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Teaching in a Diverse America: It's the Relationships That Matter

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Our nation continues to grow more diverse.

It's especially apparent in our nation's classrooms where one out of four students are the children of immigrants.

Today, when the school bell rings, more teachers are finding themselves looking at a sea of young faces representing an array of racial, ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Sadly, there are unacceptable gaps in the academic achievement of students from diverse backgrounds.

That is why it is so important for teachers to have the skills to reach every student in the classroom and close that achievement gap. As a nation, if we fail to reach students from diverse backgrounds we'll lose the wealth of contributions they could have made to their communities and to the country.

It is why the Southern Poverty Law Center's Teaching Tolerance program and its partners recognized five teachers who excel at teaching students from diverse backgrounds -- a skill known as culturally responsive teaching.

The teachers honored at an awards presentation in Washington, D.C., Friday represented various regions of the country. They are Silvestre Arcos at the Laboratory School of Finance and Technology in New York; Sonia Galaviz at Endeavor Elementary School in Nampa, Idaho; Katy LaCroix at Logan Elementary School in Ann Arbor, Mich.; Amber Makaiau at Kailua High School in Oahu, Hawaii; and Tracy Oliver-Gary at Paint Branch High School in Burtonsville, Md.

The Teaching Tolerance Award for Excellence in Culturally Responsive Teaching was created not only to recognize talented teachers but to promote their practices. These practices are needed in classrooms.

As a nation, we've been staring at the achievement gap for more than a decade. Education reform efforts have focused on a host of ways to close this gap: charter schools, testing, teacher preparation, the length of the school day, data-driven assessment and so on.

Researchers and educators recognize that you need to know your students to teach them - the cornerstone of culturally relevant teaching. Unfortunately, we haven't done a very good job of making this idea part of our educational policy.

Though culturally responsive teaching has won over researchers - the past three presidents of the American Educational Research Association are experts on it - it's not in enough classrooms.

That's one reason we honored the teachers in Washington. We want policymakers to take note. We're also showing what culturally relevant teaching looks like by providing educators with videos of these teachers using their skills in the classrooms. At the awards program we provided expert panels where educators could learn about this approach to teaching, and how to think about schools in a culturally responsive way.

Quite simply, culturally responsive teaching needs to be on the education reform agenda. And it needs to be in more classrooms. Unfortunately, that's not the case.

Misconceptions about culturally relevant teaching are part of the problem. Teachers looking for a magic checklist of ways to reach all Latino students or all black students will be disappointed.

This isn't about easy assumptions about race and ethnicity. It's about relationships.

Culturally responsive teachers take the time to learn about a student's family and culture and how it shapes that student's experiences. Those experiences are unique to that student and aren't checked at the schoolhouse door every morning. They are brought into the classroom and can be used to bring lessons to life for students.

Every educator knows the value of prior knowledge and understands that skills are more easily acquired if the child works with familiar content. Open any elementary school math text, and you'll see balls, shoes, trucks - familiar objects from the real world - used to build numerical skills. Culturally responsive teachers work with children and their families to discover the cultural "funds of knowledge" that might be used as the basis for all kinds of new learning.

For example, a teacher in California's Central Valley impressed Teaching Tolerance with her unit that used students' existing knowledge about crops, weather, harvesting and going to market to teach math, English and science. The world the student knows - and the knowledge from her family's culture - becomes an engaging springboard for acquiring new skills and achieving in school.

Teachers also must be aware how they view their students. They may assume since they don't carry overt racial or ethnic prejudices, they aren't bringing any biases into the classroom.

But too often teachers see students in terms of what they're not bringing to the table - a phenomenon known as "the deficit view." When a teacher sees a student as the child who struggles with English or the child whose family can't afford basic school supplies, that teacher may overlook the student's strengths.

Culturally relevant teaching is also about avoiding classroom practices that reinforce stereotypes and, unintentionally, feed a pattern of low expectations. When a teacher forms reading groups based solely on test results, for example, those groups might easily break down along racial or socioeconomic lines that reflect the fact that children of color and children with fewer resources have lower achievement.

This kind of ability-based grouping can reinforce lower expectations, for both students and teachers. A culturally responsive teacher chooses flexible and heterogeneous grouping to ensure that expectations are high for all students. It's also a more effective way to learn. Pairing highly proficient readers with mid-level readers yields gains for both: the high-achiever gains confidence as a model, and the lower-achiever sees that gains are within reach.

Culturally responsive teaching isn't easy. It's hard work. But it's important work. That's why the Richard W. Riley College of Education and Leadership at Walden University and a number of other organizations joined Teaching Tolerance to recognize these educators. It's also why the winners have been filmed in the classroom, so teachers across the nation can visit the Education Week website and see how these teachers put their skills to work.

As a diverse nation, our success depends on more than ensuring every student has equal access to the classroom. It means ensuring equal opportunity for success.