How to Build a Culturally Responsive Classroom

Tanya draws on her teaching experience in order to share strategies for how to become a more culturally responsive teacher. She provides specific steps you can take to embrace all cultures of students and build a sense of belonging in your classroom for all learners.

Updated on: February 4, 2019

steps to becoming a culturally responsive teacher

I remember it like it was yesterday.

As I set up my Black History Month bulletin board, one of my precious students walked by and asked:

"Is this just for Black people?"

I could see the look in his eyes. A look of fear mixed with a lot of curiosity and a little sadness. His simple question brought tears to my eyes.

My response: Of course not. This is a celebration for all people.

This incident heightened my awareness of the importance to include all cultures in my class, but it goes beyond just mentioning other cultures.

Culturally responsive teaching is about embracing all cultures of students and building a sense of belonging in my classroom for all learners.

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Culturally responsive teaching goes beyond just racial ethnicity. It is a set of intentional teaching methods, lesson plans, activities, and attitudes that include students from diverse backgrounds equally.

Helping students to connect learning to their own backgrounds continues to be one of the top ways to engage all learners.

So how can teachers build a more culturally responsive classroom? The tips below feature strategies for becoming a more culturally responsive teacher.

"Culturally responsive teaching is about embracing all cultures of students and building a sense of belonging in my classroom for all learners."

Showcase Learning Materials that Promote Diversity

The first way for teachers to build more culturally responsive classrooms is to showcase diversity through all aspects of the learning.

Promoting diversity through the learning materials in your classroom shows that you are aware of who is in your room. This makes students feel important and included.

Take a tour of your classroom. Notice the following:

  • Library Books - are all of the characters the same race, culture or gender? Do you feature a diverse selection of cultures in your classroom library?
  • Bulletin Boards - do these reflect your students' work and cultural significance?
  • Posters & Other Pictures - are these a reflection of the diversity in our world today?

Students are visual learners. They notice even the clipart on worksheets that we give them!

One way to build a more culturally responsive classroom is to have learning materials and even class décor that reflect a multicultural presence.

Hightlight Holidays and Special Events That Appeal to All Learners

The second way teachers can build a culturally responsive classroom is to highlight holidays and special events consistently. Whether nationally recognized or not, holidays and special events offer great opportunities to infuse cultural significance in the classroom. These special events do not have to subtract from your objectives and learning standards. In fact, include your standards with the cultural celebration.

For example, I love small group rotations and literacy centers in my classroom. Each month, I feature at least one learning center that promotes traditions and holidays of different cultures.

For these centers, students are still completing activities that are aligned with our learning standards. However, they are also gaining information about different cultures.

There are so many ways to highlight holidays and special events in the classroom!

The goal is to find ways to include students’ culture in all aspects of learning.

Make Cultural Education Mandatory, Yet Fun

If cultural responsiveness is treated as an option, it will become easy to dismiss. It is key to be intentional about multicultural education.

Make it a non-negotiable for your teaching

Yet, multicultural learning should not be treated as a chore or obligation. A teacher’s attitude towards cross-cultural teaching is a key way to build positive cultural responsiveness.

Our attitudes impact emotions, and emotions can influence student motivation.

Promoting all aspects of a child’s culture should be a fun and uplifting experience, which creates a safe learning environment.

Here are a few ways to make cultural education fun:

  • Field trips that engage with cultural learning outside of the classroom.
  • Accodomations and modifications that build equity.
  • Bringing in diverse guest speakers.
  • Inviting parent collaboration with classroom events and holidays.

Make your students’ experiences of diverse cultural activities in the classroom consistent and fun.

Include Student Perspectives & Values in the Learning Experience

When students feel a sense of connection and belonging, they tend to be more involved in their own learning.

One key way to help students feel connected is to include their perspectives and values in the learning experience. This step to being more culturally responsive is simple yet yields powerful results in the classroom.

Ask students for book and music recommendations. Then be sure to include those ideas somehow in the classroom if they are appropriate for the lesson or activity.

Learn to accurately pronounce all students’ names. Look for worksheets that allow editing to include names that reflect various cultures.

During parent night or open house, find ways to gather information about any cultural sensitivities of students that will be important to note throughout the school year.

Bonus Tip & Disclaimer about Student Inclusion

As you seek to include student perspectives and values in the classroom, be careful not to put students on the spot in uncomfortable ways.

One thing to avoid is asking a student (in the middle of a class discussion or lesson) to speak on behalf of their entire race or ethnic group.

Ex: "So, Hernando, how do your people feel about this issue?"

This assumes that every single person of a cultural group is exactly the same. Not only is this offensive but it’s counterproductive to learning. Furthermore, it may cause students to feel isolated based on their race or culture.

Including student perspectives and values in the learning process can build community and make the classroom a safe place to learn.

"One key way to help students feel connected is to include their perspectives and values in the learning experience. This step to being more culturally responsive is simple yet yields powerful results in the classroom."

Avoid Making Judgements & Cultural Comparisons

Teachers can build a more culturally responsive classroom is to eliminate making cultural comparisons. It is dangerous to highlight one culture as being better than another. Classifying certain traditions as right or wrong, better or worse, can provoke anger and hurt. It is also important for teachers to be aware of their own cultural identity and how it impacts others.

Must-Have Resources & Tips on Culturally Responsive Teaching

Building a culturally responsive classroom can cause amazing growth in student learning.

It can also lead to more positive student behavior and classroom community.

Here are additional resources to continue growing as a culturally competent teacher.

How do you build a culturally responsive classroom? Share with us on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest.

Author Bio:

Tanya G. Marshall is a busy mama to a bouncy and bright little boy named Caleb. She is also a teacher, blogger for The Butterfly Teacher, and curriculum designer for her Teachers Pay Teachers store. When she isn’t doing these things, she is somewhere eating good food, reading a good book, or having a good time with family and friends! Her favorite phrase comes from Pete the Cat: “It’s all good!” Be sure to connect with her on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram.

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