I have many goals as a teacher, goals that at times compete with one another. I want to be caring but not paternalistic. I want to be fair without stultifying. I want to inquire and also know when to guide.
When I worked as an instructional coach, the teachers often wanted to talk about rubrics and lesson design and “how do I get this kid get motivated?” I wanted to talk about language.
Our language with students matters. It’s what matters most because a) it’s what we use every single day and b) it reveals how we see teaching, learning, and our students.
My interest in language–in how I talk to kids– started in graduate school with How to Talk So Kids Can Learn. It evolved over time through discussion with the Center of Educational Leadership’s Joanna Michelson; reading Peter Johnston’s Choice Words; adapting accountable talk to my classrooms; and in constant reflection around my personal identity.
Recently I had a student-teacher have a moment in her lesson go awry. She told the students, “Come on. This isn’t that hard you guys.” Something, for a moment, shifted in their relationship to her. She felt it. I felt it. They felt it.
But what was it?
Culturally Responsive Teaching
In Choice Words, Peter Johnston claims that “language creates realities and invites identities.” Furthermore, “language works to position people in relation to one another.”
In the case of my student-teacher, her language positioned them as, “you should already know how to do this.” Perhaps they should have, but her language created an immediate schism. The language established a reality of “I believe you guys struggle with things that are easy.” While it was later remedied, I would argue it was culturally unresponsive.
According to Zaretta Hammond, a culturally responsive teacher:
–Keeps in mind the social-emotional impact of living in a racialized society.
–Recognizes students’ use of cultural capital and tools.
–Responds “positively” (non-verbally and verbally)
–Facilitates learning by building on cultural tool.
Johnston and Hammond are making big asks, and careful use of language does the work. Below I’ve used Johnston’s categories to highlight examples of what–to me–culturally responsive teaching sounds like.
Naming and Noticing
A culturally responsive teacher “names and notices” the cultural tools, the power of thinking and grappling together, and affirms identity by stating as fact the natural gifts and talents of students. S/he assumes the student has ideas, information, and experiences worth sharing.
|Did anyone notice…?|
|I see you know how to…|
|Remember when we had to work at… Now you do it automatically.|
|What kind of text is this?|
|You know what I heard you doing just now?|
|I want you to tell me how it [group discussion, etc.] went… What went well? What kinds of questions were raised?|
|What are you noticing?… Any other patterns or things that surprise you?|
A culturally responsive teacher seeks to understand and respond to how a student sees her/himself in the world. A culturally responsive teacher seeks to understand a student’s culture race, gender, class, sexual identity, and language, as well as their situatedness and their identity with peers and within the school. Furthermore, a culturally responsive teacher seeks to understand those things about themselves as well. A culturally responsive teacher thinks about, “How might this student experience me, given my identity? How can I build rapport and cultural ‘sync’ with this student?”
|What a talented poet you are.|
|That’s not like you.|
|I wonder if, as a writer, you’re ready for this.|
|I bet you’re proud of yourself.|
|What are you doing as a writer today?|
|What have you learned most recently as a reader/writer?|
|What questions do you have?|
|Who or what inspired this?|
A culturally responsive teacher empowers students to learn. They seek to foster an environment where the student develops belief in their own learning and capacity, believes that efforts lead to increased ability and that success is possible, and that the work has value. A culturally responsive teacher grapples with, “What mindset do I have about this student’s ability to reach success?”
|How did you figure that out?|
|What problems did you come across today?|
|How are you planning to go about this?|
|Where are you going with this piece?|
|Which part are you sure about? Which part are you not sure about?|
|You really have me interested in this character in your writing because of the things he says , and if you show how he says them and what he looks like, I will get an even stronger sense of him.|
|I can see you made a choice here.|
|Let’s see if I’ve got this right… (then summarizes students’ extended comments.)|
|Thanks for straightening me out.|
|That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ll have to think about it some more.|
A culturally responsive teacher must look in and look out. Looking IN, he asks himself, “How do I know x about the student? What might I not know yet?” Looking OUT, he must ask, “What do I understand about what this student does know and can know? What don’t they yet know or can’t yet do?” Teacher language can help make known assets, skill gaps, misconceptions, and progress.
|One of the things people do when they start a story is think of what they know. Mathematicians do this too… Let’s try it.|
|How did you know…?|
|How could we check…?|
|You managed to figure that out with each other’s help. How did you do that?|
|What steps brought you here…?|
Creating a democratic classroom and grappling together
A culturally responsive teacher is helpful in facilitating learning by building on cultural tools. They build learning partnerships to reduce stress and build trust in the service of having permission to push students toward deeper learning.
|Who else would like that book?|
|How do you think she feels about that?|
|What did you notice about our group dynamics?|
|Are there any other ways to think about that? Any other opinions?|
|What you said, that just gave me a memory. Thank you. I’ll write it down.|
|Who in this room do you think could help you… ?|
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