Culturally Responsive Teaching: When It’s Silly and When It’s Not

Culturally Responsive Teaching leads to much serious discussion about how best to welcome and teach students who come to us from innumerable ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds. It also leads to much silliness.

On the silly side, one can find this quote in official state policy documents: “While planning lessons across all subjects, [educators] integrate culturally inclusive instruction that takes into account the unique stories, accomplishments, and struggles of all of the people of Arizona.” It adds: “Schools must consciously build educational environments which value the rich heritage of all of Arizona’s communities and cultures, fostering appreciation for all, so that all students and their families are treated equitably and with respect.” (Emphasis added). That’s five alls, as in: each and every one, no exceptions allowed.

To put the reach of all those alls in perspective, the annual Tucson Meet Yourself festival took place in October. Forty-five cultural groups, ethnicities, and nationalities celebrated their food, dance, art, and history along with over 100,000 “curious and respectful attendees.”

Looking at the event’s program and reflecting on my lesson planning in my three subjects, which this year includes science, math, and language arts, I realize that I failed to consider the “unique stories, accomplishments, and struggles” of  students from the Songhai, Puerto Rican, and Piedmont blues traditions – as well as those from forty-two others. But I bet none of my largely hypothetical students from those groups feel I don’t respect them because I don’t overtly include the fruits of their cultures in my lessons.

Fortunately, I don’t expect hooded goons to crash into my house in the dead of night to carry me off for my failures. Unfortunately, I don’t expect policy-makers to do any serious reading that might lead to the kind of culturally responsive teaching that might actually bridge achievement gaps and make our classrooms more welcoming to everyone.

However, if you’re looking for a good read on the topic, a good place to start would be Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students by Zaretta Hammond.

Hammond directly addresses a question she gets: “Do I have to learn about the customs, foods, and beliefs of 19 different cultures?” (Or of the 45 different cultures at Tucson Meet Yourself):

This is a question I always get from teachers new to culturally responsive teaching. The key to understanding how culture guides the brain during culturally responsive teaching lies in focusing on deep culture. Rather than focus on the visible “fruits” of culture – dress, food, holidays, and heroes – we have to focus on the roots of culture: worldview, core beliefs, and group values. The answer to this question comes from understanding universal patterns across cultures.

She calls the universal patterns cultural archetypes and says there are two that culturally responsive teachers need to know: the individualistic and the collectivist. In the past, perhaps because of the demands of living in rural settings, most communities worked and lived cooperatively. But as people migrated to urban settings, communities became more individualistic. As it stands now, most the world’s cultures are still communal, but most the West is rooted in individualism.

Linking culture to the brain, Hammond writes that culture is the software that operates the brain’s hardware, and the brain’s primary directives are to minimize threats and maximize well-being. To the extent one feels unthreatened, the brain is free to engage its higher functions like problem-solving, abstract thinking, and, wait for it, wait for it: Learning! But in the face of a threat, the brain’s executive functions get hijacked by its survival functions, which include the famous fight or flight.

So as many students coming from a deep culture of collectivism (which includes most Latino and African American students) enter a system geared toward individual effort and achievement, they may immediately feel estranged and defensive. This plays out in behavior that is typically identified as apathetic, confrontational, or defiant but is really self-protection. As Hammond puts it, “Coping skills are mistaken for norms and beliefs.”

In my interpretation, effective culturally responsive teaching, amounts to intentionally creating an environment that balances features of individualism, like encouraging individual studying and reading, competition, and status with features of collectivism, like interdependence, collaboration, and relationship building.

Balancing the features of individualism and collectivism leads to less marginalization and more alliances (Hammond’s word) between my students and me. Such alliances minimize what students perceive as threats and in turn maximizes the opportunities for, wait for it, wait for it: Learning!

As an aside, everything I’ve ever seen about workplace skills amounts to a combination of these same individual and group skills.

In our attempts to make all our students know we welcome them, there is nothing wrong with connecting with students by celebrating the fruits of their culture. But that’s only a beginning, at best. At worst, it can be awkward, forced, condescending, and, well, silly.

The connections that last develop when students and teachers align their efforts to achieve our students’ success. A serious step in that direction is for culturally responsive teachers accommodate the deep cultural archetypes of individualism and collectivism.


Sandy Merz

I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I’ve moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I’m a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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