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How to Develop Culturally Responsive Teaching for Distance Learning

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 (Oleksandr Khoma/iStock)

The coronavirus pandemic and school closures across the nation have exposed deep inequities within education: technology access, challenges with communication, lack of support for special education students, to name just a few. During this crisis, there are still opportunities to provide students with tools to help them be independent learners, according to Zaretta Hammond, author of "Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain."

The classroom is where so much of the focus on learning has been placed, but there are opportunities to develop learning routines at home. This won’t mean sending home the same materials a student would have in class, but thinking about what a student needs in order to have agency over their learning in any situation. 

Hammond shared three design principles of culturally responsive instruction that can be used to support students’ cognitive development from afar in her webinar, “Moving Beyond the Packet: Creating More Culturally Responsive Distance Learning Experiences.” She said it’s important to stay focused on the student and offer small but high-leverage practices that maintain student progress and increase intellectual capacity during this time. She said these tips and activities also work for students without reliable access to technology and the internet.

First, what is culturally responsive instruction?

Shared language matters and there’s a lot of confusion about culturally responsive teaching.  At its core, culturally responsive instruction is about helping students become independent learners. Culturally responsive instruction should:

  • Focus on improving the learning capacity of students who have been marginalized educationally because of historical inequities in our school systems.
  • Center around both the affective and cognitive aspects of teaching and learning. 
  • Build cognitive capacity and academic mindset by pushing back on dominant narratives about people of color.

“Culturally responsive instruction doesn't mean you're only mentioning issues of race and implicit bias," she said. "It means that you’re also focused on building brainpower by helping students leverage and grow their existing funds of knowledge.”  


Hammond distinguishes the differences between culturally responsive education, multicultural education and social justice education. Each is important, but without a focus on building students’ brain power, they will experience learning loss. 

Courtesy of Zaretta Hammond (Courtesy of Zaretta Hammond)

When it comes to distance learning, applying culturally responsive teaching requires “remixing” education by borrowing from the best practices in how kids learn (Montessori, project-based learning, etc.)  in a way that repositions  the student as the leader of his own learning. By giving students more agency, the idea is to disrupt old routines around teaching and learning that make the student dependent on the teacher for receiving knowledge. 

“It’s going to stretch us a little out of our own comfort zones, but it’s worth it in the long run if we can get students to continue to do that thinking,” said Hammond. 

She advises three strategies to help students gain that independence:

1. Deepen background knowledge

Many educators are understandably wondering whether they should teach new content or review familiar material. Hammond encourages educators to do the latter because cognitively dependent learners often have gaps in their background knowledge. “A lot of our students are compliant learners,” she said. “They’re having a hard time shifting right now [because] they’re used to the worksheet, but that doesn’t mean they’re always processing information.” 

She advises teachers to help students connect new things they're learning to their brain’s existing schema – also known as background knowledge – that comes from home, their community, their interests.  Teachers can then give them authentic tasks that help them make meaning and connections. This helps turn new inert information into usable knowledge. “You cannot give another person background knowledge,” she explained. “They have to acquire it, but as teachers we can help guide the process.” This can be done by building upon student interest. 

“Survey your students if you don’t know what they like,” said Hammond. Ask them what books they enjoy reading or what topics get them super excited. She said It doesn’t matter if their interests are broad or narrow; it’s important to learn what interests them so that you can use that information to: 

  • Assign non-fiction books that build on student interests.
  • Create a “Netflix” playlist of documentaries, nature shows, historical events, etc. 
  • Encourage kids and parents to do a walk-about, if that's possible in their community, following social distancing guidelines. Encourage parents and students to seek out community curiosities  (landmarks or interesting sights) relevant to students’ interest.

With each of these activities, it’s important to give the students direction so they know what to look out for. “You have to tell the brain what to pay attention to,” Hammond explains. She suggested questions like, “What was your biggest surprise from this book/show?” or thinking routine sentences like “I Used to Think ___. But, now I think ____.” 

She said to always make sure that students do something with the knowledge as well. She suggested having them share interesting facts they learned either during video conferences or via an audio/video clip. For those students with limited internet access, encourage them to share what they learned with their parents. 

2. Cultivate cognitive routines 

Growing students’ brain power during distance learning starts with building cognitive routines. These routines are essential to processing and hardwiring information in the brain. 

“Be the personal trainer of their cognitive development,” Hammond said. To do this, she suggested having a routine set of prompts in each packet that become a regular part of the way students think. That way, students begin to think that way even when you’re not in the classroom to reinforce that way of thinking.

One example is to ask students to connect the “unknown to the known” or across concepts  by asking questions like, "What’s the relationship or connection between these things?” or “How does this part fit into the whole? What are the parts of this whole?” These may seem simple, but these questions are critical when it comes to processing information so that students internalize these prompts until they become almost instinctual. 

She said students should also be encouraged to sketchnote or doodle to actively process what they’re learning as an alternative to note-taking. Sketchnoting can encourage people to make deeper connections to what they’re hearing. 

3. Build word wealth 

Building a student’s vocabulary is a key tool in equity strategies for schools. “Kids have different interests in words so find out where their energy is. You can have a differentiated assignment around word collecting, but the idea is to get them actively involved in word consciousness,” said Hammond.  She said there are many small but high-leverage ways to do this, such as introducing robust word study. A teacher can help students engage in wordplay, word consciousness and word knowledge. This should not happen through a worksheet assignment, but rather begin with building word consciousness of words in their community, home and home language. 

Word games like Scrabble, Heads Up, Taboo or even word searches are small familiar but high-leverage activities because they’re fun but also require a high cognitive load. You can create your own versions of these games and have students do this in any language. Students can also do word collecting activities like scavenger hunts, or make poetry using magnetic poetry. Students can also do a contrastive analysis, by comparing words they might find in Urban Dictionary to those they might find in a standard dictionary.


She said it’s important to make sure that culturally responsive distance learning doesn’t turn into one-off strategies, like a single activity. She said practices must become routine by practicing over and over. She also said that by encouraging students to lean into their own productive struggle, they’ll know more about themselves as learners. “They've got to muck around a little bit and they've got to feel like it's OK,” said Hammond.             

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