Tap Into Culturally Responsive Teaching

By Elizabeth Maughan, OSDE Director of Fine Arts


Culturally Responsive Teaching, or CRT, incorporates cultural understanding to better elicit, engage, motivate, support and expand students’ intellectual capacity (Hammond, 2015). Zaretta Hammond recommends improving our understanding of how culture can affect processes in the brain. There are three levels of culture that may affect students:

  • Surface culture of an individual includes food, dress, music and holidays. 
  • Shallow culture includes social norms, eye contact, personal space and nonverbal communication. 
  • Deep culture includes our understanding of right and wrong, ethics and spirituality. All challenges to a student’s culture will elicit a response, but when their deep culture is challenged or negated, their reaction will be emotional and intense. 

Understanding a student’s culture is key to helping him process information. If a student is challenged about his beliefs, his amygdala (the reptilian fight or flight part of the brain) will go into overdrive. The amygdala will release cortisol that stops all learning for about 20 minutes and stays in the body for up to three hours. In addition, the brain remembers and responds to negative experiences up to three times more than positive experiences. In some cases, we are asking students to learn while they are remembering/replaying negative events and battling a cortisol release. 


An effective tool to helping students learn and keep learning is to build relationships. Positive relationships keep students’ safety-threat detection system in check.


Teachers can do simple things such as:

  • Greet students at the door every day.  Ask them a question about their favorite color, upcoming events, etc.  Use these responses to assess how students where students are as they start the day. To avoid a cortisol release, teachers should save questions about the home morning routine for later - teachers have no way of knowing how the student’s day is going so far if this is the first interaction they’ve had with the student.  
  • Talk to students outside of class. Pick a student to talk to at recess, lunch and hallway transitions. Ask them about their family’s favorite food, holidays, etc. Find out if they have siblings at home or other relatives living with them. Understanding the student’s culture and the home environment they’re coming from each day is key to understanding behavior and responses in class.
  • If you have a student who is a bit of a mystery, ask other teachers about the student. Look at their class schedule and meet with a few teachers to discuss how they meet the student’s needs in their room. Elective teachers usually know every student in the school, and they have a wealth of information to share (past interactions, behaviors, siblings, etc.). 
  • Call home with positive news! Sometimes a simple call home will open a huge window into the student’s life. Understanding the student and supporting them means we need to reach out and interact with parents, grandparents, older siblings, etc. 

Culturally Responsive Teaching is not including songs from a student’s heritage in class or adding holidays in the school calendar. CRT is understanding the student’s culture, responding to it in a positive way and building relationships. Trust and caring are at the core of helping students learn. Work to build relationships with students in your classes and encourage others in your building to do the same. 


Recommended reading:

Hammond, Zaretta.  2015. Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students.


Elizabeth has taught for 14 years in Oklahoma and Kansas, most recently in Piedmont, and is running the OKC half marathon for the seventh year in a row this spring.

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Last updated on January 4, 2019