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Sounds Great, But How Do I Do It?

Reading about culturally responsive teaching is one thing, trying it in the classroom is quite another. Here’s what the experts—and the teachers and ESPs just like you who have tried the approach—think you should know. Some of this may sound familiar, but consider how intensely you’re delving into these methods.

Question Everything You Know

Start by asking yourself a few questions: Do I know the cultural background of each of my students? Do I integrate literature and resources from their cultures into my lessons? Do I consistently begin my lessons with what students already know from home, community, and school? Do I understand the differences between academic language and my students’ social language, and do I find ways to bridge the two?

Contemplate the home life of the student who is sleepy-eyed or apathetic on a particular morning. Perhaps one of his family responsibilities is caring for a younger sibling or an after-school job. The student with the incomplete homework might be hobbled by her parents’ inability to speak English. A student who doesn’t turn in an assignment describing her house might be reluctant to admit in front of classmates that she lives in a homeless shelter.

“You can’t fix most of these things,” says researcher Jacqueline Jordan Irvine, “but knowing about them can help you make adjustments and provide support.”

Consider cultural cues as well. In some cultures, making eye contact with authority figures or speaking loudly to them is considered disrespectful. “Students’ frames of reference can clash with classroom norms,” says American Indian education specialist Denny Hurtado. “Some Native Americans want to silently try to work on things before speaking,” he says. “But teachers fear that they just don’t want to participate.”

Says Meany Middle School teacher Wendy Miller, “Examine your frame of reference.” Or, as Irvine puts it, “Be curious.”

Don’t Just Guess or Fall Back on Old Assumptions

Instead, let students talk about elements of their culture, both positive and negative, removing the burden from you to speculate or ask questions that you fear might be too probing. You can start with an assignment that asks students to discuss their life outside of school. For instance, in NEA’s educator guide Culture, Abilities, Resilience, Effort: Strategies for Closing the Achievement Gaps, teachers are urged to have students describe what they enjoy doing outside of school, with whom they spend most of their time, and whom they admire. Having children elaborate on their culture provides a shortcut to learn more about them, while they practice writing skills.

In one activity, students write about their culture’s celebrations, greeting styles, beliefs about hospitality, the role of family, and attitudes about personal space and privacy. Another has them pen short descriptions of the languages they speak, the music they listen to, the foods they eat at home, what is considered polite and rude in their family, what manners they have been taught, what they wear on special occasions, and what role extended family plays in their life. Imagine how much of an icebreaker such an activity could be. 

Get Out of the Classroom

Irvine believes the first step toward cultural competency is heading out into students’ neighborhoods. “Go to their homes, go to the African-American churches, go to the Hispanic community centers.” But proceed respectfully. “You have to have cultural ambassadors,” Irvine says, pointing to fellow staff members, community leaders, or a parent with whom the teacher already has a connection as potential liaisons. “You have to be invited in. Don’t just show up to an African-American church like it’s a field trip.” Each semester, Irvine, who is Black, brings her teaching students to such gathering places in Atlanta. “Once teachers made the effort, the respect for them rose,” she says. Stepping into new environments is rarely easy, but can pay significant dividends. “We have to step outside of our comfort zones and push ourselves,” says NEA’s Denise Alston. “It will make a difference to the child.”

Parent-teacher meetings are valuable tools, but the culturally responsive teacher moves beyond the traditional framework for such get-togethers, considering, for example, the schedule of parents working more than one job. Find out if your district has translators or cultural interpreters available and invite them to attend. Or consider meeting with parents at a location in their community.

In Seattle, grant money—including a $250,000 grant from the NEA Foundation—helps pay for teachers to spend days out in the community, familiarizing themselves with the culture of the students it sends to school.

Teach Them Using What They Already Know

Consider your minority and low-income students’ experiences as valuable tools, not deficits, says Alston. It’s called an “assets-based model,” and it means taking what others might discount as problems for the child—poverty, English as a second language—and viewing them as building blocks for perseverance and resilience.

Using your newly widened frame of reference (remember the first point?), try recalibrating your lessons to match their experiences. For instance, when giving a geography lesson, use the names and patterns of students’ neighborhood streets. In social studies, do a substantial unit on South America, Africa, or Asia, inviting students to talk about what they know about the lands from which their families hail. Have your math students write a rap song to describe a principle, such as how to reduce fractions. If your elementary school students use public transportation, have them bring in bus or subway schedules and use them as the focal point for a lesson on time or map reading. “It says to a child, ‘You bring something,’” says Alston, “and it lets you build on that.”

East Haven, Connecticut, teacher Joseph Marangell’s ninth-grade history students spend the first five minutes of the period writing in journals “about issues relevant to both their own lives and the history curriculum,” he says. The East Haven High students then share their writing, “providing a springboard for each day’s lesson.”

Use the Work of Those Ahead of You

Don’t try to reinvent the wheel when it comes to selecting appropriate books or lesson plans. Hurtado recalls the day he decided to talk about American Indian canoes in conjunction with a reading lesson and opened a book on the topic. The pictures misidentified American Indian tribes—something he, as a member of the Skokomish Tribe, quickly spotted, but someone else might not have realized.

With that in mind, he and partner Magda Costantino did the heavy lifting, designing their American Indian reading curriculum on a DVD that contains reading passages, photos, and video clips, including interviews with tribal elders. This fall, the pair is adapting the program for the U.S. Department of Education to use nationwide. A similar effort is in full swing in Wisconsin, where members of the state’s 11 tribes have partnered with the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) in developing a culturally responsive education package. Supported with NEA and WEAC grants, the package includes a teacher’s guide, DVDs, posters, and magazines. (Head to www. for more culturally responsive teaching tools.)

Reach out to those who have come before you, too. Within the Black community, retired teachers can be tapped as a resource to share their strategies for reaching ethnic minorities. “There are people out there who know how to do it,” says Irvine. “We need to find them.

Know That You’re Supported

For NEA, promoting culturally responsive teaching is not subject to the fickle winds of education reform. It’s part of the Association’s resolutions, which state clearly that ethnic-minority teachers must be involved in selecting educational materials and those resources should contain points of view that realistically portray ethnic minorities’ lives. NEA plans to allocate $200,000 over the next two years to promote adoption of cultural competence standards for educators in five policy arenas affecting educator preparation, induction, and professional development.

Tap into Lesson Plans

Culturally responsive lessons available in books and online can often be adapted to address different cultures and different grades. “Make it personal for your students,” says Hurtado, and “work with your local communities so it’s authentic.”

For example, the book Teaching About Asian Pacific Americans offers an adaptable business and marketing lesson. Students select a magazine and compare the number of ads featuring Asian-American models with the total number of ads, and describe the product and company that these models promote. Students then discuss or write about how the ad maintains or breaks stereotypes. Does it have derogatory images or language? Students are asked how they might recreate the ad.

Visit for additional examples of lessons geared toward American Indians, Blacks, and Hispanics.

Return to Resources

Return to It's There: Talk About It

Reading about culturally responsive teaching is one thing. But seeing it an action can help make reaching students of different backgrounds from your own click. In this online resource package, we've highlighted how one group of educators in Washington is incorporating American Indian culture into lessons. In this video, educator Denny Hurtado talks about how reading lessons focusing on the culture can bring it alive for students. And you can easily adapt the lesson’s components—video interviews with elders, reading passages—to engage students of other cultures in your own classroom.

The Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum is an interactive DVD and guide that is designed to help educators integrate American Indian culture into a reading curriculum. The DVD (available free-of-charge from contains video clips, reading passages and lesson plans celebrating Native culture. The authors say the lessons can be easily adapted to engage students of other cultures.

Check out these video clips, lesson plans and readings from the DVD!


Imagine showing your students a short video clip or two with elders of their community talking about something that relates to the culturally-responsive lesson you’re about to teach. In these videos, elders of the Skokomish Tribe discuss canoeing and drumming—the perfect introduction to the lesson plans and reading passages that follow.

Introduction – Denny Hurtado

The Canoe

The Drum


Lesson Plans:



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