Culturally Responsive Teaching-Why Is it Important?

Linda Vaught, ENL teacher

This month I interviewed Linda Vaught, a seasoned ENL teacher from the Solvay Union Free School District, about her views on culturally responsive teaching.

Q1. Please give me a short biography of your education and experience.

A1. I have been teaching ENL for twenty-two years at Solvay Union Free School District, currently at Solvay High School. I previously taught ELLs at West Genesee School District for one year. I also worked at OCC and OCM-BOCES for a year. I obtained a B.A. in English Literature from Le Moyne College and an M.A. in English Literature from SUNY Cortland. I received ENL certification and completed 27 hours toward School Administrator Certification from Le Moyne College.

Q2. What does culturally responsive teaching mean to you, and why do you think it’s important to incorporate it into teaching?

A2. It means understanding and valuing the language and culture of diverse students and connecting the curriculum, lessons and activities to the home and culture of each student. Children and parents from different backgrounds and cultures often feel disconnected because there is a wide gap between home and school. Many of our content textbooks and curriculums don’t include a lot of references to other cultures.  With a wider variety of students from many different cultures, teachers need to learn to deliver instruction that is culturally appropriate for all students. (NYSED Blueprint for ELLs Success)

Q3. How many different cultures are served by the teachers in the district? Where are your students from?

A3.Our ELL students represent eleven different cultures and are from China, Bosnia, Myanmar, Iraq, Ukraine, Yemen, Russia, Poland, Cuba, Puerto Rico and Nepal.

Q4. How does your school district encourage teachers and students to learn about and respect people, customs, languages and beliefs from cultures other than their own?

A4. All of our teachers receive an ENL Handbook as well as training on how to teach ELL students. It involves using the Sheltered Instruction Observation Protocol (SIOP). Teachers are encouraged to create a welcoming classroom that respects cultural diversity and to get to know about each student’s language and culture. For example, students feel comfortable if you know some key phrases from their language. Using texts that reflect the students’ home culture helps them to make important connections to the material, and teachers are taught to respect students’ native language. We constantly look for texts and materials written in the languages of our students. Teachers are encouraged to scaffold instruction and to regularly look for opportunities to create a dialogue and have students share their personal backgrounds. Posters and objects relating to world culture are often displayed in classrooms.

Q5. Is culturally responsive teaching incorporated in all content area classes? If so, how?

A5. Our teachers feel a shared responsibility for ELL student success and have high expectations for ELL students. As a result, we have had one ELL valedictorian and several ELL salutatorians! ELLs are involved in all aspects of school life including: art, musical and drama productions, sports, bowling, Key Club, National Honor Society and Spanish Club. One of my students who came in this year went to a Hispanic delegation in Albany through the Puerto Rican/Hispanic Youth Leadership Institute. Teachers have learned to think about the students’ cultural backgrounds when they plan their lessons, so they draw on the students’ prior knowledge and build background information at the beginning of the lesson. This helps ELL/MLL students to make connections between school and home. Teachers are learning how to integrate resources from students’ cultures into their lessons when appropriate. Students are given opportunities to participate in group discussions and reading and writing activities where they can share their personal experiences which connect to the lesson. We make use of the content-area bilingual glossaries and the math modules which have been translated into different languages.

Q6. Where do you find culturally-related materials and activities that represent your various cultures in order to increase diversity across the curriculum?

A6. The students and their families themselves provide wonderful resources as we allow them to share their cultures. Our school library in each school offers many multicultural themed books and many are also written in other languages. Our ELA department also has a variety of multicultural books and resources like The Chocolate War, House on Mango Street, and Princess. The Scholastic Upfront Magazine is a great source of culturally related articles and activities. Understand Language from Stanford University offers great online courses (MOOCs) which provide cultural resources. I am currently taking their MOOC: Reading to Learn in Science, along with one of our Science teachers. In addition we encourage researching countries and languages using online resources.

Q7. How does the district build relationships with parents based on their culture? Does your district offer resources and programs for ELL parents which help them to engage in meaningful ways at school?

A7. We feel that developing a positive relationship with ELL parents is important to the success of culturally responsive instruction, so our district provides interpreter services for all of our meetings with parents. We also translate all important documents that go home to parents into several languages. Teachers regularly maintain phone contact with parents. This year, we will hold two new parent orientation programs due to the many new students who entered the district after our first orientation. Since we encourage native language use at home, we ask parents to read to their children in their native language. The schools provide books from the school library in many languages which students take home for parents. Hallway signs are written in students’ native language. In addition, we are planning to have an “International Day” in the future where parents will be invited to participate.

Q8. Can you tell me an example of how you’ve integrated cultural responsiveness in your lessons?

A8. My transitioning level students are reading the novel Princess by Jean Sasson. They engage in critical thinking, and the story line provides a great venue for cultural conversations. The story is about a real princess from Saudi Arabia who describes what life is like for women in that country, as well as, how the Muslim faith plays out. I have students from Yemen and Iraq, a Chinese student, another from Nepal plus two Ukrainians and one Russian student. We did an activity involving serious issues: death penalty, war, and death by religious custom. The students had to go to different corners of the room where posters were put up with those categories labeled. Every student was instructed to make a comment about what they feel about those situations. Then over the course of a few days, we went around to the different posters, explained our choices and debated our answers. All of us walked away understanding more about how culture defines who we are and accepting that other’s views are valid to them based on how they were raised.

Garafalo_Diane_150pxDiane Garafalo is an ENL Consultant with DSF Consulting

If you are interested in sharing some of your experiences on the Mid-State RBERN blog, please contact Sara Peters at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s