Culturally Responsive Teaching in Spanish Class: Where to Start?

December 11, 2018 admin

December 11, 2018
By Catharyn Crane

Culturally responsive teaching is on my mind. Even during December, amidst Santa… finals… grading… projects… holiday band/orchestra/choir concerts… and weird scheduling… Culturally responsive teaching is always on my mind.

I hope it is on yours too. If it is not, here’s a post to get you thinking. If you’re too tired to think, book mark this page or pin it to your Pinterest board (or follow our Secondary Spanish Space Pinterest board and grab it later).

In this post, I’ll look at what exactly culturally responsive teaching is. Then I’ll think about how it can actually be implemented in the Spanish classroom. How can we Spanish teachers better understand and support our students who are part of traditionally marginalized or vulnerable groups (based on race, ethnicity, gender, culture, citizenship, income, language, disability, etc.)?

I have FIVE activity ideas that will help!

This topic is BIG. I am just starting to get my feet wet. So here are a few of my thoughts, no matter how incomplete they might be. I hope this gets you thinking more too.

Culturally Responsive Teaching in Spanish Class: Where to Start? - Secondary Spanish Space


Your Students’ Culture and Your Culture

In a recent MindShift article, Katrina Schwartz explained that:

“Often the disconnect between a teacher’s culture and his or her students’ culture unintentionally creates a divide.”

I’m a white, female, college-educated teacher with blonde highlights. I drive an SUV, get Starbucks once a week, attend an occasional work out class, and watch documentaries on Netflix. Some of the high school Spanish students I used to teach did not look like me and did not remotely do any of the things I just described.

I taught at a big urban public high school. So some of my students came from backgrounds that were similar to me, and others had very different backgrounds. I’m sure this is true for you too, to some extent, even if you don’t teach at a big urban public school.

I had students who were of Native American descent, whose families didn’t speak English, who were experiencing depression, who were hoping to be the first in their families to go to college, etc., etc., etc.

Plus my students were surely dealing with other hidden challenges or experiencing other identities that I didn’t even know about.

I wasn’t blind to this, by any means, but I do think that over my teaching career there have been many times when I could have been more sensitive, empathetic, and thoughtful when it came to my underserved students. It is easier to figure out what kids “like me” needed. But what about kids not like me? There were times where I should have inquired more or tried to understand better. I absolutely should have been more patient and considerate of students’ challenging life circumstances. Quite simply, I could have been more responsive. More culturally responsive.

So how can we narrow that unintentional divide between our own culture and our students’ culture? Dr. Christopher Emdin of Teachers College Columbia has written a lot about the topic. He says that we can start becoming more culturally responsive by actively valuing our students’ communities, their ways of being, their unique expertise, their flair, their style, what makes them tick. Understanding our students’ hidden experiences, needs, and strengths is the first step to culturally responsive teaching.

Culturally Responsive Teaching

Culturally responsive teachers must understand that:

  • Some of our students are marginalized due to their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics
  • Some of our students do not have access to the social, emotional, and familial support that we have
  • Some of our students experience hidden challenges that we will never know about
  • Some of our students are more vulnerable than others because they are indigenous, non-native English speakers, LGBTQ Plus, or simply because they are female
  • Some of our students get treated differently when they walk on the street than others do
  • An “effective” learning experience for one student may not be “effective” for another
I’ve made it a point to actively try to look out for my underserved students. It is my job to understand their situations and to help them. These are the students who are part of traditionally marginalized or vulnerable groups (based on race, ethnicity, gender, culture, citizenship, income, language, disability, etc.), such as:
  • Indigenous students
  • Students of color
  • Students experiencing homelessness
  • Students from low-income families
  • Students of undocumented immigration status
  • Students with cognitive, physical, and/or emotional limitations
  • English language learners
  • Students who are gender non-conforming
  • Students who are LGBTQ Plus
  • Female students

A few years ago, a teacher friend of mine told me something like, “All that cultural stuff doesn’t really matter because I view each of my students as individuals anyway.” This rubbed me the wrong way. At the time I couldn’t articulate why.

Now I know it frustrated me because we teachers need to do much, much more than just treat each student as an individual.

I need to go above and beyond for my students who society has marginalized and continues to underserve. Education can be a great equalizer. But if I don’t do everything in my power to actually help my most vulnerable students succeed, they won’t.

The cards are stacked against them in so many ways. It is my job as their teacher to engage their unique interests, provide extra support (and different types of support too), to value their culture (and them), and to make them feel heard, seen, and felt.

Culturally Responsive Teaching in Practice

So what does culturally responsive teaching look like in practice? It will probably look a little different for every teacher, depending on your students, your community, your school, and of course you. I am obsessed with Zaretta Hammond’s Ready for Rigor Culturally Responsive Teaching Framework. This has helped me evaluate my class activities from a culturally responsive lens. Her Protocol for Checking Your Unconscious Bias is also such a useful exercise in self reflection about our own biases that we bring to the classroom. Actually Zaretta Hammond’s whole website, Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, is great.Now here are some specific things that I’m doing in class to try to be more culturally responsive. As I said at the start of this post, this is a complicated topic and there isn’t always a “right” way to do it. Here’s what I’m trying… I hope it might resonate with you in some way.

Idea 1: Student surveys

I give out digital surveys using Google Forms at the beginning and end of every semester. I also seek informal feedback as needed throughout the year (hello, exit tickets!). These are easy ways to get private, personal feedback from your students about what they need and what they are experiencing. This is a way to get a tidbit of information that may help me have an excuse to probe further with an individual conversation. The goal is to learn what matters to my students and what they need from me. Here are a few questions I ask:
  • By what name would you like me to address you?
  • What are you hoping to get out of this class?
  • Is there anything you’d like me to know about you? This is an opportunity to share any personal background or concerns, or to start a discussion about any accommodations you may need.
  • What do you have going on this semester outside of school?
  • How do you feel today in one word. Why?
  • Do you have any questions for me at this time?

Idea 2: Classroom community building

I’ve written about my favorite 7 Ways to Create Good Vibes in Spanish Class, and many of those will apply for a culturally responsive model. But to be truly culturally responsive, I need to do community building that is targeted at my marginalized, underserved, and vulnerable students. By understanding them better, I can narrow that divide between my students’ cultures and the classroom culture I create.Much of this type of community building is sensitive. It can’t be done with a whole class ice breaker on day one. It will require introspection, sensitivity, and actual conversations with students.

One year, I had two African American students who would literally dance their way into my classroom every day. I have never danced my way into a classroom in my life. In school, I was the quiet white girl who slipped in the door, sat right down, followed all the rules without questioning, and rarely spoke in class. Looking back, I wonder what I could have done differently to be more responsive to those two dancing students. I always just smiled at them, and kind of ignored or passively accepted their grand entrance. What could I have done to actually embrace it? What could I have asked them to better understand why they came in this way? What could I have told them about my own experience as the quiet rule follower to help them also understand me and to make them feel safe to open up? How could I have modified learning activities to engage them better based on what I learned through these dialogues? Do you have any of your own “dancing students”? How can you start a dialog with them about what they value?

Idea 3: Student voice and choice

As I try to make my class appealing, engaging, and supportive for all my different students, one of the easiest ways to do this is by offering choice and by valuing student voice. No, I don’t mean offering my students a choice between two worksheets. Project based learning is an excellent way to structure real voice and choice activities (see Laura Sexton’s Secondary Spanish Space post about Project Based Learning in Spanish Class to learn more). Culturally responsive projects will be super open-ended and truly driven by student interest. Digital storytelling can be a very cool way for students to share a piece of themselves through images and some Spanish dialog (WeVideo is a simple, free tool for this). Other projects may involve exploring topics that students care about, whether that be the #BlackLivesMatter movement, school shootings, local climate change disasters, etc. Especially with upper level Spanish classes, the sky is the limit. Students tell me what they want to learn about, and we just do it in the target language.Lately I have also been using FlipGrid as a simple way to help students feel heard and free to express themselves. FlipGrid is a 100% free video discussion board where you can set up a class discussion on any topic, big or small. Students record a video of themselves responding to a prompt and it posts to the class “grid” where they can then view and reply to their peers. Maris Hawkins has blogged about how exactly she uses FlipGrid in Spanish class if you’re looking for more into. Culturally responsive FlipGrid discussion prompts will be open-ended, something as simple as:

  • What did you do this weekend?
  • What do you like to do? What do you not like to do?
  • Tell a story about your family / friends / home / school.
Activities like this help students express themselves, connect with each other, and value their differences. The more I learn about my students as people, the more relevant and supportive discussion prompts I can create, and the cycle continues.

Idea 4: Look critically at your activities

We also must take a critical look at the learning structures and activities that we use. What hidden biases are lurking in our class activities? For the longest time I did a guessing game in my First Year Spanish class that was based on the board game Guess Who. I raved and raved about how this was such a good way to give students lots of comprehensible input about physical descriptions, and students just loved to play. Then a light bulb went off. That whole board game is based on white people, and mostly white men. I had put a bunch of work into perfecting this activity (it was so beautiful I even sold it in my TeachersPayTeachers store), but it had to go. Eventually I created a revised version with game characters who actually looked like my students. Looking back, I’m embarrassed to think about how ridiculous it must have felt for my students, a majority of whom were Hispanic, to practice describing white people in Spanish class again and again and again. Sure the old game was competitive and fun, but it was not culturally responsive. (My Spanish Guess Who Modern Version Task Card Game is up in my TpT store if you want a better idea of what I mean.) What classroom activities do you have that could be updated to be more culturally responsive?

Idea 5: Keep learning, discussing, and evolving as a culturally responsive teacher

Of course there is always more to learn. I love listening to NPR’s Code Switch podcast and NPR’s Radio Ambulante podcast to expand my perspectives on race, language, and culture. I’m currently reading For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood as well. Let’s be honest, I’ve been “reading” it since July. But is is on my nightstand! Finally, when I see an article like this one from Teen Vogue We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs, I read it. I talk about it with friends. I examine my own behavior, and I change that behavior when it makes sense to do so.
Culturally Responsive Teaching in Spanish Class: Where to Start? - Secondary Spanish Space


Weigh In

I’d love to hear more about your thoughts on culturally responsive teaching. Leave a comment below or hit us up on the Secondary Spanish Space Facebook page.



No Comments

Leave a Reply

I accept the Privacy Policy