The Culturally Responsive Learning Environment

 

Imagine a place where every person can be their authentic whole human selves. A culturally responsive learning environment is a place where everybody belongs. The posters and images on walls, books and materials on shelves, the furniture and flow of the space all radiate belonging.

All Are Welcome: image from the Burlington High School International Club. Culturally Responsive learning environment
Burlington High School International Club
These tangible items convey important information: what is valued, prioritized, and yes welcomed in this space.

The culturally responsive learning environment encompasses way more than the visible. It also includes the dynamics of a space. Consider:

  • Whose voices are heard in this space? (And whose aren’t?)
  • What rules or expectations are stated? (Or unstated?)
  • Who is empowered? (And who isn’t?)
  • Who has a sense of belonging? (And who may not?)

We must ask these questions of our spaces as we strive toward making them truly welcoming. Orleans Elementary School teacher Andrea Gratton gives us a way to frame this work:

“I think a lot about the students that I have, but also the students that I may someday have. And making sure that whoever walks in my door can see themselves in my classroom and know that they feel welcome and included when they come in.”

Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy, like teaching itself, isn’t a destination but rather a practice.

We’re using it as a framework to make some of these equitable practices more visible. At the same time, we certainly don’t want to give the impression that there is a set of tricks that can be added to a toolbox.

We are committed to continuing to do the ongoing self-work that is part and parcel of this practice, including:

  • Examining our own biases.
  • Interrogating our complicity in inequitable systems.
  • Seeking feedback to help us understand and disrupt our assumptions.
  • Working in loving accountability with others to help us grow in our understanding of racism and oppression.

This self-work is forever necessary but never sufficient. And it’s with this in mind that we share concrete examples of culturally responsive practices to illuminate what is possible in terms of action.

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

Schools are cultural spaces, and when we assume they aren’t we center dominant culture. As individual educators, we bring our own values to our classrooms, and often these values need to be investigated. Dr. Kathleen Brinegar spoke about re-examining her practice on a recent episode of #vted Reads. She reminds us that with teaching, every day is a new opportunity for a “do-over”.

 

Cornelius Minor shares some additional values we may unintentionally bring into the classroom in this interview.  For example,

“In most academic spaces, there is a silent pact that teachers make with students: I will agree to teach you well if you demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it. And if you do not demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it, I will withhold quality teaching from you… We expect students to show up with gratitude because we do our jobs.”

The problematic dynamic of teachers (implictly or explicitly) expecting student gratitude is complicated by the fact that gratitude itself is shaped by culture.

Culturally responsive educators surface the cultural elements they are bringing in the door with them. They challenge themselves to make sure they are aligned with the goal of teaching ALL students. Further, they get to know students well enough to welcome and see the strengths in students’ cultural values as well.

Co-create class values, expectations, and agreements with students

One way to make culture intentional and transparent is to co-create classroom expectations *with* our students.

However, it’s not just about creating them. If all we do is co-construct norms then they might as well be wallpaper. It’s also important to use them, revisit them, and revise them.  Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School teacher Christie Nold demonstrates the power of leaning on classroom agreements in order to do challenging work.

Be careful! Students may just tell you what you expect to hear based on their experiences “doing school”.

Shelburne Community School teacher Meg O’Donnell reports that COVID has helped her reconsider asking students to create norms in multiple classes, leading to norm fatigue.  Rethinking Schools shared a thoughtful piece on making classroom norms that really engage students in what they need to learn well.

Solicit and engage student voice

Listening, really listening, to students’ voices is crucial in a culturally responsive classroom environment. Dr. Emily Nelson calls it a matter of justice, that students have a right to be heard and to inform their education.

One way to engage culture transparently and intentionally is to ask your students for feedback. It’s crucial, however, that we not only solicit feedback but that we act on it! Here is one way to scaffold feedback from students:

  • First, ask your students what is working *and* not working about class. A Google Form or anonymous survey can help them be honest with their feedback.
  • Then, process their feedback: sort and make sense of the data. Are their common threads? What might you learn from outliers?
  • Finally, share the data, and your next steps, with your students! Show them that their feedback matters by acting on it publicly, with humility and grace.

Kim Dumont, 4th-grade teacher from Ottauquechee School, shares another way to center student voice and feedback in order to create a culturally responsive classroom environment.

Then, Warren Elementary School’s Elizabeth Tarno shows us centering student voice can look like in a 5th-grade math class.

And finally, the Cult of Pedagogy provides a roadmap for soliciting and responding to student feedback.

2. Take an appreciative stance

By honoring students’ strengths, we seek to close the divide between home and school. Culturally responsive learning environments recognize and appreciate the strengths students exhibit in the classroom. And acknowledge the assets and inclinations students show outside of school.

Note that taking an appreciative stance does not necessarily mean that every single aspect of students’ identities and cultures are worthy of being lauded. While diversity valuable in and of itself, it must is bounded by an overarching ethos of love and justice. We needn’t uplift aspects of culture that aren’t fundamentally affirming of belonging.

Culturally responsive learning environments invite us to think beyond traditional ideas of what makes a “good student.” It compels us to define learners in ways that don’t limit or marginalize students just for being different than the norm.

Flexible seating

Few things are more starkly “school” than the inflexible expectations of sitting still in assigned uncomfortable desks.

Flexible seating is an important strategy for creating an asset-based learning environment. At Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor VT redesigned classrooms flow. In contrast to desks and rows, the unconventional furniture encourages students to explore movement as an organic part of their learning. Proctor Elementary School teachers reported more pride in their classroom, greater kindness and generosity between students, and an overall increased sense of community.

 

Another set of examples expands the concept of student-centered physical space to include not just seating (though there are some great examples there too), but also “schedule” and “spangle.” For schedule, we see instances where educators build from what kids naturally need and do well – time for movement, meditation, fresh air, and goofing off.

“Spangle,” you ask? Well, that refers to covering your classroom walls with student work. What better way to honor their thinking than to use it to envelop your community? It is a powerful message of trust.

 

Advisory & community meetings

Advisory time allows teachers to lean into connection and playfulness. Playing games, sharing personal stories, and just reveling in being together as humans are hallmarks of advisory. Advisory serves as a distinct, non-academic space where students (and teachers) can just be together.

Community meetings serve similar purposes but usually involve a larger group, such as one or more grade levels. Ideally, students run these meetings.

White River Valley Middle School developed an entirely student-led advisory. Students lean into and actively create rituals to feed their own mini-culture.

It might not be obvious that playing “would you rather” or telling a few jokes could have such a profound effect, but carving out spaces and routines that are purely appreciative of togetherness is crucial.

High expectations

Another concept that comes up in CRP is the idea of high expectations for students. We appreciate the strengths and potential of students insofar as we communicate that we truly believe they can achieve great things.

Some educators accuse critical pedagogies as lacking rigor because it rejects the idea that school must mold students to traditional expectations. Vermont’s focus on Transferable Skills de-emphasizes memorization of vast amounts of content or command of a traditional canon. Students can and should be great communicators, collaborators, problem solvers, and community members, even though these skills are complex and messy. (See a thoughtful treatment of the rigor question here.)

Rather than quizzes and tests, culturally responsive learning environments strive to be feedback-rich environments focused on higher level skills. Assessment processes are student-driven and asset-based. For example, students may gather evidence of learning and share appreciative reflections on growth with families through celebration-centered student-led conferences. Classrooms do important, meaningful, and impactful things together like service-learning and critical project-based learning.

Culturally responsive learning environments ensure that every student’s potential is highly appreciated, frequently fulfilled, and shared with the world.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Every student has a right to see themselves reflected in your classroom. And every student deserves to see those who are different from themselves reflected in the environment as well.

Classroom walls

What is on your classroom walls? Might there be space for posters that include windows and mirrors, such as those from Amplifier?

It may not be enough just to hang things on the wall, but it sends a signal, a beacon of inclusivity.

Centering mirrors *and* windows  (.pdf) in your classroom serves as a reminder and a promise to also center them in your curriculum. Perhaps it may even spur you to invite your students to create images, representations, and posters that serve as windows and mirrors for you and for themselves.

Windows and mirrors on your bookshelf

Your bookshelf is another prime spot to engage in culturally responsive practices. Be thoughtful about how you curate books, making sure that all students can see themselves in the literature you provide.

Importantly, don’t just consider covers and titles, but look at the context of these stories. Are you providing stories about black and brown joy and excellence? If all of your stories about marginalized peoples are about struggle, that too is a problem. All students deserve to see themselves in a variety of contexts. Students use these contexts to frame their understandings of others. Check to make sure you are not contributing to single stories.

4.Educate about and for social justice

Social justice is in the air in CRP environments. Students interrogate injustices, both local and global. Students participate in ways of being together that provide alternative possibilities that center equity and belonging.

Who are your upstanders

In a culturally responsive learning environment, educators and students interrupt acts of cultural harm as soon as they arise.

Luckily, there is a great resource available to help prepare and practice how to react. Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) developed an approach called Speak Up At School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Stereotypes, and Bias.

The approach involves four strategies for responding to incidents: interrupt, question, echo, and educate. Learning for Justice provides professional development modules, background information, and materials to use with students.

At Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, a group of Students Organized for Anti-Racism (SOAR) have learned about Speak Up strategies. Eventually they moved to sharing them with other students and even faculty. One of the adult mentors for the group, 6th-grade social studies teacher Christie Nold, wrote about SOAR’s origin story. She noted important structures that had been put in place to support the group, including racial affinity spaces and established protocols from Courageous Conversation about Race.

It takes proactive intentionality to create an environment where injustice is not tolerated.

Restorative justice

When harm is done, even if quickly interrupted, it is important to address it in order to learn from it and repair harm.

At Randolph Union High School, students in a project-based learning class developed a student-led restorative justice program as an alternative to the traditional disciplinary process.

In the video below, students emphasized how the power dynamic is transformed when they are empowered to solve their problems and address harm together rather than relying on adult authority for punishment.

 

Early evidence on restorative justice in schools suggests that it has the potential to improve school climate, decrease bullying and harassment, and increase compassion and mutual respect among students. By participating actively in the restorative process, students simultaneously experience, model, and create a social justice environment.

Addressing tough topics and challenging moments

Students should be engaged not just in interrupting and addressing injustices in the immediate environment, but also in discussing and acting on injustice outside of school. CRP involves analysis and disruption of oppression at the systemic as well as interpersonal levels.

Culturally responsive learning environments are places where conversations about issues related to social justice, no matter how controversial, are the norm. Discourse undergirds equal participation in a pluralistic democracy, which is a key goal of CRP. As Kathy Cadwell, a philosophy and history teacher at Harwood High School in Duxbury, put it:

“Dialogue is the heart of democracy. Civil discourse is the heart of community. …Why we engage in the art of dialogue, it’s not only to develop those personal skills but to develop the skills of citizenship and engagement in community.”

CRP thoughtfully scaffold and constantly reinforce the foundations for having these often challenging conversations.

Humans experience the world through the lenses of our identities. Students are situated in their cultures as they try to make sense of big moments such as historical events or unexpected collective trauma. In culturally responsive environments, the baseline assumption is that all students will be supported in processing these fraught moments, considering various perspectives and impacts, and ultimately learning from them together.

Consequently, culturally responsive learning environments are spaces where students can expect to address social justice on a daily basis, especially on those days when it may be most difficult to do so.

What are your next steps for creating a culturally responsive learning environment?

If teaching and cultural responsiveness are both practices, it means every day is an opportunity to do better.

How might you move forward, day by day, in creating a space that welcomes every single learner?

 

 

 

This post is part two in a four part series series. In part one we identified four aspects of cultural responsiveness: cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice. Here we use these four aspects to explore culturally responsive learning environments.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

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