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Creating Inclusive, Relationship-Based Classrooms

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Modeling and teaching cultural responsiveness is an essential ingredient in creating an inclusive, relationship-based classroom in which all students thrive. With every student demographic, this approach develops critical skills and awareness that relate directly to learning outcomes and students’ capacity for success in a global culture and workplace.

Geneva Gay (2000), in her book Culturally Responsive Teaching, states that culturally responsive teaching has the following characteristics:

  • It acknowledges the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups, both as legacies that affect students’ dispositions, attitudes, and approaches to learning and as worthy content to be taught in the formal curriculum.
  • It builds bridges of meaning between home and school experiences, as well as between academic abstractions and lived sociocultural realities.
  • It uses a wide variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles.
  • It teaches students to know and praise their own and each other’s cul­tural heritages.
  • It incorporates multicultural information, resources, and materials in all the subjects and skills routinely taught in schools.(p.29)

Developing our own capacity for cultural responsiveness gives us the foundation to cul­tivate this with our students. Taking a deep look at our own worldviews and beliefs and biases allows us to see when we might be hindering the sense of inclusivity in our class­room. What did we learn from our families and communities about other cultures? What messages do society and the media give us about race, class, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation? Which of those messages do we believe, and how does that affect our behavior? What aspects of difference scare us or trigger us, and why? Self-inquiry can be an important first step, as it raises our awareness about ourselves and about our own per­spectives and worldview. The next steps along this path call us to have the courage and discipline to act on this awareness—to speak up, take risks, and reach out even when we are uncomfortable.

A classroom community will grow stronger as teachers expect and support students to move beyond assumptions and stereotypes. In this process, we are not striving for “sameness,” but for an environment that acknowledges difference, welcomes diverse expe­riences and perspectives, and acknowledges our common humanity. There is no magic for­mula for working with the complex issues of difference, but educators can take an inten­tional and proactive approach to create a community that feels safe and values diversity of backgrounds, perspectives, and experiences.

The following activities can support us in building cultural responsiveness in our own practice and with our students.

  • Learn more about your own history, heritage, community, family, culture, and traditions, and share this information with your students.
  • List some characteristics of your culture. Consider your communication style and other cultural norms. Notice how this impacts your teaching approach, and consciously bring in other approaches.
  • Pay attention to the following in your classroom and school: Who is silent, and who participates? Who tends to be reprimanded or disciplined most frequently? What kinds of teacher-student interactions occur? What about student to student? Do you notice any pattern? Over time, see if these correspond with cultural differences.
  • Examine disparate discipline data and tracking patterns in schools and see what you discover.Discuss these findings as a faculty.
  • Integrate discussions of culture into your classroom. Invite students to share about their own cultural traditions. Use personal cultural history exercises (personal narratives) and affirm cultural identity.
  • Survey the resources you use in your classroom—books, texts, posters, illustrations, and magazines. Notice what cultures these resources represent and consciously expand the diversity of resources you offer and work with.
  • Teach students about racism, classism, ableism, sexism, and other isms. Teach students to think critically, examine multiple perspectives, and understand historical oppression.
  • Be clear about what is acceptable in your classroom—for example, “In this class, I will not tolerate jokes or derogatory comments about skin color, ethnicity, language, gender, or culture.”
  • Help students and colleagues rethink the stereotypes they express. Provide accurate information that helps them learn new perspectives and rethink learned stereotypes.
  • Seek out antibiased and multicultural curricula.
  • Read and discuss Peggy McIntosh’s (2003a, 2003b) research and writing on white privilege. Invite kids to explore implications and discuss how to change systems.

Note: Adapted from Understanding Culture (Zion et al., 2005) and personal communication with Dr. Vivian Elliott (September 15, 2012).

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