3 Ways to Build a More Culturally Responsive ELA Classroom

3 Ways to Build a More Culturally Responsive ELA Classroom

By Michelle Alcaraz, originally published in Equity & Access

Doing the most good.

When I began working for the Salvation Army, this was exactly what I wanted to do. As an urban educator, health coach, and yoga instructor, my whole being was invested in doing good.

My first responsibility was to hire a chef for a residential facility serving previously unhoused families. I was BORN for this! Not only was I a bonafide foodie, my work as a health coach made food a priority. I hired Chef Ashley because she was forward-thinking and creative and could provide healthy food that would lessen many of the residents’ health challenges.

We sat together and created a menu. First up: spaghetti squash and beetballs! This was one of my favorites, and I knew I was doing good by introducing this healthy, delicious meal to the families under my care.

Things didn’t go according to plan.

Before long, a line of disgruntled folks formed outside my office door. Although I had tried and enjoyed the dish, the residents found it completely unpalatable! The children refused to eat it, Chef Ashley was in tears, and parents and caregivers were furious. In my desire to do good, I had ignored the folks I was entrusted to serve. Thinking I knew what was best, I had not engaged them in conversations about what to feed their families, nor had I taken their needs and experiences into account.

Although I didn’t know it then, I had just begun learning the importance of culturally responsive pedagogy, a philosophy that became invaluable in my ELA classroom.

From Health Coach to ELA Teacher: My Journey to Cultural Responsiveness

In graduate school, I learned how to name my experience at The Salvation Army when I encountered the concept of culturally responsive teaching in Gloria Ladson-Billings’ The Dreamkeepers. She defines culturally responsive teaching as “an approach that empowers students intellectually, socially, emotionally, and politically by using cultural referents to impart knowledge, skills, and attitudes.”

Reading these words was a major aha! moment for me.

As a person of color, I remembered my time as a student whose hand went unnoticed and whose experiences went unheard many times. I wanted to be that teacher who invited everyone to the table on their own terms.

I wanted to be culturally responsive. And after 15 years as an ELA teacher, it’s something I’m still working on.

What Is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

Building off of Ladson-Billings’ work, Zaretta Hammond defines culturally responsive pedagogy as “the practice of recognizing students’ cultural displays of learning and meaning making and responding 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.”

Culturally responsive pedagogy views students’ backgrounds, knowledge, and experiences as assets to build on, not deficits. When educators consider students’ cultures and histories when building curriculum and actively involve students in creating shared classroom experiences, ALL students learn that they deserve to be seen, heard, and valued.

Neuroscience 101: Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

When students feel the type of belonging that culturally responsive pedagogy fosters, they invest in that space and feel the desire to protect it through participation and critical examination. According to Dr. Yvette Jackson, “Finding cultural relevance and personal connections give us perspective, engages our attention, and assists us in interpreting and inferring meaning, enabling the depth of understanding and interest needed for high intellectual processing.”

This is neuroscience 101. The brain looks for patterns and connections to make meaning of content or tasks. When instruction meaningfully guides students into making these connections, learning increases. When there is a lack of connection, the brain purges this information as irrelevant or not useful. Also, when we feel we don’t belong, our brains naturally monitor for threats, leaving fewer cognitive resources for higher-order thinking.

How Do I Make My ELA Classroom More Culturally Responsive?

Building a more culturally responsive ELA classroom won’t happen overnight. So, where can you start?

With your students.

In New America’s eight competencies for developing a culturally responsive classroom, one of the most important is “Draw on students’ cultures to shape curriculum and instruction.” Forty-six states have this tenet as part of their teaching standards, and it is highly recognized and documented that creating a student-centered learning environment is most effective for student growth–in the ELA classroom and beyond.

I won’t promise that listening to your students share their values and experiences means you’ll never do anything culturally insensitive in your classroom again. You will. But placing students center stage goes a long way in gaining their trust and building the type of community where students can take risks while learning skills and concepts relevant to their lives.

Listening to your students will give you invaluable insight into how to build an ELA curriculum that validates AND challenges them—a curriculum that explores both the self and differences from others. You’ll also be better able to build activities and assessments that accurately demonstrate and measure student learning–in the many forms it takes.

So, what are some concrete ways you can center students to build a more culturally responsive ELA classroom? Here are three strategies I’ve used. They worked for me, and I hope they’ll work for you too.


When I taught twelfth grade in south Philadelphia, I started the school year with the common (and not very culturally responsive) practice of listing the classroom’s rules and expectations. Students are used to this run-down, and they know they are expected to agree to the terms without question.

As I gazed over the top of my syllabus and saw my students’ faces, many slipping towards boredom or disengagement, I decided to ask them how they felt about the rules. Some shrugged their shoulders and remained silent, but others began to share their thoughts.

As I heard them discuss the logic behind the classroom regulations, I began to see how their cultures, past experiences, and even insecurities impacted how they interpreted what I had considered to be straightforward guiding principles. It became clear that I needed to invite them to make modifications to the list of rules. While we weren’t going to sanction misbehavior, there was no reason our guidelines couldn’t be more flexible to accommodate a larger, more diverse group of students.

One modification that came from our conversation was that I began keeping space around the room for students to stand up if they needed a reprieve from the hard seats they were expected to remain in for the 90-minute class.

This simple change made all the difference. Students felt respected when they saw that I trusted them to manage their own bodily needs. My more active or restless students could dispel some of the excess energy that often stood in the way of learning, and my sleepier students, who often held part-time jobs, could keep themselves awake.

What’s more, students began to view me as a partner in their learning journey, not a dictator passing down decrees that had little to do with their lives or cultures.

This experience taught me that you can set the tone in your classroom from the get-go by inviting student input. The Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning at Harvard University is a good resource for helping your students establish group agreements that will empower them to bring their whole selves to class while facilitating a respectful shared space.


Another way to make your classroom more student-centered is to invite all students to participate in classroom conversations.

As an ELA teacher, you’re probably already facilitating discussions, but what do you do when some students fall in the background as more vocal students overtake conversations? Although it might not seem so at first, the act of discussion itself is a culturally loaded practice, as some cultures encourage children and adolescents to share their thoughts freely and regularly, and other cultures discourage this.

It’s a good idea to acknowledge this fact with your students. You can then explain that even though discussion will be more challenging for some students than others, it’s essential for exploring ideas in literature, learning from each other, and building community. You can also acknowledge that while everyone’s comfort level with discussions may differ, the journey to improve conversational skills is something you’ll all work on together.

Start by holding regular, short, low-stakes discussions. You can also do plenty of small group discussions, give students strategies for entering discussions, and show them how to invite quieter peers into conversations supportively. Lastly, you’ll want to emphasize how important it is for everyone to participate in discussions because every culturally specific voice enriches the thinking of the entire class.

In my experience, even after you lay this information out, there will still be students who remain silent. This means it’s up to you to design discussion activities that require every student to speak–not through fear-based grade deductions but by starting small with highly structured, low-pressure activities.

Here’s an activity I adopted from my work with The National Writing Project. It invites every student to read the same text and share something that stands out to them. When everyone is required to share (and knows ahead of time that this will happen), it makes discussion the norm and doesn’t leave anyone feeling singled out. What’s more, having a variety of responses emphasizes that we all approach literature through our own identities and experiences, and our different perspectives are valuable and worth thinking more about.


  1. Students read a short selection twice.
  2. I always read it aloudand had students follow along the first time. I told my students not to look for anything in particular but to get oriented to the plot, characters, themes, etc., and to note their reactions.
  3. The second time, students read the selection silently or with a partner. This time, I would ask them to highlight a word and a sentence that stood out to them.
  4. One by one, students read their sentences aloud without comment or explanation. In a second go-round, they read their words. Students would likely note that some of them selected the same word or sentence, but they also noticed that responses varied.

The beauty of this activity is that students can connect personally with a piece of literature and share that connection with others. It also allows every student to recognize the similarities and differences that exist in a classroom. After this icebreaker, you can encourage students to discuss why they chose the words and sentences they chose, facilitating text-based analysis explicitly filtered through personal experience.

Once you’ve modeled simple discussion starters such as this one, you can include your students in more of the planning. Ask them to develop discussion activities that empower and engage them. Let them lead conversations, pose questions, take informal polls, and point to passages they would like to discuss. When students decide what aspects of a text they want and need to talk about, with your guidance, they engage in high-level thinking, take responsibility for their own learning, and bring all of themselves to the experience.

This is cultural responsiveness at its finest.


Project-based learning is another way to place students at the center of their learning. It took me a while to employ large-scale project-based learning, and I was initially nervous that administrators and caregivers wouldn’t think it was as “rigorous” as assigning essays. After my first attempt, however, I knew that the learning students were doing was deep, meaningful, and connected to their lives.

For years, I read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird with my high schoolers, and for years, the final project was a seven-to-ten-page essay where students demonstrated their ability to analyze a theme from the novel. As the years went by, I began to wonder how much of this work really helped students grow and become change-makers.

I also wondered how much they were genuinely expressing thoughts from their own culturally-specific lenses as opposed to just rehashing what we had discussed in class.

Determined to try something new that came closer to meeting my goals, I invited my students to choose a theme from the novel and, individually or in groups, create a project that would educate and create change.

Students built their projects using an inquiry-based process, and the first task was to create a thoughtful theme-based question to center and guide their work. One of the strongest projects came from a group that began with the theme of curiosity, specifically citing how Scout and her playmates spent the whole novel wondering about Boo Radley. From there, they started questioning how teachers might cultivate similar curiosity in their students, ultimately landing on the question: “What will make reading in school more exciting for students?”

From there, and with minimal guidance from me (I promise!), they basically started listing the tenets of culturally responsive teaching, specifically noting that students need to learn in terms they understand and have a say in how they demonstrate their knowledge. Like Scout, these students were hungry for information but wanted to process and apply it in ways that spoke to them.

I was blown away. Not least of all because several students in this group were receiving special education services due to their low reading levels. They often felt overlooked and disengaged. And they chose to tackle a topic close to their hearts–finding ways to make learning accessible and meaningful for kids who have been historically and systemically left out of classroom practices.

It became clear to me that when a culturally responsive space invites students who may seem unable to meet standards to demonstrate their understanding in ways that make them comfortable, real education will happen. These students were engaged. They were empowered. They were doing actual research.

They developed a three-part event that invited classmates to recommend readings and exchange ideas. Some students shared their interpretation of something they’d read that moved them. Others wrote and shared their own poetry, music, or artwork (I still have one of these pieces as the cover of my binder). There was even a small group that presented a dramatic “Where are they now?” segment about the characters from a story they enjoyed.

Since I was the head of the theater department, I invited students to use the auditorium for these meetings since, once word about them spread, the meeting size quickly doubled!

Because students were encouraged to select a theme that mattered to them, craft their own exploratory questions, and share art and literature that spoke to them, they showed up fully for every facet of the assignment. The lessons they learned–how to work collectively, how to build on their prior experiences, and how to use art to create change–proved so powerful that I repeated the project in years to come and found ways to work more inquiry-based project learning into my curriculum.

Change Only Happens When Everyone’s at the Table

When I reflect on my days at The Salvation Army, I now know that I should have invited the community to help me design a menu that would work for their families. Creating a culturally responsive space requires dialogue, understanding, and mutual respect for and from everyone involved.

Building a culturally responsive ELA classroom is a work in progress for every teacher, whether they’ve been doing it for 20 years or two months. And I couldn’t cover everything I want to share in this blog post, so I invite you to watch a webinar where I dive deeper into the philosophy behind culturally responsive teaching and present more strategies to build a student-centered ELA classroom that celebrates every learner. Watch our on-demand webinar, “Creating Culturally Responsive Literacy Spaces.”


Michelle Alcaraz


Michelle Alcaraz is a former high school teacher of English Language Arts, and she has worked in both Montessori and public schools throughout the country. A passionate literacy consultant, she has worked in a variety of different roles within the education sector, including serving as Director of Sales Empowerment for Literacy Solutions & Coaching at Carnegie Learning. Michelle is originally from Chicago and now calls Philadelphia, PA, her home.

The American Consortium for Equity in Education, publisher of the "Equity & Access" journal, celebrates and connects the educators, associations, community partners and industry leaders who are working to solve problems and create a more equitable environment for historically underserved pre K-12 students throughout the United States.

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