Boost Student Engagement with Culturally Responsive Lessons

Whitney Gordon
Whitney Gordon
Special Education and English Teacher; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership, Thomas University, GA

My fondest memories as a student occurred within the haven of my English classrooms. Although I leapt at every chance to express myself through any written format, I remember that the literature we studied was often a monotonous cycle of texts representing a culture that was not my own. About once a year, well-meaning English teachers would dust off a black literature text that was aimed at engaging learners like me. This was the bulk of my experience with culturally relevant teaching – reading about the lives of my predecessors whose plight I could only imagine. Though these texts did serve a purpose, they ended up missing the cultural relevancy mark.

Culture is the fiber of who we are. It encompasses everything from the food we eat to the art we admire, and even includes the way that we approach learning. When seeking to engage students in the classroom, a teacher must make a conscious effort to deliver lessons that are culturally relevant. While it may seem difficult at the surface due to standards and testing requirements, culturally responsive teaching is beneficial and necessary. Below we will dive into how infusing your lessons with culture will enhance student engagement and discuss practical ways to maintain a culturally relevant classroom.

How Culturally Relevant Lessons Engage Students

In order to exercise culturally relevant teaching, you must first understand who your students are and what issues they face. As adults, we are somewhat removed from the culture of our students even if we share a similar heritage. Taking time to understand how your students live, how they learn, and what matters to them is crucial. Once armed with this information, using it to drive your instruction will increase learning engagement.

Culturally relevant lessons are engaging because they are personalized. They make the students themselves the foundation for learning. Students are more likely to engage in lessons that are tailored to their experiences and needs. They are more likely to be enthusiastic about learning when they can make connections between the work and their world. Cultural relevance is the answer to the “why are we learning this” questions. When learning has a clear purpose, students are more likely to invest.

Ways to Implement Culturally Responsive Lessons

Encourage Student Voice

When it comes to cultural relevancy, your students are the experts. Spending copious hours poring over research to understand your students’ culture is futile when you have walking, talking cultural goldmines in the classroom. Set aside time for activities that allow students to express who they are and where their passions lie. This can be done through a survey, discussion, writing assignment, or even a project. Be sure to take notes and keep them accessible during planning time. When assessing culture, you become the student.

Embed Culturally Relevant Content

When you know what comprises your students’ cultures, embed this information into your lessons. This could range from analyzing song lyrics from their preferred musical genre to using real-world information in math problems. When teaching research, allow students some autonomy that includes cultural choices.

Make Connections to Real-World Issues

We are living in a time when technology can give students endless exposure to issues that plague our society today. As such, our students are often very informed and have valuable insight and opinions. Provide a safe space in your classroom where students can discuss, analyze, and even plan to solve real-world issues. While many modern issues often breed controversy, we must remember that we aim to raise well-informed, involved citizens.

Teach and Expect Tolerance

In order to cultivate a classroom environment that embraces culture, it is imperative that you teach students to be tolerant and demand respect for others. Tolerance prohibits judgement and creates a safe learning environment. Teaching students to accept and celebrate others, no matter how different, is a life-altering endeavor.

Practice Inclusive Cultural Relevancy

Every student’s culture matters, even if their culture is unique to only them. Find a way to include the culture of every student you teach throughout the year. Even if one student has a culture that is different, this serves as an invaluable learning experience for all students.

Include Parents and Families

Understanding student culture is a learning curve. Who better to support you in this effort than the families that belong to the students’ cultures? This can be as simple as sending home a parent essay and can even include inviting parents in as guest speakers. This also fosters a sense of community amongst your students and shows that who they are matters.

Culturally responsive teaching is exciting and worthwhile. It provides an opportunity for you to learn from your students while instilling pride within them. When culture is a priority in the classroom, student engagement will always surge.

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