Why We Must Teach to Learning Needs, Not Race

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I have encountered colleagues also working in the urban landscape who are wary of the term “culturally responsive teaching”—the first tenet of my instructional model for inner-city achievement. When asked why, these teachers explain that culturally responsive teaching calls on them to deliver instruction the “black way” or the “Asian way.” They admit that this becomes impossible in classrooms with biracial students or multiracial populations. Others express concerns over not being able to reach urban students with culturally responsive instruction because the students’ cultural backgrounds are different from their own.

Culturally responsive teaching doesn’t mean trying to establish rapport by impressing a certain race. It does, however, mean incorporating instructional delivery techniques that reflect the language, vocabulary, stories, and learning styles that engage as many students as possible. Culturally responsive relationships that are rooted in getting to know students’ lives outside of class—the music they like, the language they use, the sports they play—can help any teacher establish a genuine connection. In my book, I suggest using surveys and questionnaires or starting informal conversations with students to find out what makes them tick.

The key to success lies in using the techniques and terms you feel comfortable with. Students who sense that their teacher is trying too hard to connect in a way that does not feel genuine may respond with indifference or try to take advantage of the situation. Start by identifying common denominators that you and most of the students in the classroom can relate to—concepts that you, the teacher, feel comfortable teaching.

Once you’ve built the right bridges, make sure you’re addressing students’ learning needs appropriately. For example, students in my high school algebra class enjoy actively participating in the learning process. Hence, my lectures became 30-way dialogues. I direct questions to all my students on an individual level as I teach a new idea. I use questions that are easy for everyone to digest, weaving hip hop and pop culture into the discussion. I talk about cars when we discuss rate problems. By making material easy to understand and recognizing students frequently and publicly for answering questions correctly, I help dispel the notion that learning isn’t cool.

Post submitted by Dr. Kadhir Rajagopal, a 2011 California Teacher of the Year and author of the ASCD book Create Success!: Unlocking the Potential of Urban Students.