What Culturally Responsive Teaching Looks Like
If you have been following my work, you know I spent 7 years a K-12 teacher and 7 years as a university professor, eventually becoming the dean of a school of education. As a teacher, I was passionate about helping students reach their academic potential and become productive citizens. As a professor and education dean, I was devoted to developing the next generation of teachers and education administrators. For the last two and a half years, I have been an education entrepreneur, launching an education company, Lynch Educational Consulting, which also manages the following web properties: The Edvocate, The Tech Edvocate, and Edupedia.
However, I often miss being in the classroom, and when I do, I usually channel this energy in an article, resource, or project that will benefit educators everywhere. This time I decided to create a series of case studies that are meant to help pre-service teachers get a glimpse into the problems and issues that they will encounter in the field. These case studies will also give them a chance to reflect on how they can use each scenario to inform their own practice. Let’s get started.
The U.S. is a melting pot of different races, religions, cultures, etc., and your classroom will undoubtedly reflect this diversity. To reach all of your students, you will have to become a culturally responsive teacher whose pedagogy and classroom management is reflective of our multicultural nation. For an example of how you can become a culturally responsive teacher, read the case study below entitled “Alysha: Multicultural Teachable Moments.” Afterward, reflect on the questions below, using your thoughts to shape your own practice.
- How does Alysha adjust and extend her unit to engage more learners?
- List several ways curriculum of other disciplines might be adapted for a multicultural classroom.
- In this scenario, what is the effect of encouraging students to bring in additional materials that connect to the required curriculum?
- What problems might arise from emphasizing the plurality of cultures in a classroom?
- What other projects might be appropriate for the class in this scenario, to incorporate all cultures represented?
- What attitudes and values is Alysha modeling for her students? How does this affect the learning environment?
Alysha: Multicultural Teachable Moments
One of the best semesters Alysha had as a teacher began with a series of near-misses. She had a group of very curious sophomores in a World Literature class, which began with a comparative study of the origin of myths. She had always loved mythology and tried to incorporate world myths as often as possible because most high school students, she believed, were familiar with the antics of Zeus, Aphrodite, Apollo, and Hermes. It seemed a particularly appropriate beginning for the semester, because her students would be studying Homer’s Iliad and the Epic of Gilgamesh, both rich in mythological elements.
That semester, her sophomores seemed eager and interested, as they were good readers and unusually enthusiastic for their ages. A few students with learning disabilities were eligible for modifications, but they too seemed excited about the material. One student had moved to America from India over the summer. The boy had not yet been tested for English as a second language (ESL), but he informed Alysha that he had studied English at a private school in Bhopal. He spoke English well, but struggled a bit with vocabulary and would probably come in after school sometimes for extra help. His name was Harsh Shah, and he loved literature.
“Shah?” Alysha asked, “Doesn’t that mean king in Persian?”
Harsh beamed and said, “Yes ma’am, in India I’m a king, but in America, just a new Indian student.”
Alysha liked his quick wit, and his classmates seemed to enjoy him instantly. Alysha asked if his first name was also Persian. Harsh told her, “No, it is an Indian word for joyful.” One of the boys explained that “harsh” had negative connotations in English and that a “harsh king” would not be appreciated. Harsh laughed this off and said, “Then you should move to India, where it is the opposite!”
Harsh made friends quickly and easily and was soon a class favorite. Over the next 2 weeks, the class discussed Greek mythology, comparing it with Asian myths, Nordic myths, and Native American myths. They began reading the Epic of Gilgamesh, comparing Gilgamesh to some of the archetypal Greek heroes. The students discussed the significance of the flood references in Sumerian, Greek, and Chinese cultures, and eventually read the story of Noah’s ark. Harsh became very excited. “But it was a fish, this god who told him to build a boat. The god was a fish!”
“Matsya?” Alysha asked.
“Yes!” Harsh squealed. He was surprised Alysha had heard of Matsya, the Hindu flood story. She asked if Harsh would like to bring in a copy of the tale, so that students could compare the elements.
“To read, in class?” he asked.
“Of course,” Alysha told him.
“We could make another column on the wall chart,” one student suggested.
Harsh brought in a copy of the tale, and Alysha asked him to read it for the class. After comparing characters, plot elements, and details, students added these to their growing chart of myth archetypes. Harsh explained that the story emphasized Hindu values of wisdom and receptiveness to messages from one’s god, even when those messages come from unexpected sources. Other students recalled the instance of the burning bush, in the Hebrew story of Moses and examples of talking creatures from Greek myth.
The class textbook featured a short section of the Hebrew Bible following the Gilgamesh excerpts. They would tackle those next, and then students would read a substantial portion of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It had seemed too daunting for sophomores in past years, but this group was on a different plane. They were on board for as much mythology as they could get, and by the end of the semester, they were singing David Bowie’s “Changes” as if Bowie had composed it with Ovid in mind. Before Alysha began to teach Metamorphoses, however, she prepared students by comparing various creation myths, and students read the Hebrew creation story.
Harsh asked what the story was about. Ramon explained that it was the story about Adam and Eve and the Devil. This was of particular interest to Harsh, who explained that Hinduism had no devil or its equivalent. Another animated discussion ensued after reading the account in Genesis that refers to a serpent but doesn’t specifically mention “the devil.” This prompted some indignation from other students.
A Jamaican girl named Shandi interjected, “Just because you do not believe in the devil does not mean there are no spirits of evil.” While students continued to their debate about devils, the forces of evil, and the fall of man, Hana, a shy Asian girl who was normally silent, rose from her seat and quietly went to the whiteboard. She asked if she could use the markers, and Alysha nodded. Intently, Hana drew two sets of Chinese characters on the board. Alysha coaxed the boys to be quiet long enough for Hana to explain, and this time Alysha was the one rendered speechless.
The first group of characters, Hana pointed out, was a series of several simple characters: the pictographs for concepts of motion, a garden, a man, privacy, a devil, trees, and a secret. When those simple lines were combined, she explained, they formed one character, the word temper. This was an ancient symbol, she said. The second group of simple characters, she explained, represented the concepts of dust, breath, and walking. Combined, she said, they formed the character for to create. The students wanted more, and so did Alysha. Hana laughed shyly and said she really was not very good at this. Her father had shown her a few others, but she did not remember how to form them. A flood of questions ensued.
That semester provided many spontaneous teachable moments that would be hard to replicate. The following week, a Jewish student volunteered to recite some of the Torah in Hebrew. Later in the semester, two senior students performed traditional dances from Bharatanatyam for the class. The sophomores were fascinated by the storytelling dances, the gestures, and the amount of concentration these girls showed in their art. Alysha was continually amazed and learned more than she had ever anticipated.