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Creating Digital Ripples in a Borderless World: Why Cultural Responsiveness is No Longer Optional

borderlessThe 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.

Cultural identity

Click the image to watch a lesson about cultural identity and developing student empathy.

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

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, & practice. New York: Teachers College Press.


About Heather Mullins

Dr. Heather Mullins is the Chief Academic Officer in Newton-Conover City Schools. She is a North Carolina Teaching Fellow who spent 12 years as a high school English Teacher. She received her B.S.Ed. in Secondary English Education from Western Carolina University. Heather completed her National Board Certification in Adolescent Young Adult English Language Arts in 2002. She holds an M.Ed. in Academically and Intellectually Gifted from UNC-Charlotte. She completed her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership through Western Carolina University. Her dissertation focused on improving principal practice through strategic professional development. Heather has served as a Curriculum Specialist in Hickory City Schools, an adjunct professor at Lenoir-Rhyne University, and a Professional Development Consultant for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. Heather is one of the co-founders of #NCed Chat, North Carolina’s first Twitter chat for teachers. She is passionate about innovative practices, instructional technology, student ownership of learning, and supporting teachers. Heather serves on the advisory board for the North Carolina Digital Learning Plan, North Carolina School for the Deaf and Catawba Science Center. She is a recipient of the 2015 NCMLE Central Office Administrator to Watch Award. She also received the 2016 Don Chalker Award for Excellence in Educational Leadership. Heather is the proud mother of one son, Jackson.

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