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Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environments Part One

As more districts are returning to in-person schooling for the 2021-2022 school year, educators have requested more information regarding culturally responsive teaching and literacy with equity as the lens. Therefore, this six-part series of modules titled "Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environments" have been created in response to the expressed need. 


  1. Share principles connected to collectivist learning practices to support students’ cognitive development within diverse learning environments;
  2. Increase standards literacy through culturally responsive strategies to help literacy/ELA educators employ best, first instruction that utilize high-impact teaching practices throughout the school year; and
  3. Offer research-based suggestions on how to keep equity at the forefront of instruction whether it is offered in-person, remotely, or via a hybrid/blended learning model.

The overarching goal is to help create independent agency and capacity in all Colorado students. 

Big Picture Question(s):

  1. What is culturally responsive education?
  2. How is it similar to or different from multicultural and social justice education?


Adapted from, Hammond, Z (2015).  Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Corwin: A Sage Company.

Follow-Up Question:

  1. What is the difference between culturally responsive, culturally relevant, and culturally sustaining education/pedagogy?  

Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billing's 2014 article, Culturally Relevant Pedagogy 2.0 a.k.a The Remix, identifies three major domains of culturally relevant practice: academic success, cultural competence, and sociopolitical consciousness. She explains that by academic success she is referring to the intellectual growth that students experience as a result of classroom instruction and learning experiences. Cultural competence refers to the ability to help students appreciate and celebrate their cultures of origin while gaining knowledge of and fluency in at least one other culture. Sociopolitical consciousness is the ability to take learning beyond the confines of the classroom using school knowledge and skills to identify, analyze, and solve real-world problems.

What most researchers acknowledge in their work, according to Zaretta Hammond, is that for the past 20 years, schools have done a lot with the last two—cultural competence and sociopolitical consciousness—through implicit bias work and social justice education. Although more work is required, it is not wise to dismiss the positive impact this work is having in schools across our nation, not to mention, here in Colorado. Unfortunately, progress towards what Ladson-Billings highlighted 25 years ago as the primary point of culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy – academic success – has been slow at best.  This is similar to Dr. Jeff Duncan Andrade’s focus on critical pedagogy“The goal of critical pedagogy is for students to have greater awareness of self as a learner and more power after their pedagogical encounter. This power comes from being able to engage texts and concepts academically at new levels they could not previous reach.”


Read the poem by Tupac Shakur and watch the TEDTalk by Dr. Andrade. Then, answer the Reflective Practice Question.

The Rose That Grew From Concrete By Tupac Shakur

TEDTalk: Growing Roses in the Concrete by Dr. Jeff Duncan Andrade

Reflection Practice Question:

1. How does Dr. Andrade's TEDTalk elevate the themes conveyed in Tupac Shakur's poem "The Rose That Grew From Concrete"? 

2. How can teachers transfer the themes into instructional practices to ensure the cultures of all students are valued in the classroom?

Additional Reading:

Why Critical Hope May Be The Resource Kids Need Most from Their Teachers

Hope and Goal

The hope and goal is to see ALL Colorado schools improve instruction in ways that leverage students’ current funds of knowledge and neural pathways to make learning sticky, improve students’ ability to carry more of the cognitive load during instruction, and increase students’ ability to accelerate their own learning on a consistent basis.  How to accomplish this is the work. Unfortunately, there is no Culturally Responsive Teaching “toolkit” that houses strategies and practices to employ in the classroom in a step-by-step systematic way.  A culturally responsive teaching toolkit in and of itself is antithetical to the idea of being “responsive” to who is in front of you. There is an awareness that some Colorado educators do not possess enough experience to make content “relevant” without becoming fluent in another cultural orientation and/or without some falling into stereotyping, which in the end, results in our most vulnerable students not getting the powerful teaching necessary to permanently close achievement and opportunity gaps.

The essential point about culturally relevant/responsive/efficacious/sustaining pedagogy – is it’s about helping the learner grow his or her brain power and agency as a learner who is competent and confident. As Zaretta Hammond points out, It is about pushing back on “inequity by design” which America’s educational system has been largely predicated on--the ideas that we maintain society’s racial stratification and white supremacy mainly by under-developing the cognitive capacity of African American, Native/Indigenous American, Latinx, and Pacific Islander students in schools with low-level instruction, and not offering robust teaching of reading, writing, and communicating as interrelated, intersectional, and interdependent upon and across all disciplines and content areas.

Please, do not get caught up in the terminology. Relevant or responsive, it is about whether we, as educators and leaders, know how to use “culture” as a cognitive scaffold to help accelerate student learning and help them have counter-narratives to the dominant social narratives about "those kids". It is about helping diverse students push back on dominant narratives about who they are and what they are capable of through the action of academic success as Dr. Ladson-Billings said over 25 years ago (Hammond, 2019).

Remember these concepts are not in competition with each other – they are different aspects of the same goal – equity by design. Every child a learner, not by chance but by design. Remember also that ensuring that traditionally marginalized and minoritized students read, write, and communicate at or above grade level is an act of social justice!

Next Module: Creating and Sustaining Culturally Responsive Learning Environments Part Two