Culturally Responsive Teaching

Up to this point, what has been discussed in this chapter has emphasized the importance of teaching students how to use literacy strategies to improve learning in content area classes. In addition to this approach to teaching, it is also important to develop skills and strategies to support students related to cultural factors that also play a role in facilitating learning. One approach involves using teaching that is “culturally responsive” (Gay 2010), which includes thinking beyond teaching content to thinking about teaching students. Culturally responsive teaching involves ways of educating students based on principles of social justice. A key purpose of culturally responsive teaching is to provide all students with learning opportunities, regardless of their gender, race, ethnicity, or first language. (Ladson-Billings, 1994). Moje (2007) has characterized this trait as teaching with social justice. An equally important purpose discussed by Moje is the idea of teaching for social justice. Teaching with social justice, referred to by Moje as teaching in socially just ways, focuses on the process of teaching that includes providing access to learning opportunities. Teaching for social justice leads to more socially just outcomes designed to address and correct unjustified power differences in society. Each of these concepts will be discussed more in the next section as they have bearing on culturally responsive teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching with Social Justice

Culturally responsive teaching with social justice brings cultural and linguistic strengths of students into the classroom. This approach requires being deliberate about getting to know and understand the knowledge and experiences students have acquired outside of school, along with respecting, valuing, and using these “funds of knowledge” (Moll, Amanti, Neff, & Gonzalez, 1992) when teaching. A primary goal of culturally responsive teaching is to ensure that students from diverse backgrounds have meaningful opportunities to experience quality instruction that consistently incorporates cultural components to support learning.

Culturally responsive teachers support students by seeking out knowledge about different cultures. Teachers may do this by asking students direct questions, asking students to complete interest inventories, meeting with families, attending cultural events in communities, and seeking out information about cultural traditions through reading, viewing, and traveling. Culturally responsive teachers also seek to understand how their own backgrounds, experiences, and biases may influence their teaching, such as having different expectations for various student groups based on stereotypes.

One way that researchers have learned about culturally responsive teaching is by exploring and deconstructing examples of what happens in classrooms. For example, research by Moje and Hinchman (2004) highlighted the culturally responsive practices that a seventh grade science teacher named Ms. Hall enacted. Ms. Hall was observed teaching a unit related to communicable diseases in a classroom that included a group of mostly African American students. Moje and Hinchman observed that Ms. Hall appeared to have gotten to know her students well and used that knowledge to help students connect their everyday language and experiences to new concepts being taught. Ms. Hall made curriculum changes to bring students’ interests into the classroom, as well as encouraged her students to communicate using language most familiar to them, rather than demand that discussions use only Standard American English. Ms. Hall also decided to change texts from ones that had little to do with her students’ lives to texts that her students would be able to relate to more easily. She strove to meet lesson objectives using resources that better matched her students’ backgrounds and interests.

Research on culturally responsive teaching has mostly included the use of qualitative methods, such as observing and interviewing small samples of teachers and students (Epstein, Mayorga, & Nelson, 2011; Ladson-Billings, 1994; Moje & Hinchman, 2004). These research methods have been most useful for exploring culturally responsive teaching because to date, there are no standardized prescriptions for how to enact culturally responsive teaching. Engaging in this kind of teaching depends on characteristics of students in specific classrooms, as well as characteristics of their families and communities. Culturally responsive teaching is complex and requires flexibility, which is why culturally responsive teaching has been mostly studied using qualitative forms of inquiry. Based on what has been learned through research, culturally-based theories of teaching continue to be refined to better inform teaching practices.

Culturally Responsive Teaching for Social Justice

Culturally responsive teaching for social justice goes beyond providing access to learning opportunities and focusing on how to effectively help students learn and apply content knowledge, to answering the question of how students can “question, challenge, and reconstruct knowledge” (Moje, 2007; p. 4). In other words, rather than the primary focus being on bridging what students know with what they need to learn, culturally responsive teaching for social justice includes a focus on how what is learned can be used to address power and oppression in society. Some researchers have used the term “culturally-relevant teaching” to describe this additional focus (Ladson-Billings, 1994), while other researchers have included these components within the framework of culturally responsive teaching (Moje, 2007).

A book chapter by Moje (2007) entitled Developing Socially Just Subject Matter Instruction: A Review of the Literature on Disciplinary Literacy Teaching represents a unique effort to synthesize culturally responsive teaching with disciplinary literacy, which is not an easy task. Recall that teaching students to use disciplinary literacy strategies requires initiation into established traditions of academic disciplines, which Moje describes as students needing “access to knowledge deemed valuable by the content domains” (p. 1). While this purpose may seem in opposition to the ideas of using and valuing students’ knowledge and experiences, it actually is not. Culturally responsive disciplinary literacy instruction involves respecting what students know and can do, creating bridges between out-of-school knowledge and disciplinary knowledge, and teaching students to critique ways in which knowledge traditions can transmit or transcend oppression in society. Unfortunately, there are some barriers that may exist to becoming a more culturally responsive teacher; however, becoming aware of these barriers can be a helpful step toward learning to overcome them.

The Influence of Apprenticeship of Observation

One possible barrier to becoming a culturally responsive teacher is based on a theory by Lortie (1975) known as “the apprenticeship of observation” (p. 61). This theory cautions that preservice teachers may believe that because they observed so much teaching happen when they were in school that teaching merely involves replicating what they experienced (Lortie, 1975). This belief is especially problematic when preservice teachers who attended mostly suburban and rural schools rely on approaches they observed as the basis to teach students from culturally- and linguistically-diverse backgrounds.

I once saw an example of this kind of incompatibility while observing a young White preservice teacher who was trying to make a point to a group of mostly Black students about the influence of wealth on a person’s life. During the lesson, the preservice teacher provided an example of wealth by referring to Bill and Melinda Gates, who are wealthy White business people in the U.S. Some students began nodding their heads at the reference, whereas other students just looked puzzled. Finally, a student raised her hand to generate a more familiar reference point for wealthy people and asked, “You mean like Jay Z?” When the teacher nodded hesitantly (he did not seem certain who Jay Z was), an audible, “Ohhhhh,” rippled through the classroom. Essentially, the inquiring student created a culturally responsive reference point for the rest of the students rather than the teacher creating it.

When I debriefed with the preservice teacher after his lesson, I recounted with him what I had observed. He said that he thought his reference to the Gates couple was a good example and faulted the students for not understanding it. He had not even considered the idea of asking his students to generate examples of people who are wealthy, and he did not seem to appreciate the benefits that accompany using students’ funds of knowledge in teaching. Perhaps it had not occurred to him that there are people of color who are wealthy as well. My impression was that the preservice teacher planned examples that helped him make connections but had not yet developed the insight to realize why his example failed to work within this context. The example illustrates the importance of teaching in ways that go beyond a single perspective.

Disciplinary literacy and culturally responsive teaching rely on teachers being open to perspectives outside of their own, being flexible in how they teach content, and situating teaching and learning within a social justice framework. When content area teachers incorporate disciplinary literacy strategies into their teaching, their students’ understanding of the content can be extended. When content area teachers teach in culturally responsive ways, they can help students better leverage discipline specific knowledge to negotiate a world that privileges some at the expense of others.