IF Rubric

Understanding students’ lives can help teachers foster a sense of belonging and ensure that all students feel respected and challenged.

By Nikki Williams Rucker

December 10, 2019

Django / iStock

The world of education is buzzing with talk of being more culturally responsive, but what does that mean, and how important is it really?

When I talk about culture, I’m talking about norms, beliefs, and behaviors that are passed down from one generation to the next—the things that explain why a student might answer a question the way he does or why another might not feel comfortable looking you in the eye when you’re speaking to her. These aspects of culture are among the most misunderstood in the teacher-student dynamic and are often the things that cause students to get into the most trouble in the school discipline system. Culturally responsive teaching (CRT) attempts to bridge the gap between teacher and student by helping the teacher understand the cultural nuances that may cause a relationship to break down—which ultimately causes student achievement to break down as well.

In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond writes that “by third grade, many culturally and linguistically diverse students are one or more years behind in reading.” CRT is one of the most impactful tools for empowering students to find their way out of that achievement gap. This alone makes being culturally responsive one of the most important things you can learn at this moment.


The first step in being culturally responsive is to do an internal audit—yes, you read that right, an audit: truly digging deep inside of ourselves and recognizing and naming those things we don’t want to look at or talk about. The experiences we’ve had along our journey in life have formed stereotypes which have then turned into implicit bias. These unintentional, unconscious attitudes impact how we relate to our students and their parents, and how we choose curriculum, assess learning, and plan lessons. Harvard University’s Project Implicit has an online test you can take to examine your implicit bias.

Culturally responsive teachers also have to be aware of the sociopolitical context schools operate in and dare to go against that status quo. Students need to understand the system that is working around them in schools. Give them context and don’t be afraid to talk about the tough subjects that may not be addressed in your school. In addition to Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, another great resource is Affirming Diversity by Sonia Nieto. The most important part of this work is a willingness to do something different to get different results, with the goal of increasing academic achievement.

For your audit, take some time to ask yourself hard questions and reflect on past and current practices. Are you operating from a place of critical care within your classroom—a place that marries high expectations with empathy and compassion?  Are your students, regardless of socioeconomic status or background, being held to high standards? Has your past interaction with a particular race of people impacted your ability to communicate with parents? Identify those places in your instructional planning where you might have allowed your implicit biases to prevent you from pushing your students to achieve at optimal levels. Answering questions like these might be hard, but in order to create change, you have to identify and unearth the roots of your teaching practice.


Now that you have conducted an internal self-audit, your curriculum will need one as well. What books are students reading? Do they have a voice in what they read, where they sit, how they interact with each other?

Empowering students to take ownership of not just their learning but the environment itself is another critical component of CRT. One strategy for fostering a student-centered environment is having students create a classroom agreement that answers the question: “How will we be together?” Allowing students to answer this question will give you a window into how their cultures dictate the ways in which they want to feel respected, heard, safe, and included in the classroom and in their interactions with one another and with you. This reinforces the idea not only that they belong but that the way they show up at school every day, with all of their outside experiences in tow, has value.

Finally, put some thought into your lesson planning. You have taken the time to reflect and really look into your own biases that may have been getting in your way. You have revamped your classroom environment to reflect your students’ voices, their various cultural needs, and their choice. Now let’s have some fun. For example:

  • Encourage students to make a social media campaign that champions their favorite cause, and have them bring evidence of their results to class to discuss the role social media plays in social change.
  • Use current songs that students might love to analyze the use of literary techniques and imagery in music videos. Taylor Swift’s “Wildest Dreams” is a great one. Better yet, instead of assigning a song, ask students for their suggestions.
  • Watch and discuss documentaries like Race: The Power of an Illusion.
  • Zaretta Hammond shared three simple strategies you can use to make lessons in any subject more culturally responsive.

Our students need us now more than ever, and we have to roll up our sleeves and do what we must to close the achievement gap. Culturally responsive teaching is one step in the right direction. The outcome is a student body that loves learning, excels academically, and has teachers who respond to their needs.

Being culturally responsive encourages students to feel a sense of belonging and helps create a safe space where they feel safe, respected, heard, and challenged.




Culturally Responsive Teaching in Early Childhood Education

Four ways to validate and affirm young students’ cultures in meaningful ways, which can boost their engagement and motivation.

By Amanda Armstrong

June 25, 2020

There are various ways educators can approach working with multicultural groups of students, and it can be overwhelming to choose one that fits you. One approach that I’ve found myself consistently using, whether in early childhood or informal education, is culturally responsive teaching (CRT), which validates and affirms the cultures of the students and incorporates their cultures in multiple aspects of learning and the environment in meaningful ways. This approach also encourages educators to hold high expectations of the children and their ability to learn content.

Researchers and educators have demonstrated the effectiveness of this approach in supporting young children’s learning. From scholars, peers, and my own practice of integrating CRT, I’ve seen evidence of students being more engaged, motivated, and connected to the learning process.

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Supporting Schoolwide Culturally Responsive Practice

When teachers strive for more equity in the classroom, all students can contribute and feel a sense of belonging.

June 18, 2020

George Lucas Educational Foundation

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How to Plan When You Don’t Know What to Plan For

What school will look like in the fall is still uncertain for most of the U.S., but teachers can develop flexible plans that work for distance and in-class teaching.

By Katie Hicks, Sarah Schroeder

July 8, 2020

As teachers, we’re planners—it’s just who we are. But how do we plan when we don’t know what to plan for? During a recent professional development session with a local district, the number one question teachers asked me was what next year would look like. The truth is: We don’t know what’s coming our way. Even with glimpses of plans, no one really knows what’s coming.

With so much outside our control, there are a few things teachers can do now. Set up your classroom to operate in all ways: face-to-face, remote, and blended (a combination of both). Know that you’re likely to use all these methods at some point next year.

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How to Improve Distance Learning for Students With IEPs

Strategies for parental involvement and synchronous and asynchronous activities can help students with individualized education programs.

By Kathryn Welby

June 29, 2020

Distance learning isn’t easy for most students, but it is particularly difficult for those with learning differences that require individualized education programs (IEPs).

This year, at the request of Merrimack College Institute for New Teacher Support (MINTS), I provided professional development for K–12 schools on teaching children with IEPs remotely. Quickly, I reached out to a handful of highly qualified teachers, administrators, and therapists working remotely with students who had been diagnosed with learning challenges. Through a quick survey, educators provided best practices and passed on the survey to their colleagues. Within five days, more than 90 educators had responded from more than 30 school districts across the Northeast.

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2 Simple Ways to Improve Online Instruction

Distance learning started as an emergency in the spring, but teachers are finding ways to make it better, even for students working on smartphones.

By Jorge Valenzuela

July 17, 2020

As the new school year looms in the U.S., many teachers are unsure of the exact amount of time they will need to dedicate to remote teaching. With departments of education and districts looking to maintain both teacher and student attendance while minimizing the risk of coronavirus outbreaks in their schools, we know that remote learning isn’t going away at this time.

Through staggered calendars and schedules, many schools hope to keep their students and staff safe by reducing class sizes in efforts to maintain social distancing for the time being. Although research on staggered scheduling shows that the practice can have positive effects on academic results, educators will need to continue making pedagogical shifts and pivots to adjust to yet another new instructional day in their efforts to engage all learners.

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Designing Your LMS to Make Distance Learning Better

Intentionally setting up a learning management system where everything students need is easy to access can help them all be successful.

By Sarah Schroeder

July 14, 2020

When remote learning hit, I was ready. My daughter had been in online school for three years. I teach technology integration. But during this time, our family struggled. I found that my son, a straight-A student in a traditional school setting, got distracted, lost track of assignments, and struggled academically.

So what happened? And what would help students like him? It seems to me that we teachers can use our learning management system (LMS)—Canvas, Schoology, Google Classroom, etc.—to build a digital home base for our learners. Grounding design in a delicate combination of empathy and simplicity, we can use our LMS to build community, increase usability, and keep everyone on track and on task.

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Using Project-Based Learning to Prepare Students for Cutting-Edge Careers

Hoping to prepare high school graduates to solve complex, real-world problems, an Ohio STEM school found answers in project-based learning.

By Sarah Gonser

July 24, 2020

When the community of Dayton, Ohio—charged in 2008 with founding a STEM high school—pondered how to bring life to its mission of connecting students to real-world outcomes, they didn’t need to look far. Within Dayton city limits, employers like GE Aviation, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and Kettering Health Network were seeking employees who could be, in the words of the Ohio Department of Education, “innovators and inventors, self-reliant and logical thinkers, and technologically proficient problem solvers.” The area was rich with opportunities in applied science and mathematics.

In other words, local industry was looking for just the type of inquisitive STEM student that the Dayton Regional STEM School was trying to develop. To connect the dots, educators at the school adopted a project-based learning (PBL) approach to instruction that focuses on addressing real-world issues, with an emphasis on solving authentic, interdisciplinary problems. For example, for a 10th-grade assignment exploring the question “How can we reduce the impact of cancer in the Dayton region?” students worked in groups across language arts, health and fitness, and biology classes to research, write, and produce PSA videos that were shared with the Dayton community via social media. Local industry experts—in this case, doctors, nurses, and marketing specialists—served as “critical friends,” providing students with feedback throughout the project.

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Reflections—and Lessons Learned—From Remote Learning

Experiences during remote learning inspire a teacher to reconsider—and refresh—her curriculum for the fall.

By Carly Berwick

July 24, 2020

Our last day of the school year, three months and a week after we went virtual, brought a strange sadness. After the whirlwind and stress of the last few months, the end felt like a slow exhale instead of a bang—or, as a student said, one of those balloons that float to the ceiling outside your grasp and then slowly deflate on their own. At the end of class, we waved goodbye and said, “Thanks,” and then one by one, my high school students clicked off, leaving me staring at my own face on the screen.

Things moved so quickly since mid-March that it’s been hard to stop and let everything sink in. When I got the results of my first Covid test back negative, it was a poignant reminder that other people in my community—people I know—have not been as lucky. Some have died. As I write this, for the first quiet moment in a while, I have time to feel deeply sad for them.

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Teaching African History and Cultures Across the Curriculum

Africa is much more than pyramids, slavery, and colonialism, and incorporating deeper study of the continent has many benefits for students.

By Elsa Wiehe

July 23, 2020

“We do teach about Africa—our school covers units on ancient Egypt, slavery, and colonialism” is a notion often heard in curriculum discussions in American schools. While significant, these topics are a minuscule drop of water in a vast sea of knowledge about Africa.

As Dr. Jonathan Weaver eloquently states, “The only dark part of Africa is our lack of knowledge about it.” To prioritize global education and antiracist practices, here are four strategies to expand the curricular range across grade levels.

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Using Sound Texts in Antiracist Teaching

Speeches, music, podcasts, and interviews can be highly engaging, accessible elements of antiracist lessons.

By Anne Mooney, Danah Hashem

July 23, 2020

Educators are facing the intimidating reality of remote classrooms this fall; many are also looking for new ways to promote antiracism because familiar methods may have seemed more authentic, manageable, or accessible in an in-person classroom. We would like to offer some ideas for how humanities teachers in particular can use texts that use sound—podcasts, speeches, interviews, music, and the like—to integrate antiracist content into online classrooms.

Texts written with sound offer a number of high-value benefits to a remote classroom, including being organically accessible to English language learners and students with learning challenges like dyslexia, as well as being simple and affordable. Working with sound also allows educators to teach necessary skills in new and exciting ways that invite both intellectual play and literacy with digital tools. However, while all of these features are important, one of the most essential things about sound texts is their capacity to promote antiracism in the classroom.


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