Cultural Competence in the Classroom

"In an equitable learning environment, all students can learn." - Jeffrey Heil

The first time I experienced culture shock was during the summer of my sophomore year in high school. I was accepted into a Japanese Exchange Student Program and boarded a plane to Japan with a cohort of eleven other high school students from across the state of Delaware.  I was paired with a Japanese student named Ryo Suzuki and I lived with him and his family for two weeks in the prefecture of Miyagi, just north of Tokyo.  In those two weeks I discovered what it felt like to look different from everyone else around me, and to speak a language that was unfamiliar to others. I felt insecure, nervous, and a sense of loneliness. And I imagined that this is what some students from other countries or cultures must feel like when they attend a school in America that doesn't have a diverse community.

I was fortunate that Ryo spoke English pretty well and was able to translate for me whenever I would talk with his family or others in public. He also acted as a guide wherever we traveled—school, the train station, restaurants, stores— which helped me to feel more comfortable in such a foreign place. We became fast friends and soon realized that we had common interests in music and sports—we both liked the band Green Day, played the guitar, and enjoyed soccer. It didn’t take long for me to figure out that we were more alike than we were unalike.

On my first day of school, I quickly learned that my appearance and language weren’t the only things that I found to be different from my experience in public high school in rural Delaware.  In Japan, students would arrive at school about an hour or two before class even started. And as soon as they entered the school building the first thing they would do is take off their shoes. Students would place their shoes in their shoe locker—located in the foyer of the building near the entrance—and put on their school shoes.  This had the dual purpose of respecting the school as a learning institution, as well as helping to keep it clean. I remember this one time Ryo and I switched our school shoes for a brief moment just for fun. I made the joke that it was the first time I had literally and figuratively stepped in someone else's shoes.

What I found most fascinating was the fact that the school didn't have any custodians. The students were the ones responsible for cleaning up after themselves and each other.  After putting on their school shoes they would walk straight to the library where they began to do homework, or study for exams.  When class was about to start, they would report to their assigned classroom—for the entire day.  In this Japanese school, the teachers would rotate to different rooms toting along a cart of teaching materials.  And at the end of the day when classes were finished, students would revisit the library for another hour or two to finish up their homework or continue studying. If you do the math, this means that they went to school from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., or twelve hours a day, everyday. 

After experiencing the Japanese Education System, I now understand how culture can play a significant role in teaching and learning.  Japanese students go to school all year long and they are in school at least three to four hours longer than American students. What’s more, they are taught to be more disciplined by staying with math problems longer. And because they spend more time in school, coupled with their tenacity in problem-solving, they consistently have some of the highest scores on standardized tests—like many other East Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Singapore—that are used to compare world education rankings.

I also found that Japanese people deeply value education and instill spirit, ethics, character, and culture into the curriculum. And by intentionally integrating these elements in the classroom, it helps students to find meaning and purpose in their education—which is why Japanese students are so often devoted to learning and understanding the world that they live in.

Because of this, I found that Japanese students think Americans value quality of life more than their education.  In fact, every Japanese student that I talked to said the same thing—they are envious that Americans have more free time and opportunities to explore their interests and talents. Although they do believe in enriching and vitalizing their lives with nature, arts, and sports, they do not have as much recreational time as Americans do. I found this to be ironic because Americans are often envious that Japanese students perform so well on standardized tests. Interestingly enough, we each had what the other culture wanted.  It really made me think about the importance of balancing school and home life, and how these values can impact students of various cultures.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

My participation in the Japanese Exchange Student Program was such an eye-opening experience for me, and it still makes me think about the role that culture plays in education today.  As The United States continues to become more diverse as a nation, it has never been more important to make each one of our students feel unique and valuable in the classroom.  We need our students to feel acknowledged for who they are as people, appreciated for what they can contribute to our communities, and celebrated for their individual strengths and talents. We need to make sure that we provide equitable learning opportunities so that all of our students can succeed. And we need to take personal responsibility to create an inclusive learning environment that promotes a sense of belonging in our classroom. Put simply, we need to be culturally responsive. 

Zaretta Hammond, author of Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain tells us that “Cultural responsiveness is not a practice; it’s what informs our practice so we can make better teaching choices for eliciting, engaging, motivating, supporting, and expanding the intellectual capacity of ALL our students” [1].  In other words, it’s a way of thinking that helps us to create an equitable and inclusive classroom experience for our students to maximize their learning. And educators who are able to leverage this mindset are better positioned to implement what is referred to as culturally responsive teaching (CRT).

In her book, Hammond defines culturally responsive teaching as “an educator’s ability to recognize students’ cultural displays of learning and meaning making and respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and content in order to promote effective information processing” [1].  Hammond continues the definition to include, “All the while, the educator understands the importance of being in a relationship and having a social-emotional connection to the student in order to create a safe space for learning” [1]. In an attempt to digest this definition a bit more easily, I recreated a modified definition using these five words: relationships, recognize, respond, relevance, and readiness (See Figure 1). 

When teachers are culturally responsive they are attuned to each child’s unique learning needs, which allows them to make intentional, cultural connections to help their students build upon their prior knowledge. Hammond reminds us that “All learners have to connect new content to what they already know” [1].  But she also informs us that “What we already know is organized according to our cultural experiences, values, and concepts” [1]. In other words, culture is how the brain processes information to create meaning. 

Figure 1: The Five Rs of Culturally Responsive Teaching, adapted from Hammond (2015)

By using the analogy of a computer, Hammond helps us to understand the relationship between culture and learning.  She asks us to “Think of culture as software for the brain’s hardware. The brain uses cultural information to turn everyday happenings into meaningful events” [1].  In this comparison, the brain acts as the central processing unit (CPU), whereas cultural experiences act as programs that provide context for directing and performing tasks that are carried out by the CPU. 

If we were to take this analogy a step further, we can think of our brain’s schema as input from an end user. This could be a person clicking on desktop icons or typing on the keyboard in an application. “Schema,” as Hammond explains, “represent the pieces of inert information we’ve taken in, interpreted, and categorized, based on our deep cultural norms, beliefs, and ways of being” [1].  So to put everything together, the software installed on a computer tells the CPU how to process input from an end user, just as cultural knowledge makes meaning from information that is received and processed in the brain. Wow, that was fun. 

The LouAnne Johnson Example

Now that we are caught up on what culturally responsive teaching is, and why it is necessary for all students to learn, let’s take a look at an example.  Believe it or not, the movie Dangerous Minds is based on a true story about an English teacher in an inner-city high school who used unconventional teaching methods to help her students graduate.  The movie was created from LouAnne Johnson’s own teaching experience that she documented in her novel, My Posse Don’t Do Homework. While this is an extreme example of culturally responsive teaching, we can learn a lot from the teaching moves in the film.

There is a scene in the movie when actress Michele Pfifer’s character, LouAnne Johnson intentionally selects the song, Mr. Tambourine Man by Bob Dylan to teach an English lesson. Johnson understands that the students in her class are racially diverse, are reading well below their grade level, and come from underprivileged, troubled neighborhoods. But she also understands that she needs to make a cultural connection to these students in order for them to engage in the lesson.  When she reads a verse from the song, her students are uninterested and start making jokes.  That is, until she asks the following question: “What if I told you that ‘Mr. Tambourine Man’ was a code name?” [2].  Now her students are curious.

She goes on to explain that some people think that “Mr. Tambourine Man” is a code name for a drug dealer.  Now her students are hooked.  They begin to read the following verse with their own cultural lens:

        Hey, Mr. Tambourine Man, play a song for me
        In the jingle jangle morning I'll come followin' you

The students in the film were quick to make the intuitive connection that the song could be describing a user who is asking the dealer for drugs because he has the shakes and needs a fix.  Johnson affirms their insights and explains that this song was written in the 1960s where you couldn’t sing about drugs so songwriters had to make up codes. This sparks a highly intellectual class discussion where students are eager to share their thoughts and opinions on the song as they made a powerful connection to their own lives—growing up in the ghetto surrounded by drugs and violence.

LouAnne Johnson was such an effective teacher not because she had mastered skills in curriculum, instruction, and assessment, but because she knew her students and their cultural background.  She was also clever in her ability to hook students into a lesson, and provide enough scaffolding for them to apply the content to their own lives.  She also set high expectations for her students and empowered them to take ownership over their learning to become more independent students.  Finally, she believed in each and every one of her students and provided them with the necessary guidance and support that they needed in order to graduate high school.

Volunteer Teaching in Peru

Right after my first year of teaching, I decided I wanted to learn more about education in an underprivileged area of the world. I wanted to volunteer my time as a teacher, while being immersed in a completely different culture.  After weighing my options, I decided to partner with the company Maximo Nivell, which placed me with a host family in Cusco, Peru where I taught English at a disadvantaged secondary school for two weeks.

This school included students from grades 6-12 who were separated by gender, with little to no resources. All of the classrooms were similar, each having a small window at the very top corner of the room, lights that would occasionally turn on, old wooden desks with chairs attached, and a neglected whiteboard.  And if I wanted to use any resources, I either had to bring them with me, or buy them at a local store that was a little over a mile away. 

So I asked myself the following question: How can I use my knowledge of best-practice teaching strategies without the use of technology or sufficient classroom resources?  The only item I brought with me to school was a handmade soccer ball that had a globe painted on it, and some common classroom materials that I purchased at the local store.  Using only these materials, I was determined to create a highly effective English curriculum, not knowing who or what I was going to teach.

Regardless of the age or gender of my students, I knew I wanted to integrate skills into the curriculum that focused on communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. I also knew that I needed to get my students excited to learn by making the lesson engaging and culturally relevant. After doing some research and asking my host family for suggestions on common interests among Peruvian children, I decided that I was going to motivate them with pop culture by infusing elements of the entertainment industry. 

I was placed in a class with 16 middle school boys and immediately began to learn their names, their interests, and their strengths.  After we finished our introductions and a few fun icebreakers, I arranged my students into four different groups based on their performing arts interests—music, acting, drawing, and dancing.  I told them that they were responsible for creating a performance or artifact to demonstrate their learning and understanding of the lesson, which included standards and objectives in vocabulary, writing, speaking, and storytelling. Because they spoke limited English—and because I spoke very limited Spanish—I intentionally provided them the opportunity to use other forms of communication in order to demonstrate their learning and understanding. And by the end of these two weeks, my students had created amazing projects that showcased their knowledge of the curriculum, as well as their personalities. 

Even though I only taught these students for two weeks, I developed a deep connection with them. When it was time for me to leave, we took pictures, laughed at memories, and some even began to cry.  We knew that we would probably never see each other again, which made it so difficult to say goodbye. They told me they really liked me as a teacher because I didn’t make them do worksheets like the other teachers did, and that I helped them to gain a lot of confidence in their learning abilities.  This is an experience that I will never forget, and I hope it is something that my students will always remember.

I was reminded of three important lessons from my volunteer teaching experience in Peru. First and foremost, students need to develop trusting relationships with their teachers and classmates before they can effectively learn. Secondly, the content and instruction of the lesson need to be equitably accessible by all students. And the third lesson is that students need to be motivated to leverage their interests and strengths in order to maximize their learning.  To this day, I still apply these three lessons when I am teaching students, and when I am leading teachers in professional development. 

Windows, Mirrors, and Doors

One way to acknowledge and honor diversity, equity, and inclusion in the classroom is with books and other instructional resources. However, the problem is that “In 2018, roughly 10 percent of all children’s books featured black characters, 7 percent featured Asian characters, 5 percent featured Latino/Latina characters, and 1 percent featured indigenous characters” [4]. This means that “Of all the children’s books published in 2018, most main characters were white (50%), followed by animals (27%)” [5].  What I find to be most alarming about this statistic is that animal characters in books were more prevalent than all of the other diverse characters combined. 

The idea of “windows and mirrors” was originally developed by educator Emily Style when she wrote "Curriculum as Window and Mirror" in 1988 [6].  She believed in an education where all students could see themselves (mirrors) as well as others (windows) in the curriculum, and in the world. She became an advocate for curricula that intentionally integrated resources that reflected multicultural people and experiences to better serve diverse students who were underrepresented in academic media.  

Then, in 1990 Rudine Sims Bishop, took this idea a step further when she wrote about using children’s books as “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” [7].  As a renowned children’s literature researcher, she championed the need for more children’s books to include main characters from diverse backgrounds and cultures. Because of her work, schools are now curating classroom libraries of books that include main characters of color. Having a more diverse library provides students with the opportunity to identify with main characters who are similar to them, as well those who are different from them.  

Bishop’s addition of “sliding glass doors” illustrates the idea of students picking up a book, and entering the world of the main character. When students learn to approach books with this lens, it promotes social-emotional skills such as empathy, identity, and reflection.  However, some educators interpret “sliding glass doors” as taking action in their community to promote civil rights and social justice—which is something that we do at my current school. Regardless of interpretation, the work of Style and Bishop have certainly created a movement in education that has directly benefited our students, and has helped to celebrate diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Using a Mirror for Reflection

As you probably know by now, one of my main goals as an educator is to help dependent learners learn how to learn. As Zaretta Hammond once said, “We want [our students] to have the ability to size up any task, map out a strategy for completing it, and then execute the plan.  That’s what independent learners do” [1]. And culturally responsive teaching can be a powerful tool to help dependent learners develop the cognitive skills that they need to engage the type of higher order thinking that will allow them to be successful [1]. 

One thing that I have learned over the years is the importance of setting high expectations for people and holding them accountable. Holding people accountable shows that you care. It shows that you believe in them.  I try to hold high expectations for all of my students, and I try to hold high expectations for teachers. Because as Norman Vincent Peale tells us, “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.”

What are some ways in which you already demonstrate culturally responsive teaching?  What additional resources could you bring into your classroom that allow your students to see themselves, as well as other minority groups in your community?  And how might you continue to create an equitable and inclusive learning experience for your students? I challenge you to take action by stepping through your own sliding glass door to find new and creative ways to promote learning, growing, and community building in your classroom, and in the world.



  1. Hammond, Zaretta. Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. California, Corwin, 2015.
  2. Smith, John N. Dangerous Minds. Buena Vista Pictures, 1995.
  3. Dylan, Bob. Lyrics to “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Performed by Bob Dylan, Columbia Records, 1965,
  4. “A New Era for Children's Literature.” Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, 21 Apr. 2020,
  5. “Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors.” Book Harvest,
  6. “Curriculum as Window and Mirror.” National SEED Project,
  7. Mirrors, Windows, and Sliding Glass Doors - Scenicregional.