It Sometimes Takes ‘Trial and Error’ to Get to Culturally-Responsive Teaching


Culturally responsive practices, teaching in particular, are less about racial pride as a motivator but about understanding and aligning instruction with the strategies that your students immediate persons in their communities use to teach life skills and other concepts. You don’t have to rap or bring hip-hop into the classroom to spark interest and engaged learning. Instead, you simply need an understanding of the primary forms of knowledge transfer. For example, African-American students come from oral cultural traditions. Story telling is both oral and active, and cuts across many other racial groups as well.
Strong oral cultures turn information into usable knowledge by using strategies that make learning ‘stick’. Connecting what you need students to remember to that rap or hip-hop verse or reciting concepts in fun ways like poetry make learning stick. Both oral and active makes ideas stick. Remember the ABC’s? How and why do we still remember that song? Oral, musical and active!

I remember spending a lot of time teaching my ‘special needs’ 6th graders the parts of speech, and they just weren’t getting it, until I turned a lesson into a game. A devoted Jeopardy fan, it was almost natural to make that transformation by bringing it to school. No, not the game itself, but an adapted version.

My students weren’t Jeopardy viewers. But, the basic concept still appealed to me, and I thought that it could be made appealing to them. So, I created a version for them to play in class. Categories were the parts of speech, vocabulary, spelling, and sentence structure.

As the game is constructed, the value of each answer in a category becomes harder to as you move down the list.  They were placed in teams of 5, and in a class of 15, we had 3 teams, just like the show. Collaboration was also on the menu, which itself was challenging for my students-peer learning and cooperation.
Collaboration seems naturally conducive to learning n the classroom, especially since students know how to cheat off of one another anyway. Why not make cheating strategically. My kids were not well-liked in the school and were known as behavior problems. They challenged even the most seasoned teachers, but when you tap into their world, so to speak, you can reach them. Thus WE can teach them ‘where they are’, as we love to say.

I came to school one day with index cards in hand, clues written on each with values on the other side of each card and began constructing this game on my blackboard, before whiteboards and smart boards. Entering the classroom with their usual antics, they were all prepared to disengage. We were going to cover language arts in a different way, fortunately.

I announced that their writing skills were atrocious and that their grammar usage was awful but their ideas were genius. I said that to them all, because their writing samples made me see so much more in them than probably any other teacher to date. I told them that I appreciated every one of them and knew that they were much more than a label.
They were intelligent, smart and funny, but in ways in which nobody saw or looked for. I wanted them to be better, do better, show better and more importantly, feel better about themselves. But I wanted them to have fun while learning concepts and ideas which would help them in every other class in school and take them into life after school. They sat still, quiet and at attention. They were listening actively. Had no one ever told this to these children before, ever?

This classroom, filled with diversity, black and brown children-adolescents- from the ‘hood’, and considered ‘at-risk’, were only placed at as much risk for failure as we allow them to be. That does not and should not define them, their potential or nullify their dreams. Every child dreams of him or herself having a secure place in this world, and not one child wants to be poor, un[der]educated, un[der]employed or in jail.

It is up to caring adults, to present positive possibilities before them. We shouldn’t blame them if they fall by the wayside or fall short of their dreams. We should look to ourselves and know that one thing is for sure: either we are part of the solution or part of the problem. My choice was clear.

If that one year with this group of students taught me anything at all about at risk students, it taught me that they face challenges which most have no awareness. Many blame and point fingers at these children. They have low expectations of them, look at the surface level only, and thus under-appreciate who they are or who they can be as adults. THEY [children] are the problem-with education, schools, communities and society as a whole. That couldn’t be farther from the truth! We ARE the solution!

Anyway, the gamification of learning proved a total success. Students who were reading and writing at levels far below the  grade level norm, by year’s end had improved drastically. Most students went from  2nd and 3rd grade reading levels to approaching grade level. That was phenomenal!

My principal came into my class to observe a lesson, and on that day, we were playing that game. By this time, my students were completely in sync with grammar, and they could boast that competency, if nothing else. He was unimpressed, visibly shocked, and uncertain of what to make of this. “This is a lesson?”

If a game is what it took to reach them, then so be it.  My students made me proud despite any doubts possessed by any other. So, without textbooks supplied by the school for almost a full school year, gains were made in Language Arts and they became more confident students.
Be different as are the students in our classrooms. Be innovative as we are teaching and preparing students for tomorrow’s world. Think outside the box since no child should ever be pigeon-holed and categorized. They don’t live inside of a box, so we can’t rightfully support their success if they are taught standard or thought substandard. Each has strengths, and each can achieve. Teach beyond the textbooks and occasionally, gamify it for maximized engagement. Shake things up a little.
Gaming is a powerful strategy for culturally-grounded learning, because it grabs attention and requires active processing. We can’t learn or understand that which we don’t first pay attention to. Call and response get the brain’s attention to begin the learning process, as did my form of Jeopardy. Besides, most games employ a lot of the cultural tools found in oral traditions like, repetition, solving puzzles and making connections between that which on the surface don’t seem to relate.

Think about what makes these children ‘tick’, at home and in their community. Consider what they do outside of the classroom to capture insights on how they learn. Please develop meaningful relationships to partner with families. Parents are underutilized resources, and can be amazing allies who will bring in key pieces of the puzzles we want to solve….fostering growth and facilitating academic achievement for all children.


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