What Does a Culturally Responsive Classroom Feel Like, Sound Like, and Look Like?

By: | 05/28/2021
Category: Instruction

You may be hearing a lot of buzz lately around culturally responsive teaching, its value to students, and its potential to narrow the opportunity gap (i.e., the achievement gap) in our country’s education system. However, the volume of content and conversations about a subject don’t necessarily correlate with clarity. Indeed, buzz can create more confusion.

In "What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?," my colleague Glendaliz Martinez introduced culturally responsive teaching as an instructional practice/philosophy. In this post, I want to cover the on-the-ground realities of what a culturally responsive classroom feels, sounds, and looks like for teachers and students. (I use the word “feels” intentionally and literally. Emotional connection is at the heart of the culturally responsive classroom, and it involves learning and growing for both students and teachers.)

Feel: Respected, Validated, Trusting, and Safe

Nothing you see or hear in a classroom is culturally responsive unless it is built on a foundation of respect, trust, and safety. Just as teachers need to feel respected and heard to teach effectively, students need to feel respected and heard to learn effectively. Once this atmosphere is in place, students are enabled to excel.

In order for White teachers to respect and hear students who are Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), they must be aware of how the cultural gap between themselves and their students affects their work. In these situations, respect involves actively cultivating and maintaining an awareness that students’ culturally derived beliefs and behaviors may differ from their own. This is important because when there is a cultural gap, students’ attempts to actively learn or participate may be misinterpreted by the teacher as attempts to disrupt or challenge.

The teacher’s awareness of cultural differences is ideally strengthened by an understanding of BIPOC children’s past—and even current—experiences in White-dominant school culture. For these students, being misunderstood and consequently disciplined or dismissed at school is sadly common. This is why culturally responsive teaching involves practices that attempt to counter this damaging treatment by validating and affirming who students are and how they see the world. Needless to say, validation and affirmation are things all children should experience in school, but when students come from a different cultural background than their teachers, providing validation and affirmation at the right times can be complex.

When students feel respected and valued, they feel emotionally safe, and the door opens for them to trust. Stephen Brookfield’s The Skillful Teacher: On Technique, Trust, and Responsiveness in the Classroom explains how trust and safety are central to learning:

"Not trusting teachers has several consequences for students. They are unwilling to submit themselves to the perilous uncertainties of new learning. They avoid risk. They keep their most deeply felt concerns private. They view with cynical reserve the exhortations and instructions of teachers."

Perhaps you yourself have experienced the above issue while in the role of student—I know I have. Zaretta Hammond, in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, distills what this means for educators: “It is the job of the culturally responsive teacher to build trust and rapport in order to reassure our students that they are safe and cared for.” But misunderstandings arising from cultural differences between teacher and student can make this difficult at times, leading educators to overlook subtleties of students’ viewpoints or miss opportunities to validate and affirm their attempts to participate in learning. Specific protocols for culturally responsive teaching can be invaluable here, providing structures within which teachers can practice validating and affirming students by reinforcing and rewarding their trust.

Culturally responsive teaching is an ongoing process of relationship building, self-awareness, and learning, but teachers who strive to make students feel respected, validated, affirmed, trusted, and safe have already taken a big step in the right direction. Now let’s look at what kind of engagement is possible when students feel the benefits of all this work.

Sound: Sometimes Quiet, Sometimes Voices Together

If you listen in on a culturally responsive classroom, you’ll hear:


In her recent webinar, “Culturally Responsive Classrooms,” Martinez presented a culturally and linguistically responsive strategy from Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius that can be particularly effective at the start of school: “Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you mine.” As Martinez explained, the teacher as well as the student are invited to share who they are in this exercise: “How you grew up, the things that you believe, the things you no longer believe, things you had to learn and unlearn.” The teacher shares verbally while the students use their writing skills to share on paper (or on a keyboard). The simple act of sharing, and of being asked about themselves, can make students feel safe and accepted while they practice expressing who they are through writing.

Voices in Unison

Curriculum Associates has been supported in our culturally responsive teaching work by the Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning (CCRTL) in Los Angeles. One of their suggested activities, which teachers can use remotely and in the classroom, is called “True That/Yep That's Me.” In this activity, the teacher reads out various statements that could apply to students, and if the statement is true for them, they should shout out/chime in "True that" or "Yep that's me" while raising a hand, clapping, or giving some other visual indication that they agree with the statement.

This activity engages students in three ways: through movement, speech, and self-expression. It also gives students an opportunity to see the things they have in common with one another. Examples that the CCRTL gives include, “You did a lot of TikToks this summer” and “You visited a relative through the window/door.” Once students have gotten into the flow of the activity, the teacher can shift the questions to ones that relate to learning objectives.

Look: Safe and Inviting

Because culturally responsive teaching is all about engaging all students and creating a sense of safety and trust, this initiative can begin with the classroom’s walls and layout. In this sense, culturally responsive teaching is simply a variation on best practices that considers the students’ interests and lived experiences. This well-researched article from Edutopia lays out a number of proven best practices for classroom decorating. I have chosen two that can be especially important for cultural responsiveness.

If you peek into a culturally responsive classroom, you’ll see:

Student Work on Display

One well-known recommendation for classrooms is to display student work. When their work is displayed, as researchers found in “Clever Classrooms: Summary Reports of the HEAD Project,” students are more likely to participate in the learning process. This responsibility for, or ownership of, learning is especially important for students who may feel excluded from a White-dominant school culture.

But even more important—in my opinion—is that when students see their work displayed, it creates a powerful signal of belonging. One of the hallmarks of establishing a feeling of safety is to make the classroom a place where all students feel like they belong. Displaying their work—a physical representation of their learning—is a powerful way to do that.

Role Models Who Are Relevant to Students

Other than students’ artwork, classroom walls should feature images of role models who represent students’ interests, inspiring quotes, books, and more (Cheryan, Meltzoff, Plaut, & Ziegler, 2014). What does it mean to represent students’ backgrounds and interests? First, you have to know your students—what are their backgrounds and interests? If many of the girls in the class are interested in science, for example, images of famous female scientists would be responsive. If a classroom is majority Latinx, the role models displayed there should also be majority Latinx. The idea is to show students that they belong and that they can succeed.

Final Thoughts

Clearly, there are infinite expressions of culturally responsive teaching. But ultimately, they all boil down to earning students’ trust by showing that you—and by extension, the school—respect and value them. Everything you see and hear in a culturally responsive classroom is an outgrowth of the trust established in this way.

Since 2018, Curriculum Associates has increasingly sought to support educators’ pursuit of culturally responsive teaching and to better the cultural and linguistic responsiveness of our products.

See Examples from Lessons in i-Ready Personalized Instruction

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Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

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