This is an excerpt from the new book “The ELL Teacher’s Toolbox: Hundreds of Practical Ideas to Support Your Students.” And it turns out that many of these ideas work for teachers of mainstream students, as well.

The book was written by Larry Ferlazzo and Katie Hull Sypnieski. Ferlazzo has taught English and social studies to English-language learners and mainstream students at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento for 15 years. He has written numerous books on education, writes a teacher advice blog for Education Week Teacher and has his own popular resource-sharing blog. Sypnieski has worked with English-language learners at the secondary level for 21 years in the Sacramento City Unified School District.

This excerpt explains what culturally responsive teaching is, how to do it and why it is important to the growing numbers of English-language learners in public schools.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the percentage of ELL public school students in the United States was higher during the 2014-2015 school year (9.4 percent, or an estimated 4.6 million students) than in 2004-2005 (9.1 percent, or an estimated 4.3 million students) and 2013-2014 (9.3 percent, or an estimated 4.5 million students).

In 2014-2015, the percentage of public school students who were ELLs was 10 percent or more in the District of Columbia and seven states. These states, most of which are located in the West, were Alaska, California, Colorado, Illinois, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas. California reported the highest percentage of ELLs among its public school students, at 22.4 percent, followed by Nevada at 17 percent. The percentage of public school students who were ELLs increased between 2004-2005 and 2014-2015 in all but 15 states, with the largest percentage-point increase occurring in Maryland (4.4 percentage points) and the largest percentage-point decrease occurring in Arizona (13.8 percentage points).

Here’s the excerpt:

Culturally Responsive Teaching in the ELL Classroom
Looking at English Language Learners through the lens of assets and not deficits guides what we do in the classroom and the choices we make about how to do it. Instruction that is culturally responsive and sustaining explicitly challenges the “deficit” perspective. Rather, students are viewed as possessing valuable linguistic, cultural, and literacy tools. Recognizing, validating, and using these tools — in our experience — ultimately provides the best learning environment for our students and ourselves.
What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?
 While the majority of students in U.S. schools are students of color from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds, the vast majority of educators who teach them are white. Two of the most common philosophies guiding how teachers of all races can be better teachers to students of color are “culturally responsive teaching” and “culturally sustaining pedagogy.”
Culturally responsive teaching (CRT), also known as culturally relevant teaching, was initially popularized by Gloria Ladson-Billings. CRT isn’t a strategy or even a set of strategies; rather it is a mindset that underlies and guides everyday classroom practices. Its focus is on validating the cultural learning tools that diverse learners bring to the classroom and leveraging them to affect positive learning outcomes for all students.
Culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP) is an emerging perspective which builds on the tenets of culturally responsive teaching. This educational stance was first proposed by professor Django Paris who defines it as a pedagogy that “seeks to perpetuate and foster— to sustain — linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling.” In other words, making sure our educational practices not only respond to the diversity of languages and cultures in our classroom, but that they aim to sustain these elements at the center of teaching and learning.
Substantial research supports its effectiveness with both ELLs and English-proficient students.
What Does It Look Like in the ELL Classroom?
For us, it is an awareness that we try to bring to everything we do. It is a process we are constantly working on as we learn from our students and their experiences. Have we made mistakes along the way? Many. However, like we tell our students, mistakes are opportunities for learning, and we try our best to model this mindset.
Here are several critical questions we ask ourselves when considering how our work with ELLs can be more culturally responsive and sustaining:
How Well Do I Know My Students?
In order to build upon the rich linguistic and cultural experiences of our students, we must get to know them! This doesn’t mean doing interrogations on the first day of school, however. It means building positive relationships with our students so they feel safe sharing their experiences with us. It involves daily interactions with students to learn about their struggles, their joys, and their goals.
It means taking the time to gather information that the school may possess about our students — their English proficiency levels, assessment results, home language surveys, health information, transcripts from previous schooling, etc. It can also be making time to learn about students’ home countries, the conflicts that may be going on there, the cities or towns they come from, and the languages they speak.
Of course, a key factor in knowing our students is getting to know their families, as well.
Do My Words Reflect a Culturally Responsive Mindset When I am Talking to My Students and About My Students?
One of the simplest ways to honor students’ cultural backgrounds and identities is to correctly pronounce their names. Mispronouncing a student’s name and not making any attempt to get it right can cause them to feel embarrassed and can heighten their anxiety. Correctly pronouncing a student’s name signals respect and a validation of who they are. It is a critical first step in building strong, trusting relationships with students.
As teachers we also need to be mindful of the words we are using when discussing cultural experiences with students. Characterizing our students’ beliefs as “right” or “wrong,” through our words or our facial expressions, may sometimes not only be inaccurate, but removes students from the center of the teaching and learning process. We want students to feel comfortable sharing with each other and to build a community of learners where all experiences are valued. As teachers, we can be far more effective in raising questions than in making judgments. At the same time, it is also our job to teach U.S. cultural norms and laws (e.g. equal treatment of women and LGBTQ individuals) and create a classroom environment where everyone feels safe and respected. We can do this teaching in a way that is cognizant of our students’ home cultures which may or may not promote different perspectives.
For those of us who work in schools located in high-poverty areas, we can often be asked questions by well-meaning people like, “How do you do it?” “Aren’t you afraid working in that neighborhood?” “How can the students learn when their lives are so crazy?” In these situations, one can feel any number of emotions including anger, frustration, or hopelessness. It can be tempting to tell the “stories” of our students (the challenges or trauma they have faced) in an attempt to demonstrate their resilience. Unfortunately, sharing these details can often do more to perpetuate stereotypes than to shatter them. Instead, sharing with others about the rich cultural and linguistic contributions our students make to our school and to the community promotes culturally sustaining pedagogy.
Not only must we be intentional with our words and actions, we must educate ourselves so we truly believe in what we are saying and doing. If we don’t, students will see right through us, and we speak from direct experience.
How Are My Instructional Practices Culturally Responsive?
Many of us have tried to engage our students by “dropping” a cultural reference into a lesson (mentioning an important person or event from our student’s culture). While it usually gets students’ attention, it isn’t an instructional practice that can maximize student learning, and it isn’t a culturally responsive instructional practice.
Educators, on the other hand, can increase learning outcomes by teaching in ways that build on the cultural and linguistic experiences of their students. These methods, in turn, lead to increased engagement. Zaretta Hammond, educator and author of the book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” explains this when she states:
“The most common cultural tools for processing information utilize the brain’s memory systems — music, repetition, metaphor, recitation, physical manipulation of content, and ritual. The teacher is ‘responsive’ when she is able to mirror these ways of learning in her instruction, using similar strategies to scaffold learning.”
A specific example comes from our experience working with Hmong refugees. While in refugee camps, many Hmong women created “story cloths” (embroidery that told stories about their lives). In a series of lessons, our Hmong students created their own hand-drawn versions of story cloths and helped the non-Hmong students to do the same. We then used their creations as springboards to learn the English words needed to talk and write about these stories. Students were more engaged in this language-learning activity because it mirrored, valued, and respected an important part of their home culture.
We have used the process of building on cultural experiences to create language learning opportunities in many other lessons. These include ones where students have made presentations about their home cultures and done language learning activities related to both their favorite contemporary music and ancient cultural music. In addition, when learning about the elements of feudalism, students questioned the textbook authors’ claim that it ended hundreds of years ago when, in fact, their families recently experienced it in their own lives. This connection led to high-interest studying of the socio-economic conditions of various countries as well as direct student communication with textbook authors.
Culturally responsive instruction is ultimately student-centered. It requires the teacher to help students build upon their prior knowledge and cultural and linguistic experiences as they are challenged to read, write, speak, and think at high levels. For ELLs, in particular, it means using best practices like modeling, instructional scaffolding, and collaborative learning, just to name a few, to build the language, academic, and critical thinking skills they need to be successful lifelong learners.
How Is the Curriculum I am Using Culturally Responsive?
We, like most teachers, want to have an idea of what we will be teaching before we actually start teaching it! However, culturally responsive teachers must be flexible with their curriculum and allow for modifications based on students’ interests and experiences. Curriculum that is culturally responsive doesn’t mean having to incorporate texts and information about every student’s culture into every lesson. It also doesn’t mean having a token “multicultural” day once a year to “celebrate” different cultures.
In our experience, culturally responsive curriculum involves the following:
— trying our best to choose materials that represent diverse cultures and perspectives
— encouraging students to share their cultural and linguistic knowledge with each other
— allowing students to choose books they want to read from a diverse classroom library
— valuing literacy in both the home language and English
— inviting family and community members to the classroom to share cultural knowledge
— using digital content to instantly connect students to cultural and linguistic resources
— creating lessons on issues directly impacting students’ lives, including ones related to current political dynamics that might affect their immigration status and/or the situation in their countries. Student-driven lessons in our classes have included organizing a neighborhood-wide jobs fair with twenty job-training providers and 300 people in attendance, creating a neighborhood campaign to complete U.S. Census Forms, and writing letters to public officials about government immigration policy.
— facilitating open classroom dialogue about the role of race, racism, and religious prejudice (e.g. Islamophobia) in our students’ daily lives, including at school.
How Does My Physical Classroom Reflect Diversity?
When students enter our classrooms each day they receive critical messages about the learning environment and their place in it. Students feel more safe, supported, and valued, when they see themselves reflected in the classroom — Do the posters on the walls reflect multiple cultures and languages? Is student work displayed? Are the books in the classroom library written by diverse authors? Do students have access to bilingual dictionaries and books in their home languages? How are the seats arranged? Can students easily move into groups? Considering these questions and others is an important step toward creating a learning environment that values student diversity.
A Note of Caution
We are not martyrs, nor are we saviors. If you think you are, perhaps you should consider seeking a different profession. We still remember the time one of our former colleagues who lived in a predominantly white, middle class suburb of Sacramento spoke to students at a school pep rally. He exhorted the students to work hard in class. He continued “People ask me why I drive all the way down from Roseville to this neighborhood to teach you. It’s because I want to help you!” This is not a culturally responsive mindset. However, it is a mindset that we have probably had during different times of our career. The important thing is to be aware of our biases, work towards overcoming them, and be open to having them pointed out to us.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to help our students; that’s why we are teachers.
What is wrong is when we educators believe that students need to be fixed and that only we can fix them because we are already fixed.