Integrating culturally responsive teaching through structured, student-guided discussion

by Anna Baldwin

Grades 6-8, Grades 9-12


I teach at a school in western Montana that is seventy percent Native American. But culturally responsive teaching is an important practice wherever you teach.

Culturally-responsive teaching in structured student-centered discussion leads to meeting the needs of all of the students in the classroom. When students celebrate heritage and background, they use that knowledge of others as a pathway to better knowing themselves.

I emphasize the importance of developing critical thinking skills through acts of authentic student voice. And culturally responsive teaching encourages a lot of discussion, taking apart a text, and conducting civil discourse in a safe environment.

My job is to create structures so that students can talk to each other. For example:

-I have students work in small groups to analyze the meaning of a text but also identify stereotypes and use that as the basis for further discussion and evaluation;

-I move them to larger groups to take part in a Socratic discussion around bigger questions; and

-I ask them to write a reflection of what they discussed and learned during class to put some form to their ideas.

Culturally responsive teaching gives students a change to connect their own lives and what they think to the ideas of others and to the ideas that come off the page.


What I did well…
Much of the power of these discussions is in the deliberateness with which they are assembled. Both the poster discussion and the Socratic circles may appear haphazard, or lightly planned, but in fact the front-loading of organizing the groups and questions, even down to the order of the questions, is substantial. That’s important for all teachers who want to re-create this activity to understand.

What I would do more of, better, differently…

I think some important pieces of the activity should be highlighted here. For example, when participants work on the poster project and start with the outer-most box, this should be the least risky question to answer. It should be something participants can engage in without feeling like they’ve been asked to bare their souls. In this activity, it’s “what stereotypes did you see in this poem?” Moving inward, the questions should ask for a little deeper engagement. That’s a metaphor for the whole set of activities: start low-risk and increase the engagement and personal nature of the discussion until participants are seated in a small group Socratic circle sharing their ideas and beliefs.

In what ways do I still want to learn and grow in this practice…

One piece of the activity that always presents some difficulty is the outer circle’s discussion when they have to comment on the inner circle. Participants find it awkward and some fail to see the relevance. However, a critical eye and verbal metacognitive reflection on process helps improve the whole experience for the next round and all future rounds. I just have been unable to convey this to people well, so perhaps doing some more transparent explanation in advance would be a good move to anyone attempting to run this activity.


About Anna Baldwin

Dr. Anna Baldwin has taught for 17 years on the Flathead Reservation in Western Montana. For four of those years, she had the privilege to teach at...

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