Professional Development

Culture in the Classroom

Educators today hear a lot about gaps in education – achievement gaps, funding gaps, school-readiness gaps. Still, there's another gap that often goes unexamined: the cultural gap between students and teachers.

A bunch of teachers here, they think they know what's wrong with us. But they don't know. If people want to help us, they have to see what we've been through, not from what their own experiences tell them.

— Billie, a Lakota teen speaking of the teachers at her high school

Most of us in the education profession are white, middle-class, monolingual-English speakers. Increasingly, the same profile does not hold true for our students. Often, when we stand before our classrooms, the faces looking back at us do not look like our own. Many of us try to bridge this difference with an embrace of color-blindness or the Golden Rule, treating others the way we would want to be treated.

But the truth is: culture matters.

Culture isn't just a list of holidays or shared recipes, religious traditions, or language; it is a lived experience unique to each individual. As educators, it's our job to stimulate the intellectual development of children, and, in this era, it's simply not enough to operate on the axis of color-blindness.

To truly engage students, we must reach out to them in ways that are culturally and linguistically responsive and appropriate, and we must examine the cultural assumptions and stereotypes we bring into the classroom that may hinder interconnectedness.

Overcoming Stereotypes

To engage students effectively in the learning process, teachers must know their students and their academic abilities individually, rather than relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes or prior experience with other students of similar backgrounds.

Many teachers, for example, admire the perceived academic prowess and motivation of Asian American students and fail to recognize how even a "positive" stereotype isn't positive if it presses students into molds not built for them individually.

Hear elementary school teacher, Diane Holtam, speak about how she works with other teachers to disabuse stereotypic notions of Asian American students' abilities.

Look For:

  • What are some of the myths about Asian American students in the classroom that Diane speaks about?
  • How does Diane suggest teachers reach out to Asian students?

Go Deeper:

You're Asian, How Could You Fail at Math?
In this essay from Rethinking Schools, Benji Chang and Wayne Au unmask the myth of the "model minority."

Reflect On:

  • How are Asian students and their non-Asian counterparts affected by inappropriate teacher expectations and stereotypes?
  • Which of the strategies that the authors offer to overcome this "model minority" myth can you use in your classroom? Can you think of other ways to build cohesion and understanding in your classroom?

Ready Resources:

Common Beliefs Survey
Test yourself for hidden biases
Common Beliefs

Culturally Relevant Curriculum

Curriculum, in its most simple, essential, commonly understood form, is the "what" of education. It is crucial to academic performance and essential to culturally responsive pedagogy. Even the most "standard" curriculum decides whose history is worthy of study, whose books are worthy of reading, which curriculum and text selections that include myriad voices and multiple ways of knowing, experiencing, and understanding life can help students to find and value their own voices, histories, and cultures.

Hear high school creative writing teacher, Foster Dickson, talk about text selection and the importance of a diverse selection of authors.

Look For:

  • What does Foster say about including authors of different backgrounds and the message it sends to his students?
  • How does he think reading authors from different backgrounds will impact his students?

Go Deeper:

Learning Lakota
For a high school on South Dakota's Rosebud Reservation, culturally responsive curriculum is proving a hefty antidote to the violence, poverty and growing cultural disconnect hindering student success.

Reflect On:

  • How do the teachers at Todd County High School use culturally relevant teaching methods to connect with their Lakota students? How do the students interviewed say this makes them feel about themselves and their studies?
  • Does the disconnect between student cultural background and teacher cultural background that exists in the story, exist in your school? How can you bridge this disconnect?

Ready Resources:

Foster's Reading List (PDF)
Find great books with the searchable database from the Center for Cultural Fluency
Find additional resources using Otter Cross Cultural Center from Cal State Monterey Bay

Honoring Home Languages

Teachers are often a young immigrant's first regular, ongoing contact with someone outside their home community and culture. It's a relationship that can provide the emotional scaffolding necessary to cross the linguistic and cultural divide between country of origin and country of residency.

With a hearty mix of creativity, cultural acumen, and professional expertise, teachers can help English language learners acquire language skills more rapidly — and foster inclusion in the school community.

Listen to elementary teacher, Diane Holtam, talk about bridging the gap between her newly arrived immigrant students' home language and English.

Look for:

  • What techniques did Diane use to help her ELL students learn English more quickly?
  • How might you replicate some of her strategies in your classroom? Even if you are a monolingual English speaker, what outreach or other work might you do?

Go Deeper:

Crossing Borders/Borders Crossing
The depth and clarity of a teacher's multicultural lens can make — or break — immigrant students' ability to learn.

Reflect On:

  • What does the author mean by "multicultural lens" and what is its importance in working with students from backgrounds different from your own?
  • What role does teacher attitude play in the development of linguistically inclusive classrooms? How is that attitude conveyed through teacher behavior in the article? In your school?

Ready Resources:

Diane's Flashcards (PDF)
Hear Korean vowel sounds like those on Diane's flashcards
Creating ELL-friendly classrooms
Teaching through conversation

Additional Resources



  • Nene and the Horrible Math Monster ($16.95), by Marie Villanueva and Ria Unson, is about Nene, a Filipino girl who confronts the minority myth that all Asians excel at mathematics. Nene faces her fears about doing math and overcomes them. Polychrome Publishing Corporation. ISBN-13 9781879965027
  • Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research and practice. ($24.95) by Geneva Gay. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000. ISBN-10: 0807739545 ISBN-13: 978-0807739549
  • Teaching to change the world, 3rd Edition. ($66.25) by Jeannie Oakes and Martin Lipton. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2006. ISBN-10: 0072982004 ISBN-13: 978-0072982008
  • Unraveling the Model Minority Stereotype: Listening to Asian-American Youth. ($19.95) by Stacey J. Lee. New York: Teachers College Press, 1996. ISBN-10: 0807735094 ISBN-13: 978-0807735091
  • We can't teach what we don't know: White teachers, multiracial schools, 2nd Edition. ($13.95) by Gary Howard. New York: Teachers College Press, 2006. ISBN-10: 0807746657 ISBN-13: 978-0807746653
  • The Crosscultural Language and Academic Development Handbook: A Complete K-12 Reference Guide. ($69.60) by Lynne T. Diaz-Rico and Kathryn Z. Weed. Boston: Pearson, 2006. ISBN-10: 0205443257, ISBN-13: 978-0205443253


Willis Hawley, Jacqueline Jordan Irvine and Melissa Landa designed the instruments and framework for this activity.

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