A Personal Journey to Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning

By: | 02/09/2021
Categories: Instruction, Leadership

My friend Dr. Sharroky Hollie is a preeminent thought leader on culturally responsive teaching and someone I could speak to for days. When I was a guest on his Outrageous Love the Podcast, we kept our discussion focused on education and how my early learning and teaching experiences have shaped my beliefs and the work I do today.

Our conversation woke old memories and reminded me of the many important lessons that led to my belief in culturally responsive teaching—lessons that I’m now sharing here.

Lesson 1: Check Your Assumptions

My family and I came to Miami in 1983 as political refugees from Nicaragua. When I entered first grade at Everglades Elementary, I didn’t understand the language nor the culture. Why are our seats arranged this way? How come the other students are interacting with the teacher like that? It stills pains me that my teachers and classmates thought I wasn’t intelligent because I didn’t speak English.

In my first year of teaching at Dallas Independent School District—I taught English as a Second Language (ESL) to fourth through sixth grade combined—I discovered that one of my fifth grade students, David, was also a victim of painful assumptions.

When I went to speak to the principal about David, he told me, “Well, he speaks Spanish and so he should be able to test in Spanish.” After working with David, I came back to my principal and told him that David, in fact, didn’t speak nor read in Spanish— he was illiterate in two languages.

Once I understood the gravity of David’s situation, I sought advice from my fellow primary teachers, grabbed some books, and started teaching him to read as best I could. Over the course of the year, David and I worked hard together to get him to at least a first grade reading level. I also had to challenge him to change his mindset. David was not an immigrant. He was, in fact, a student who wasted his intellectual energy on figuring out how to go through the system doing just the bare minimum. I wanted him to want more for himself.

I think about David and students like him a lot in the work I do today. How do we help teachers do what I had to do? Better yet, how do we all become better at questioning our assumptions so that students like David don’t fall through the cracks?

Listen to Claudia’s conversation with Dr. Hollie, as well as other episodes of “Outrageous Love the Podcast” on Buzz Sprout, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Lesson 2: A Tamale Is Not Always a Tamale

I identify as a Hispanic, a Nicaraguan, and as a US citizen. I’m married to a man who identifies as Mexican-American, and we are very different, yet the same. Our favorite foods are different. The words we use are different.

I still must think about the cultural differences and ask myself, “How can he eat so much chile (spicy food)?” He must have been eating spicy food from a young age to tolerate this much heat. It has always fascinated me how food is such a part of a culture.

Ever since I had my first tamale in the United States, they’ve come to represent, at least for me, the nuances of Hispanic cultures and identities.

When most Americans think of tamales, they think of Mexican tamales: masa dough with chicken or pork and various sauces wrapped in corn husks. But there are many different kinds of tamales. In fact, many Central and South American countries have their own version of a tamale. In Nicaragua, our tamales are called “nacatamales.” Nacatamales use banana leaves instead of corn husks, and they hold a pile of potatoes and pork and sometimes even raisins. They. Are. Amazing. The first time someone in Texas asked me if I wanted a tamale, I may have screamed, “Yes!” I told them just one because I was expecting a huge, banana leaf–wrapped, delicious nacatamale.

The small corn husk bundle I was handed was good . . . But when you’re expecting a taste of home, anything else will disappoint.

The takeaway for all educators?

Have conversations with your students about cultural identities. Don’t assume they all identify as Latinx. Give them opportunities to discuss elements of their cultures. Encourage conversations about differences and shared experiences. Your classroom will become a much more interesting and welcoming place for your efforts.

Give students opportunities to discuss elements of their cultures. Encourage them to share stories. Your classroom will become a much more interesting and welcoming place for your efforts.

Lesson 3: Embrace Culturally Responsive Practices

When I taught first grade math, every one of my students was of Hispanic descent and, like me, came from families and cultures with strong storytelling traditions. When I realized how much my students and I both loved stories, it was an incredible gift. It was a perfect example of recognizing situational appropriateness, which Dr. Hollie, the Executive Director of The Center for Culturally Responsive Teaching and Learning, defines as “the concept of determining what cultural or linguistic behavior is most appropriate for the situation.”

As soon as I got a better handle on my classroom time management (stories have a way of gulping time, and I really love to talk), I began to think of ways I could use stories other than as a tool to engage students. How could I use stories to instruct them, to help them learn?

I knew my students loved to watch telenovelas—Spanish-language television dramas—with their families in the evenings and leveraged this to teach summarization—an important first grade skill they needed to master. I began asking students to summarize telenovela episodes they’d watched the evening before in class in five sentences or fewer.

The exercise was a huge success. It helped my students learn how to pick out essential information, and it was my earliest experience of meeting students “where they are”—though I didn’t realize that was what I was doing until many, many years later.

Lesson 4: Use the Personal to Improve the Universal

Frank Salinas, my husband of 23 years, is a teacher. He is, in fact, a great teacher. I draw so much inspiration from our conversations, and I feel very lucky that I’m able to have a window into classroom teaching through him. Frank is generous with his knowledge and cares deeply about his students, which shows in this video he made to help other educators deliver the i-Ready Diagnostic during remote learning in spring 2020.

My three wonderful children are another bottomless well of inspiration. The fact that two of my children have been the only Hispanic students in their AP classrooms makes me want to make sure more students are exposed to grade-level learning and high expectations. And by advocating for my child who has dyslexia, I’ve become an advocate for all students.

My family, my coworkers, and the many dedicated educators I get to meet remind me constantly that improving education takes a whole community. It's not just a superintendent or just a teacher. Edtech companies, too, must do our part by delivering content that is culturally responsive and having programs with supports for all students.

Teacher and students sitting on the floor.

Grants and Funding Hub

Curriculum Associates' grants and funding team has assembled resources to help educators and administrators make sense of new federal funding sources, plan for summer school, and understand how our programs meet funding requirements. 

Your Local Curriculum Associates Contact

VA-Shenique Mens-Smith
Your Local Curriculum Associates Contact