Published January 26, 2022
School isn't just about learning core curricula like math, history, and science. It's a place where kids make friends, gain their independence and learn about themselves and who they are in the world. Unfortunately, this can be challenging for students from cultures and backgrounds traditionally excluded from mainstream school settings.
A proven and effective way to address this imbalance is integrating culturally responsive teaching into classrooms. Educators can help students be more confident in themselves, feel more accepted by their peers, and accept others for who they are—especially since classrooms and communities continue to grow increasingly diverse.
We reached out to educators and subject-matter experts to ask how they integrate culturally responsive teaching in their classrooms, what strategies they use, and how social-emotional learning (SEL) fits into the mix.
What is Culturally Responsive Teaching in the Classroom?
Definitions of culturally responsive teaching can vary depending on whom you ask. Still, the foundations of the practice ensure that educators are “conscious of every child in their classrooms: their stories, their backgrounds, and most importantly their cultures, including their languages,” says Fely García López, Educator Innovation Lead at Flipgrid and former educator. Students may identify as indigenous and native peoples, African American or Black, Latinx, Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), European, as part of a religious group, LGBTQIA+, or as people who learn differently than others.
Understood.org, a non-profit organization that supports people with learning challenges—which universally affect people—says,
“Culturally responsive teaching is a research-based approach to teaching. It connects students’ cultures, languages, and life experiences with what they learn in school. These connections help students access rigorous curriculum and develop higher-level academic skills.”
Examples of Culturally Responsive Teaching Activities
When a classroom is culturally responsive, educators and students are conscious of others’ backgrounds and stories, differences, and their similarities. A great way to start the school year as a group is to assign a simple research project where students explore the cultural histories around them, says Virginia Nguyen, a social studies teacher from Irvine Unified School District. “It could be their own family’s history, an interview with someone in their community, or from a curated list of inspirational people” from a variety of backgrounds.
It's also essential for educators to understand who students are on a one-to-one level at the top of a school year to help create a space where students feel safe and supported. Students can use Flipgrid to introduce themselves in private video messages by sharing their names with correct pronunciations, say what they'd like their teacher(s) to know about them, and "share things they might not want the whole class to know," says Karalee Wong Nakatsuka, a middle school US History Teacher for the Arcadia Unified School District.
“Students who feel connected, understood, valued, respected, and honored are more motivated to connect with their learning.”—Karalee Wong Nakatsuka
Some culturally responsive activities are creative twists on standard academic practices. Others are born of lived experiences. Sadly, instances of bullying, bigotry, hatred, racism, and even violence against particular communities happen daily, affecting students directly and indirectly. Responding to these events—whether they’re ongoing or specific instances—in a thoughtful, compassionate, and deliberate way can help everyone in a classroom better understand what's happening around them and how to come together in trying times.
After the tragic shootings in Atlanta, GA, in March of 2021 (when a gunman targeted Asian American women), Ms. Wong Nakatsuka decided to teach her students a "fuller story of AAPI history in America [which] is more than Chinese immigration through Angel Island on the West coast." Because "this [violence in GA] wasn't just a one-time experience," she began teaching the history of Asian-American discrimination in the US, shared her story as an AAPI person, and listened to those of her students. Since then, her classes have dedicated themselves to building community, having weekly community circles where they practice sharing and listening to one another, and learning that their opinions matter.
For a list of free classroom activities, check out this curated list of Flipgrid topics in our Discovery Library* created by Yaritza Villalba, Assistant Principal at the New York City Department of Education. Yaritza is also the host of our #AskYaritza series on YouTube, dedicated to helping educators understand and create culturally responsive classrooms.
*The Flipgrid Discovery Library is a collection of thousands of free educational activities created by our community of educators and prominent partners.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Strategies
Sometimes it's the simple things that can make the most impact. Ms. García Lopéz leans into the idea of 'relationships before curriculum.' "If we acknowledge our students' customs and values, they'll feel a sense of belonging and become active participants of our learning community. Encourage them to share their goals, dreams, and fears in any language. Bring in learning materials that aren't only relevant but also inclusive."
Michelle Lassiter, MA CCC/SLP, an expert in speech-language pathology at Understood.org adds, “There are several strategies for educators that encourage a culturally-inclusive learning environment to help all students thrive.” Take a look at some strategies she recommends:
- Meet students where they are. Find out what students know and are interested in to help link new content to prior knowledge.
- Understand the limitations of standardized assessments. Be sure to use dynamic assessment to gauge learning, as testing vocabulary can sometimes impact performance.
- Teach language skills across the curriculum. Use consistent language and messaging across the curriculum to allow students to practice new vocabulary in a variety of settings. When students attach prior knowledge to new vocabulary, they are more likely to understand it, access it when needed, and increase overall comprehension.
- Incorporate students’ native languages or dialects. Students’ native or familiar language skills are an important foundation for learning — especially for students who are learning English as a second language, or who are English-native speakers who speak dialects other than mainstream academic English at home.
- Remember that culture does not exist in a vacuum. Recognize your own culture and any subcultures in the layers of who you are. Doing this allows you to appreciate who you are, recognize your own biases, and understand how much you can grow by allowing others to bring their own learning opportunities, vocabularies, customs, and beliefs to the table.
Another strategy is to use classroom technology to engage students. Ms. Nguyen says, “I love using Flipgrid to hear students’ reflections.” After a lesson or activity that represents others’ cultures and perspectives, she prompts her students to create a video response in the Flipgrid app by saying, “Complete the following statement: I used to think , but now I think .”
The Dream Team: SEL and Culturally Responsive Teaching
Combining social-emotional learning (SEL) and culturally responsive teaching builds spaces and communities that support and celebrate students as unique individuals. Both SEL and culturally responsive teaching teach life skills, including empathy and understanding, which provide a sense of belonging and an equitable learning environment. Research shows that SEL and culturally responsive teaching benefit learners by improving behavior, significantly diminishing instances of bullying, and connecting academic concepts to students' everyday lives.
“A growing body of research shows that culturally responsive teaching practices can provide students with a range of social and cognitive benefits.”—Jenny Muñiz, newamerica.org
Help Students See Themselves in What They’re Taught
Creating a learning environment where each student can thrive is essential for every student in the classroom to succeed. When educators implement culturally responsive teaching practices, individuals not only learn their stories matter but that everyone's story does.
We want to give a big thanks to the Flipgrid experts and educators in our growing community. They took time out of their busy (and likely chaotic) schedules to help us better understand the importance of culturally responsive teaching and how Flipgrid can help support students' well-being.
Culturally Responsive Teaching Resources for Educators
There's always something more to learn about any practice, particularly in the ever-evolving world of education. An excellent place to start learning about culturally responsive teaching is to seek out writings by educators of color, including Liz Kleinrock, Cornelius Minor, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. Yaritza Villalba recommends the book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond. For more resources, take a look at this list provided by the experts who contributed to this article.
- ASCD interview with Zaretta Hammond on Equity and Student Engagement
- EducationWeek Video—What Culturally Responsive Teaching Looks Like: A Native Educator Explains
- CASEL—The Fundamentals of SEL: What Does the Research Say?
- Understood.org—Universal Design for Learning (UDL): A teacher’s guide
- “Let’s 12K Better” Podcast—“Historical Empathy, Making it Real for Kids”
- Free Professional Development Course—Anti-racism journey for educators with students, (Hosted by our parent company’s Microsoft Learn Center)