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Utilize Culturally Responsive Teaching

Working hand-in-hand with differentiated instruction

By Welda Simousek

What do you do, as a teacher, when you have students in your classroom from many different cultures, and most of them are from a culture and background different from your own? After all, statistics show that most teachers are predominantly white and middle class (according to a study by the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, more than 80 percent of the bachelor's degrees in education awarded during the 2009-10 school year were to white students) while their students are not. The first thing that comes to mind is that you utilize culturally responsive teaching (or CRT for short). “But, I already differentiate,” you say. “Isn’t that the same thing?” Well, in many respects, the two go hand-in-hand.

Culturally responsive teaching (or CRT) is about recognizing students’ cultural displays of learning and meaning-making and responding with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge to connect what the student already knows to new concepts and content. Differentiated Instruction (or DI) is about differentiating the content, the process, the product, and the learning environment through students’ readiness, interest, or learning profile.

Let’s shift the conversation to looking at CRT through the lens of DI. The content can be differentiated to incorporate information from different cultures by something as simple as using stories or readings from different cultures about the same event or concept. For example, if you are teaching about World War II, you might have the students read the traditional textbook account, an account about the Navajo Code Talkers, an account about African-American troops and officers, an account about Japanese internment camps, an account about the German-American Bunds, and an account about Mexican American participation. You could allow students to pick their own account about the war and then have group conversations where students share information from their accounts. In fact, they could use the differentiated “process” of a jigsaw for their conversations.

The process can be differentiated through a cultural lens by varying the techniques you use along various continuums such as:

  • Individualistic…………..Collectivist
  • Competitive……………..Collaborative
  • Observant………………..Trying out or testing ideas
  • On-demand response……………….Reflective response

For example, you could give students a “tic-tac-toe” or “think-tac-toe” board where they pick three adjacent activities that are varied by the above continuums. So, one choice might be to do research on the various cultures’ participation and life influences during World War II; another choice might be to work with a small group on putting together a skit about three different cultures’ perspectives of the war on their lives.

I think you can imagine some different choices for the product area. Students can choose to develop a product demonstrating their knowledge in a mode that also has something to do with their culture.

The learning environment is the key piece in this comparison of CRT and DI. It is crucial that the learning environment creates a feeling of belonging and safety for all learners. That means that each learner feels that her/his culture and background is reflected and accepted there. Some of the things that can be done to make sure the learning environment supports both CRT and DI are:

  • Individual differences are accepted as natural and positive.
  • Each student feels that the teacher respects and supports their possibilities.
  • A range of resources are available.
  • Flexible student grouping is used to accommodate times for individual, pair, and small group work.
  • Students learn to respect and support one another as learners.

students in learning environment

The content, process, product, and learning environment can all be varied through the students’ readiness, interest, and learning profile.

Differentiating through students’ interest gives many opportunities to respond to and include the study of various cultures represented by the students in a particular classroom. First, you need to set up the parameters for the particular unit of study, including the major concepts to be studied. Then, as students are exposed to the various concepts under study, they can pick a “sidebar” investigation that fits with their interests and/or cultures. Carol Ann Tomlinson, an expert in differentiation, suggests that these sidebar investigations should go on throughout the unit, sometimes as class time work, sometimes as homework, and sometimes as work they could do when they have finished their daily work. Other avenues to have students explore their interests and/or cultures would be to develop interest centers or interest groups or “specialty teams” that look at a particular aspect of what they’re learning (and then share their knowledge from their group work with the whole class.)

Finally, CRT and DI can work hand-in-hand through the variance of student learning profiles. This area is so crucial because of the different styles and cultures that teachers have from their students. As was mentioned earlier, it is the norm for teachers to be of a different cultural background than their students. This makes it imperative to create experiences in the classroom that allow for a wide variety of learning profiles (many of which will be different from your learning profile as a teacher).

For example, according to Carol Ann Tomlinson, you can vary the group orientation, the cognitive style, the learning environment, and the intelligence preference. This means you can respond to the various continuums mentioned under the process area above:

  • GROUP ORIENTATION:
    • Independent
    • Group
    • Adult
    • Combination
  • COGNITIVE STYLE:
    • Creative or conforming
    • Big picture (whole)
    • Parts or details/facts
    • Outspoken or reflective
    • Linear/nonlinear
    • Group achievement/personal achievement
    • Auditory, visual, or kinesthetic
    • People-oriented or task-oriented
    • Etc.
  • LEARNING ENVIRONMENT:
    • Quiet or noisy
    • Busy/cluttered or lean on objects/displays
    • Still or mobile
    • Etc.
  • INTELLIGENCE PREFERENCE:
    • Could be one of the many intelligences mentioned by Howard Gardner (from verbal/linguistic to interpersonal, intrapersonal, etc.)
    • Could be one of the three orientations mentioned by Robert Sternberg (analytical, creative, or practical)

These preferences are also affected by culture and gender. So, there are so many choices that you as a teacher have to just center on a few to begin with and work outwards from there. You might begin by presenting your information to your students through auditory, visual, and kinesthetic means. You might even use something like a “Menu for Success” which allows students four different ways to explore a particular concept and allows for students to choose whether they work more effectively alone or with a peer.

Therefore, go ahead and differentiate for your students, but differentiate with cultural responsiveness in mind. In that way, you will meet the needs of most of your students, and engage all of them in learning. Most of all, be sure you teach in a variety of ways, and not just in the way you learn best.

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Further Reading
  1. ASCD - A Framework for Culturally Responsive Teaching
  2. Memphis Daily News  - Local Teachers Receive Training in ‘Culturally Responsive’ Teaching
  3. Washington PostTeacher: A one-size-fits-all approach to instruction is stifling our classrooms
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