app you choose, choose one! With access to technology, there is NO REASON why we shouldn’t be communicating with our families on the daily. For my families who speak a language other than English, posting photos on this app has been a wonderful experience for them. This is the access window many families need to see what’s happening during their child’s day at school.
Use Google Forms to survey students and parents. Surprise! You need to respond to being culturally responsive! The more communication, the better. Here’s what to use Google Forms for, how to use it for family communication, and how to use it for professional growth.
Gamified yet? Games are used cross-culturally to teach and learn in turn. There are many ways to gamify using things you already have access to, like classroom management and vocabulary, but if you want more, try an app! Habitica.com can help with behavior and teaching student organization.
Storifying classroom life is also a big one. There is more and more research coming out about how critical the spoken word is to various cultures. I’m sure there are hundreds of apps out there for storytelling, but in kindergarten, we choose Storybird.com. It’s easy to navigate, has a friendly tablet interface, and can be used across content areas and academic levels. It’s a great opportunity for kids to express their identities in a non-threatening way, too!
Now it’s your turn! What are the strategies and apps you use in your classroom to become a more culturally competent teacher? In the digital age, we no longer have to say “I wish we could do that.” We have a luxury of thinking, “I bet there’s an app for that!”
My dog also has an Instagram, and it's better than anyone's. @mrdarcy_theiggy