Buildung a Classroom Community: Culturally Responsive Learning

The fact that I grew up in the “white” country of Belarus and taught kids with pretty much the same backgrounds and cultural principles might have shaped me as one-sided educator in the culturally responsive pedagogy aspect.  Coming to the USA in 2000 turned my career upside-down.  I challenge you to imagine a Russian teacher, who barely speaks English, teaching twelve Mexican, four Asian, and 6 African-American kindergarten students in a Title I school!  I can tell you that it was the most challenging culturally responsive pedagogical task I have ever encountered in my career.  In my heart, I had no negative thoughts or assumptions about any of the cultures simply because I did not experience different races or ethnicity in my home city.  Therefore, I loved all those children equally and was ready to give my all to be the best teacher for them.  However, I knew there was that huge wall between me and the students.  Just like Alex, I had to figure out what that wall was made of and break through (DeGennaro & Brown, 2008, p. 12).  Thirteen years later, I can certainly say that building relationships and learning about personal lives and perspectives of our students guarantee successful learning experiences.  Culturally responsive pedagogy consists of two dimensions that can be very easily influenced by every teacher:  personal and instructional (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007, p.64).

I think the culturally responsive indicator is not a stand-alone sign of an engaging activity.  It seamlessly weaves through so many others.  In Cultural and Linguistic Differences: What Teachers Should Know, the list of activities that support linguistic differences states that cooperative learning and explorations are effective strategies to meet students’ needs (The IRIS Center, Star Legacy Modules: Communication, p.6).  Such activities are reflected in the sixteen indicators of engaging learning: student-directed, explore (Student Role), collaborative interactions, and performance-based assessments.  In addition, teachers become facilitators and guides of learning and create opportunities to listen to what students have to say.  Technology is just a steroid that can make all of these indicators accessible and connect students and learning to people and communities outside of the classroom.

I believe every authentic activity will reach the real, meaningful “inner me” of every student.  An authentic learning task will simultaneously require students to surface their cultural experiences and backgrounds.  Open- ended questions that provoke higher order thinking, research, and personal evaluation and reflection will allow students of all backgrounds to shine and learn from and about each other.  I agree that textbooks are not culturally responsive (The IRIS Center, Star Legacy Modules: Culturally Responsive Institution, p.3).  I would even say that usually, they respond to only one, the predominant culture of the community and leaves the rest behind.  Teachers must allow students to be actively engaged in their learning, set goals, and evaluate own performance (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007, p.67).  In other words, students must own and think about their learning and know exactly what their weaknesses and strengths are.  Such pedagogy can only be implemented in a challenging, student-centered classroom with a teacher who is ready to investigate and solve problems with the students.

As I mentioned before, technology brings down classroom walls and allows students to connect and experience the world and its cultures in new and cheap ways.  We do not need to pay for a field trip to a Native American village or learn about life styles of Australian Aboriginal tribes.  Websites, video conferences, keypals, online collaborative projects, and online publishing opportunities are unlimited today and make the world a much smaller place than it used to be.  Therefore, I think it is a professional negligence when teachers prefer to leave students ignorant about cultural differences and beautiful aspects of each (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007, p.66).  If we want to decrease the probability of conflicts in schools, then we need to teach kids about each other and help them develop respect, kindness, patience, and cooperativeness towards each other.  “Students must be taught if the world is to be a better place where everyone is treated fairly, then they have to work to make it so” (Richards, Brown, & Forde, 2007, p.67).  We know it is possible to provide such education.  As Dr. Davidson stated in his neuroscience presentation, we are not born with those qualities, they are teachable at any age (Borovoy, 2007).  If so, why don’t we spend some time building a classroom community in which every member feels safe to speak up, ask questions, learn, and enjoy learning process?