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Welcome One, Welcome All: The Culturally Inclusive Classroom

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Cultural Responsiveness. It’s one of the education buzz terms du jour. But what does it really mean and how can it better address your students’ needs?

Many teachers are either unsure of what exactly culturally responsive teaching is—or have an oversimplified definition of it. At its core, cultural responsiveness and inclusion is about supporting and welcoming diversity in all students. It’s so much more than hanging flags from different countries in your classroom or using hip-hop music in your lessons. Teaching through the lens of cultural responsiveness means eliminating exclusions in the learning environment based on race, ethnicity, gender, household income, religion and ability.

Lofty? Maybe. But fostering a culturally inclusive vibe in the classroom doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in every possible life experience or cultural nuance. That’s not even close to realistic. It does, however, mean you must become more of an active learner yourself. It all starts with you—being curious about your students’ lives and experiences.

Consider this: If you’re an American K-12 teacher reading this, there’s around an 80% chance you’re caucasian and an even greater chance you’re a woman. On the flip side, the student population is nearly half male and more than 50% ethnic minorities. That means a large portion of the student population might never be taught by a teacher who reflects their own image or experience. And that’s just when it comes to gender and race.

It’s important to acknowledge the value in the unique experiences and perspectives each student brings to the classroom. Part of being culturally responsive is finding ways to connect with every student on a personal level—to get them to share, and for everyone in the classroom to see these differences as the valuable resources they truly are. 

Think of your students as cultural and experiential ambassadors for you and the rest of your class. These “ambassadors” gain more ownership of the classroom experience because they become an active participant in shaping it. And valuing what every student brings to the table creates a richer learning environment for everyone, not just those whose experiences are less mainstream. (**NOTE: Part of being culturally responsive is recognizing that one student’s perspective doesn’t necessarily represent an entire group, so be sure to avoid making broad generalizations based on a single student’s experience.**) This commitment to fostering a collaborative atmosphere, in turn creates a safe and welcoming place to learn. 

The Scientific Link Between Culture and Learning

Neuroscience proves there’s a strong connection between trust, emotions and learning—while feelings of stress or being misunderstood make cognition more difficult. So the more accepting, inquisitive and inclusive the learning environment is, the greater each student’s potential for learning becomes. Building personal relationships with students who feel marginalized goes a long way in creating a greater understanding (from a teaching perspective). It also serves to make these students not just feel included, but integral.

Another way to boost your students’ learning potential is by tapping into their existing neural pathways. These pathways determine things such as how we respond to people, situations and the ways in which we process the world around us. Neural pathways are highly influenced by culture. For example, some of the most common cultural tools for learning are ritual, recitation, metaphor and music. They are powerful building blocks that your students are already equipped with. So be careful not to overlook students’ existing strategies for sharing information and find ways to mirror them through similar types of instruction.

Many teachers who focus on cultural inclusiveness recommend a self-evaluation of how things are presented to students. Clarifying your expectations by explaining and modeling exactly what you mean is particularly important when dealing with students whose primary language isn’t English or those with special needs. It’s also important to note that many cultures place more value on the interdependence of the collective group as opposed to the individual. In some cultures, for example, resolving conflict is something typically done quietly and privately versus face-to-face or in front of a group. And for others, indirect questions or requests can be confusing to those who may be used to a more direct parenting style.

Being a culturally responsive teacher requires a certain level of persistence—a tenacious desire to succeed. That’s because it’s more of a process than a strategy. And developing any new process takes time, not to mention a period of trial and error. But, above all, don’t be afraid to start. It’s your effort and openness to which students will respond. After all, the only way you can truly fail at ‘cultural responsiveness’ is not to respond to the need for it at all. 

10 Things Educators Can Do to Foster a Culturally Responsive and Inclusive Learning Environment:

  1. Use open-ended questions to engage students. (i.e., “Would anyone like to share a different perspective or another opinion about that?”)
  2. Establish clearly defined rules for your classroom as to what is and what isn’t appropriate. (e.g., Be respectful of others and their ideas, Be open to perspectives and opinions that are not like your own, etc.)
  3. Express your commitment as an educator to understanding cultural differences and your desire to have a classroom where culture is valued and respected.
  4. Share details about your background, upbringing and other personal information with students to inspire them to do the same.
  5. Replace ethnocentric terms with more inclusive ones. (e.g., Use ‘Winter Break’ as opposed to ‘Christmas Break’)
  6. Encourage all students to think about things from a perspective other than their own.
  7. Promote open, honest and respectful class discussions whenever possible, even if it is uncomfortable. (Most growth comes when we’re pushed beyond our comfort zone.)
  8. Avoid making assumptions. When in doubt, or better yet, as a general rule: Ask first.
  9. Find ways to get to know students on an informal level, through out-of-class activities, after school office hours, between classes, etc.
  10. Practice positive and welcoming non-verbal communication with students. (e.g., Smiling, eye contact, posture, gestures and physical proximity)