Culturally Responsive Teaching An Honest Assessment

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Gloria Ladson-Billings describes cultural responsiveness as "a pedagogy that acknowledges, responds to, and celebrates fundamental cultures and offers full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures" (1994). When I initially think of cultural responsiveness, I think of a teacher's ability to make his or her classroom relevant to all learners. While developing a culturally responsive classroom requires considering each student's race and culture, it also encompasses many other facets including a student's gender, religion, socioeconomic status, learning style, past experience, and interests. While my school is not particularly racially or economically diverse, as most of my students are white and come from middle to upper class families, I still feel it is important to understand the needs and differences of my students in order to successfully develop a culturally responsive classroom.

As a graduate of Marist School, I have a unique insight into the culture of the school and of the interests and goals of the students. In addition, over my last three years of teaching at Marist, I have deepened my understanding of the culture of my students through my teaching practices and have been successful in responding to the needs of each student. However, to critically assess my cultural responsiveness, I asked my students to participate in a survey that reflects the seven common characteristics of culturally responsive practices as laid out by Lee, Cosby, and Baca of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission Education Steering Committee (2007). The results of this survey forced me to honestly reflect on the cultural responsiveness of my teaching and the areas in which I am succeeding and failing in reaching my students. The candidness of some of the responses opened my eyes to the positive and negative viewpoints that some of my students have regarding cultural differences at Marist that I would not have learned otherwise; hence, I used "an honest assessment" as part of my paper's title.

This paper has three purposes. First, I will describe the culture of Marist School with regards to students' race, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, extracurricular involvement, and parental support. Next, I will explain the tactics I have used in developing a culturally responsive classroom. Finally, I will reflect on my students' assessment of my cultural responsiveness and the areas in which I need to improve.

The Culture of Marist School

Marist currently enrolls 1,071 students from 830 families (Marist School, 2009). For the 2009-2010 school year, Marist selectively admitted one-half of its applicants, and the individual breakdown of ethnicity of enrolled students is as follows: 894 Caucasian, 54 African-Americans, 60 Hispanic/Latino, 35 Asian-Americans, and 28 multiracial. The student population is roughly 50.5% male and 49.5% female (Marist School, 2009). Around 75% of students are Catholic, and 25% are of other religions. The student-to-teacher ratio is 11 to 1, and the average class size is 19. The tuition for the 2009-2010 year is around $15,000, and approximately $1.5 million in tuition assistance was awarded to 182 students (Marist School, 2009).

Marist highly values its academics. The class of 2009 included 13 National Merit Finalists, 17 Commended Students, and 1 Commended National Achievement Semifinalist (Marist School, 2009). Over the past three years, 1768 Advanced Placement examinations were taken and 95% of the exam scores were 3 or higher (Marist School, 2009). In addition to their rigorous course schedules, Marist students are also very involved both within the school community and local community. This year, 81% of the student body participates in 56 different extracurricular clubs and student organizations, and 82% of the student body participates in an interscholastic sport (Marist School, 2009). All students participate in community service each year as part of their religion courses, and many students also choose to go on mission trips during school breaks. Parents are also active members in the school community, and this year, there are seven active parent organizations on campus including the Parents' Club, the Athletic Booster Club, the Marist Arts Guild (MAG), Marist Families in Action, the Mothers' Prayer Group, and Men's and Women's Bible Study (Marist School, 2009).

Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom

When entering 7th grade, students are coming from roughly fifteen to twenty public or private schools around Atlanta so naturally, all students have different levels of mathematical ability and knowledge. For example, in terms of decimals, some students are very proficient in multiplying and dividing decimals, and others struggle with the topic because they do not understand how to carry out the procedures, or they may have come from a school with a weaker math program. Also, as with any class, I have students with various modes of learning. Some students work well in a notes and lecture environment, some work well when they work problems out on the board as I watch, some work well with partners or groups, and others work well with models and pictures. In addition, all of my 7th grade students are at different stages in their physical development. Most of them need to move around at some point in each class, some of them love socializing, and others like to keep to themselves. With all of these things in mind, I have to try to make the classroom relevant to all of them.

The way that I attempt to reach all students is by balancing my instructional methods with various activities. For each unit, I incorporate notes and lecture, cooperative learning activities (working with a partner or a small group), guided practice, individual practice, doing problems on the board, and playing review games. More importantly, I try to make a personal connection with all students, so I know what interests them and how I can relate the material to them. I gather this information by asking students to complete a math questionnaire at the beginning of each school year. This questionnaire asks students what they enjoy about math, what they find difficult about math, what type of activities they enjoy doing in class, what modes of learning (notes, lecture, games, pictures, group work, reading, etc.) they prefer, what their favorite math teacher was like, what they like to do in their spare time, and what information about themselves they want me to know. This questionnaire gives me insight into various aspects of my students' lives including academics and extra-curricular activities. This information is especially useful when creating word problems, which most of my students dislike. I will use their names (ex: Cari was babysitting her new baby brother Sean and made $7.50 per hour. How much did she make if she babysat him 3 hours?), and this helps them remember the problems better. More importantly, it helps students connect the material to how they would use it in their everyday lives.

Some specific strategies that have worked well for me involve cooperative learning. At the beginning of each term, I have the students fill out a "clock buddy" worksheet that gives them a partner for each hour on the clock. I set guidelines for how many boys and girls they must put on their sheet, and I use this frequently throughout the term to assign partners quickly. This matches students with different people at different levels of ability, and they love it. It gives them a chance to learn from one another in a more relaxed, social setting. Another activity that works well involves having groups of students teach a particular type of problem to the class. For example, with multiplying fractions, I assigned each group (of 4-5 students) a particular type of problem, and they had to become "experts" on the topic and teach it to the class using any strategy as long as all students in the group were involved in the teaching. I found that they understood the concepts better when they took ownership of the material, and it gave them insight into what it is like to be the teacher. Most students really enjoyed this experience and asked to do it again for other units.

I also have implemented peer tutoring with many of my struggling students, which is a program that my school adopted last year for math and foreign language students. This program has been extremely successful for my students who are involved. Not only have these students improved their grades, but they also have gained confidence in the math skills that they struggled with before starting the program. Another benefit is that it gives younger students a chance to interact with upperclassmen, which helps foster new relationships and communities within the school.

Students' Assessments of My Cultural Responsiveness

While there are many aspects of my instruction that respond to the cultural needs of my students, I felt the best way to assess my cultural responsiveness was to ask my students' opinions. To get a better idea of what culturally responsive teaching should look like, I referenced the guidelines established by the Indiana Civil Rights Commission for Education Steering and developed a survey that gave my students the opportunity to assess my effectiveness in developing a culturally responsive classroom (Lee et al., 2007). After reviewing the responses of fifty eighth grade students, I discovered areas where I excel at reaching my students' cultural needs as well as areas where I need to improve my responsiveness.

Students were given an unlimited amount of time to respond to twelve statements that related to my effectiveness in creating a culturally responsive classroom. For each statement, students rated me on a scale from 1-5 with "1" being strongly disagree, "2" being disagree, "3" being neutral, "4" being agree, and "5" being strongly agree. Some examples of the statements were: my teacher has established a climate of caring, respect, and the valuing of students' cultures in her classroom; my teacher attempts to learn from my culture and language to make her instruction more meaningful and relevant to my life; my teacher uses a variety of instructional strategies that are connected to different learning styles; my teacher's assessments are free from cultural, gender, or racial bias; and my teacher knows what interests me outside of the classroom. A complete survey is available for reference at the end of the paper. If a student circled a "1" (strongly disagree) or "2" (disagree) to any of the statements, they had to provide a brief explanation or example of why they answered that way. I found the assessments and comments extremely informative, and they highlighted areas where I am doing well to respond to the cultural needs of my students and areas where I need to improve.

Eighty percent of my students agreed or strongly agreed with all statements on the survey, which covered a variety of components of culturally responsive teaching. Nevertheless, it is important to note that while I made the survey anonymous so that students felt completely free to respond the way they wanted, 88% of the students surveyed were white, 4% were Asian, 4% were Africa-American, 2% were Hispanic/Latino, and 2% were multiracial. In addition, 100% of the students are part of some denomination of Christianity. Thus, the majority of responses reflect the ideas and attitudes of white, Christian, English-speaking students. In addition, 46% of the students surveyed were female, and 54% were male.

Regardless, eighty percent of my students believe that I establish a climate of caring, respect, and the valuing of students' cultures, I build bridges between academic learning, prior understanding, and values, and I attempt to learn from students' culture and language to make my instruction more relevant to them. For example, a white female student remarked that I understood her interests, and a white male stated that "all of [his] cultural needs were met." The students in this eighty percent also believe that I use a variety of teaching strategies that connect to different learning styles, I hold all students to high standards, I incorporate activities that are challenging and hands-on, I encourage students to think in different ways, and I use assessments that are free from bias. Even though students stated that my assessments were free from bias, it may be because my questions are biased towards the culture of my students, namely white, Christian students. For example, if I taught a group of mostly African-American, Asian, or Hispanic/Latino students, they might indicate that my assessments are biased. Many of comments also seemed to come from females, and the males did not provide as many descriptive examples of how I meet their cultural needs; thus, the females may feel that I am more culturally responsive than the males do. Additionally, I did not have students indicate their race on the survey, so I do not know how many of the students in this group of eighty percent were white, African-American, Asian, or Hispanic/Latino. Nevertheless, it felt good to know that so many of my students felt that I was meeting their cultural needs.

The same eighty percent of my students also said that I understand the various components of student life at Marist, and I know what interests them outside of the classroom. These students seemed to appreciate that I understood the student life at Marist more than many teachers since I went to school there also. For example, one student said, "my teacher has attended Marist and therefore is very educated about the student life at Marist and its components." The same student went on to say, "my teacher understands and works with the cultural differences in this class and is open to questions from different perspectives at all times." Other students commented that I enjoyed math and that made learning more fun for them.

The other twenty percent of my students felt that I was culturally responsive in most areas but circled ones and twos for some of the questions. For example, two students believe that I do not use a variety of instructional strategies connected to different learning styles. One of these students stated that notes were used too often in class and that more games should be incorporated, and the other student did not provide a comment. Another student indicated that I do not incorporate activities that are challenging, cooperative, or hands-on, and this student also thinks that notes are used too often. Two students do not think that I attempt to learn from their culture and language to make my instruction more meaningful and relevant to their lives. One of these students also stated that I had not established a climate of caring, respect, and valuing of his or her culture and that my classroom does not "provide full, equitable access to education for students from all cultures" (Ladson-Billings, 1994). While this students' survey was the outlier in the group, it provided the most eye-opening comment of all of the surveys. This student explained his reason for disagreeing with the following comment: "While Mrs. Dete is caring and encourages caring [in her classroom], the kids at Marist are the most racist, ignorant, and closed-minded people I have ever met." Although this comment made me sad, I appreciate this student's honesty, and it really enlightened me as to how some students at the school may feel and perceive others. Part of the mission of Marist School is "to nurture a community that fosters hospitality, generosity, and responsible stewardship in students from all socio-economic and cultural backgrounds," and I strive to encourage inclusion, respect, and understanding of all people in my classroom (Marist School Mission, 2009). This comment made me aware of how some students feel, how I need to be more sensitive to these students' needs, and how I need to continue to encourage acceptance of others in my classroom through my lessons and activities. Moreover, if even one student feels this way, I am not achieving my goal of creating a culturally responsive classroom.

Even though I feel as though I take interest in my students' lives outside of my classroom, more students disagreed with this statement than any other on the survey. When asked if "my teacher knows what interests me outside of the classroom," nine students strongly disagreed or disagreed. One student suggested that I involve his or her interests outside of school into the math, and another student wrote that we did not know each other very well. Two students commented that they did not know how I would know what interested them outside of the classroom and found it irrelevant to my teaching. Twenty-five students were neutral on the same statement, and sixteen students agreed or strongly agreed. One student said that I know that she is "a cheerleader and like[s] to watch the [television show] The Real Housewives of New York," but other than that, I do not know anything about her other interests.

I found the results of the statement about me knowing my students' interests the most interesting because 32% of my students believe I know what interests them outside of the classroom, 50% of my students are neutral on the topic, and 18% do not think I know their interests. Even when I do the class inventory and questionnaire at the beginning of the year to find out about my students interests, there is gap between those who feel like I know their interests and those who do not. Since the surveys were anonymous, I cannot say whether or not I know the interests of the students who disagreed with the statements, but I believe that the students feel that way. I know that some students interact more informally with me than others, so naturally, I know more about their interests, and I also may be more vocal about recognizing the interests of some students over others. This data has made me more cognizant of my need to build a personal connection with each student and that I need to make a stronger effort to get to know the interests of all of my students either through more frequent interest inventories or with informal conversations before and after classes.

The last question asked students to select which learning style best described them from the choices of visual, auditory, or tactile/kinesthetic, and I described the characteristics of each learning style to the students before they took the survey. Twenty-three students said they were visual learners, seven students said they were auditory learners, sixteen students said they were tactile/kinesthetic learners, and four students did not answer the question. I found this information interesting because I did not expect as few students to say they were auditory learners, and I did not expect as many to say that they were tactile/kinesthetic learners. While I sporadically incorporate games and activities that require students to move around and create mathematical products, I will try to use these activities more often as several students commented that they wished we played more math games.

Conclusion

When discussing cultural responsiveness with my students, I communicated that culture involves more than just race and language. It encompasses many other aspects of a students' background including gender, socioeconomic status, learning style, need for teaching accommodations or modifications, past experiences, and interests. Creating a culturally responsive classroom is challenging; however, I feel as though I incorporate many strategies that give me insight into the backgrounds of each student and that cater to the various learning styles of my students. In addition, because I was a student of Marist, I understand the academic and extracurricular demands on the students and have a more thorough knowledge of the culture of the students and school. Nevertheless, it was imperative for me to critically assess my cultural responsiveness by surveying my students.

The survey responses were interesting and informative, and I was glad that my students highlighted areas where I was doing a good job of creating a culturally responsive classroom as well as areas where I need to improve. While maintaining the anonymity of the surveys, I plan to share the results with the students so as to keep the dialogue going. In addition, even though I plan to use surveys and questionnaires more often in my classes, I realize that they are not the only tool I should use to gain a better understanding of my students' feelings, needs, and interests. I believe the most effective way to assess my cultural responsiveness is to engage students in this discussion more frequently.

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