The notion of cultural relevancy or cultural responsiveness is often misunderstood in the field of education even today. Some still harbor the belief that our moral imperative to be “culturally responsive” is fully attained when we add festivals, food, flags, famous people, and bulletin boards to our syllabus. Sadly, these sometimes stereotypical and shallow surrogates often serve as the core of many cultural studies. Further, adding a week of learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. in January, spending a day on Cinco de Mayo, or teaching the horrors of slavery are other ways some naïve educators are lulled into believing they are meeting the unique cultural needs of our students. However, as diversity in our schools has grown exponentially and our world has become borderless, a deeper understanding of pedagogy that is culturally responsive has emerged. The digital world now allows us to travel virtually across the world in seconds and share messages, opinions, photographs, and video anywhere and everywhere. Globalization is no longer an abstract concept but a way of life. Understanding, respecting, and valuing the cultures of all people is an integral part of an appropriate, comprehensive education.
Gay (2000) describes culturally responsive teachers as those who help students recognize and accept the legitimacy of the cultural differences of various ethnic groups and understand how culture affects attitudes, beliefs, and approaches to all facets of life. Furthermore, culturally responsive educators understand the importance of explicitly teaching about cultural differences by helping students make connections between content standards and diverse cultural understandings. Karen Daley, middle school teacher in Elkland, Maryland, incorporates specific strategies to help her students recognize the common threads of humanity and to identify with people outside their own cultural groups. She intentionally uses video footage, thought-provoking, open-ended questioning, and opportunities to connect the content to their own lives and experiences. Additionally, asking students to regard a situation from an uncomfortable point-of-view or alternative cultural perspective is vital to their developing cultural sensitivity.
To address cultural responsiveness in a comprehensive manner, educators must do more than teach an isolated lesson or spend a week on Black History Month. Deep understanding comes from taking time to tie cultural understanding into the fabric of our daily lesson planning. Acknowledging differences and taking time to explore them through questions and reflection leads to a more comprehensive understanding of all peoples. Traditionally in education, many have skirted issues about race, religion, and socio-economics for many reasons. Some of those factors include a narrow understanding or misconceptions about cultural differences, uncertainty about how to approach sensitive topics in an appropriate manner, and an inability to guide an open-ended discussion that might yield questions or concerns that the teacher cannot answer. The key to creating culturally responsive classrooms is to develop a cohort of culturally literate educators. It is our moral obligation as educators to be life-long learners and to understand that educating the whole child includes not only content but also a sincere appreciation and open-minded view of the ever-changing, borderless landscape of our world today. As educators, we have the powerful opportunity to teach our students to honor the interconnectedness of humanity and appreciate local and global diversity.
– Heather Mullins
Exploring emigration: cultural identity. (n.d.). Teaching Channel. Retrieved January 15, 2014, from https://www.teachingchannel.org/videos/teaching-cultural-identity
Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, & practice. New York: Teachers College Press.