What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

We recognize:

  • Our classrooms today include diverse learners and learning needs
  • There are many initiatives and areas of focus competing for limited classroom time and educators’ attention
  • Some learners need additional supports
  • But with the right tools and support, we at LEE & LOW BOOKS believe all teachers can learn and excel in culturally responsive teaching

But…what is culturally responsive teaching?

Culturally Responsive TeachingWe hear this a lot: What can educators do and what are they already doing?

Culturally responsive teaching means reaching all of our students academically, emotionally, and socially—their full selves. When we validate who our students are and where they come from (in terms of their community and personal perspectives), we are creating a space where students feel safe and welcome to learn. In the classroom, we work to build student engagement and motivation while at the same time to create purposeful, authentic learning opportunities for our students.

One place to start is with Gloria Ladson-Billings:

Culturally relevant pedagogy is premised on three things. One, a laser-like focus on student learning. Two, an attempt to develop in all students cultural competence. What I mean by that is you help kids understand assets that are part of their own culture, while simultaneously helping them become fluent in at least one more culture. So it would mean youngsters of color have to learn the mainstream culture, but at the same moment youngsters in the mainstream need to learn some other cultures. Youngsters of color also need to value the culture they have. And the third piece is what I call socio-political consciousness. Kids say, “Why do we have to learn this?” And what I’m saying is a culturally relevant teacher has thought about this and has answers for why a subject or topic is important.

Gloria Ladson-Billings from “Q & A with Gloria Ladson-Billings, Curriculum & Instruction,” Learning Connections, School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Here at LEE & LOW BOOKS, we know that culturally responsive teaching does not start or end with book selection. Books are one tool in the toolbox to help us make our students’ education journeys responsive and relevant.

What is in this toolbox?

Here are a few strategies that we have seen that educators are employing to better serve students to meet career and college-readiness standards and create high-quality, inclusive, and equitable learning opportunities within their classrooms.

Culturally responsive teaching involves a full range of strategies, such as:

  • Building and sharing a classroom library reflective of your students and the world around them. You can start with examining what is in your library using the classroom library assessment and Teaching Tolerance’s Reading Diversity tool. Or better yet, equip your students to recognize the need for diversity and multiculturalism in their libraries.
  • Fostering meaningful relationships with your students’ families and caregivers. This involves home visits, phone calls/texts, and email check-ins/updates.
  • Creating purposeful, consequential space in the classroom for parents and caregivers to participate and lead in their children’s learning, such as parent-volunteers leading read alouds and community-relevant science or social studies projects.
  • Recognizing our students’ home languages as an asset to their learning and critical thinking development. Offer books in the classroom library in students’ home languages, participate in a bilingual co-read aloud with a caregiver reading in the students’ home language, learn to speak your students’ languages, and seek out and push for your school to provide translators for family events and major school communication.
  • Selecting core texts/text exemplars for each unit in your scope & sequence that captures more of your students’ lives and is better reflective of our students’ experiences and the greater world beyond their neighborhood. Does your school have a required curriculum? Supplement and complement the required books with more relevant text sets.
  • Incorporating music, video, current events, and other media highlighting our students, their communities, and their interests.
  • Inspiring our students with role models who share their backgrounds and their communities.
  • Opening space in the school day and year to listen fully to what our students are telling us that matters to them.
  • Learning the history of the community you are working in and its relationship to the school system, especially if you don’t live there. Get out and walk your students’ community: Where do your students hang out, where will they spend their summer in the neighborhood, who in the community is an influence or mentor?
  • Involving all the gatekeepers in our students’ lives: their coaches, pastors, guidance counselors, paras, nurses, librarians, past teachers who students connected to, and older and younger siblings.
  • Taking advantage of English Language Arts as an ideal time for culturally responsive teaching and resources.

When you look at this (partial!) list, do you recognize successful strategies you are already doing? Are there two others here that will make your students feel safe to share their personal connections and backgrounds?

Remember: No one strategy is going to engage all students and help students relate to the lesson or content to their backgrounds. However, a variety of strategies in your toolbox will enable you to bring your students’ full (or fuller) selves into their educations.

What now?
  1. Reflect on all that you have learned about your students—their cultures, neighborhood, values, skills, experiences, concerns, interests, language(s), and so on. What connections can you highlight for them in the curriculum and learning materials? What are the strengths of your students?
  2. Use what is out there and make it your own. Don’t feel like you need to create new ways to engage and motivate your students from scratch. For further reading on culturally responsive teaching, I recommend:
Get Help

Want to take the first step toward a culturally responsive classroom? Get in touch with us for a free customized book order tailored to your needs. Contact Veronica Schneider at vschneider[at]leeandlow[dot]com to get started!

7 thoughts on “What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?”

  1. American elementary and middle school children, at least those who do not attend upper class leftist private schools in Manhattan and Santa Monica that can cherry pick their students and exclude anyone who might potentially be a problem, can hardly read and write write. NAEP testing shows that most of them are non-proficient. It is a nice ideal for them to all be multiculturally fluent, but that fluency needs to take a back seat to doing mathematics at their grade levels and reading and writing with competence. Tell the truth. Outside of those rich private schools, it’s not SOME students who need additional supports and scaffolding, it is the MAJORITY of public school students, of whom between 50% and 75% are below NAEP “proficient” levels in reading in 4th grade, with “proficient” not all that great to begin with, as any public school teacher will tell you.


    Let’s set some priorities here. Leave the cultural proficiencies and what is eumphemistically called “socio-political consciousness” but which is actually social justice warrioring, to private schools, parents, and faith or other communities, and let’s use schools to do what schools should do as job one: Teach reading, mathematics, and writing.

    1. I think, perhaps, you are misunderstanding what “culturally responsive” means. Culturally responsive teaching practices is not another kind of fluency we require staff to be utilizing. We embed it in what we are already teaching, like reading, writing, and math. It is not something that is taught on the side. Perhaps your district is not effectively training staff on the practice. My school district is in the Midwest (about an hour outside of the Twin Cities), and we’ve spent the past 15 years focused on this practice. If anything, I would argue we’ve made more progress with students, families, and staff because of this. When students are engaged, learning increases in the classroom, and this leads to the achievement gap closing. I’m proud to say my school district “exceeds expectations” on our report card.

      Also, I hated reading until I was in 5th grade because 5th grade was when one of my teachers read a book to the class with a main character from my ethnic background. 5th grade was when I realized I, too, could exist in literature. I read more books in 5th grade than I ever did all the years before it combined. Engagement is so very important. Learning happens when students are engaged, and for engagement to happen, students absolutely need to see themselves represented in the classroom. That’s where culturally responsive teaching practices plays a key role.

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