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Ask the Experts

Reading about culturally responsive teaching is one thing. Actually stepping into the classroom for the first time and trying it is quite another. If you’ve got questions about the best way to get started or refine the approach you’re currently taking, our panel of advisors has answers. Our panel includes:

Wendy Miller teaches at Meany Middle School in Seattle

Wendy Miller —Fifth-year teacher at Meany Middle School in Seattle . Miller knows what it’s like to start out fearful of the straight talk required for culturally responsive teaching. And she also knows that sticking with the work pays big dividends in the classroom.

Jackie Jordan Irvine is an educational studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta Jacqueline Jordan Irvine —An educational studies professor at Emory University in Atlanta , Jordan Irvine specializes in multicultural education and urban teacher education, particularly focusing on African Americans. She received two national book awards for her work, Black Students and School Failure.
Magda Constantino is the director of the Everygreen Center for Education Improvement Magda Constantino —Director of the Evergreen Center for Educational Improvement, at The Evegreen State College in Olympia , Washington . In seminars, Costantino breaks culturally responsive teaching down into easily digestible parts for those who are new to the topic.
Denny Jurtado is the director of the Washington state office of Indian Education Denny Hurtado —Director of the Washington state office of Indian Education. Hurtado, a former chairman of the Skokomish Nation, joined Costantino in developing a Native American reading curriculum that is being used across the state.


Send your questions to, and we’ll post the answers from our panel throughout the month.


Question 1: Is there a common misstep that teachers make when first starting out with culturally responsive teaching?   

Jacqueline Jordan Irvine:
Some teachers believe that culturally responsive pedagogy is a “bag of tricks” that minimizes the difficulty of teaching some students of color. The reality is that culturally responsive pedagogy has its foundation in the concept of reflection and not in simplistic solutions and “quick fixes.” It is also an attitude about children and schools and an impetus for redefinition of teacher and student roles. It is a vehicle for social change, an empowering device, through which students of color gain access to knowledge previously denied them.

In addition, some teachers are unwilling to try to implement culturally responsive pedagogy because they believe that they must  master the details of all the cultures of students represented in the classroom. It is an unrealistic expectation for both experienced teachers and novice teachers striving to define personal and professional roles in reference to their school’s culture and curriculum, administrators’ and community expectations, and students’ individual learning needs. It appears that a more developmentally sound approach involves the creation of long-term and continuing internships that incorporate in- and out-of-school cultural immersion experiences where prospective teachers can acquire the necessary pedagogical and anthropological skills to make reasonable instructional decisions. These classroom decisions are based not on stereotyped cultural profiles of ethnic groups but rather on how culture may or may not contribute to an understanding of an individual student’s behavior.

Magda Constantino:
The most frequently observed misstep that I have seen is a perception by the teacher that he or she must be the “expert” on all cultures or at least on the culture they are currently “studying”. My advice would be to not be afraid to be a learner; to look for cultural informants and cultural teachers who will slowly guide the teacher and her students through the process of learning. Make your culturally responsive curriculum and inquiry curriculum and become a co-learner with your students.

Denny Hurtado:
One misstep that usually comes up when dealing with the Native American community, is that they think it is ok to invite a Native person to class to talk about Thanksgiving, and then they have the students dress like Indians. I know they mean well, but they are just perpetuating stereotypes of Native Americans, and think that we all wear war bonnets and ride horses. This is not ok. It is very disrespectful and teachers need to understand that the Native community takes offense to this type of behavior. (This incident just happened to a Native person in our state.)


Question 2:
What is a specific instance that you’ve observed, or had an educator share with you, about culturally responsive teaching engaging a student?

Magda Constantino:
Here is a story from a teacher who was teaching reading to Native American first grade non readers.  The children showed no interest in reading no matter what stories she brought to school.  She had heard about the Northwest Native American Reading Curriculum so she decided to bring it to class. The moment she told the children they were going to study canoes, the tribal children became very exited. A couple of months later I had the privilege to observe this class.  All of the children were fully engaged and they were all reading.  At the back of the classroom were several tribal grandmothers and parents observing and participating in the learning process. When the bell rang, the children started to walk out of the classroom when they were stopped by one of the Native boys: “Wait”, he said, “ I didn’t have a turn reading yet”.

Denny Hurtado:
Several educators have told me that once they started using our culturally responsive curriculum, their Native American students became more engaged, there was increased family involvement and less need for disciplinary actions. Too often, our students feel isolated and there is no connection between them and what they are learning, and the majority of school books and curriculum's aren't about them. Our books and curriculum are about their Native American culture and therefore, the students see themselves in the stories and have the background knowledge to read and understand these culturally responsive books.

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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: