top of page

Culturally Responsive PD

An Introduction to
Culturally Responsive Education

Self-Paced Professional Development and Credentials

The purpose of this page is to serve as a self-paced professional development course on an introduction to culturally responsive education, led by administrative intern Michael DeNobile. Learning of his ethnic history in the Italian American experience in middle school, it led DeNobile to research about the civil rights movement in the United States for a multitude of social groups beyond what he learned in school. In addition to a passion for history and equality, he developed a passion for how literature was a necessary, purposeful force for the struggle for equality. DeNobile also holds a B.A. in English, a minor in World Religions, and an M.S. in Urban & Multicultural Education from the College of Mt. St. Vincent (2007) and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Manhattanville College (2013). During the creation of this self-paced course in August 2020, he was pursuing coursework at the College of St. Rose's CITE program's School Building and District Leadership professional certifications, and because of his love for social justice literature, for the past eighteen years, he has devoted countless hours of research and writing for numerous historical fiction novels about race relations in the United States, which he hopes to have ready for final publication in the coming months. 


"Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world." ~Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The Moral Imperative for Culturally Responsive Education

According to a December 2018 report from the US Census Bureau, 76.4 million students nationwide were enrolled in schools from K to the university-level, making up 24.7% of the population age 3 and older. While non-Hispanic white students are still the majority, they continue to decrease in numbers; from 2007 to 2017, non-Hispanic white students went from 57.6% to 50.9% in the K-12 population and 66.1% to 54.7% in the post-secondary population. While high school enrollment has remained relatively stagnant, graduation rates have increased from 83.9% to 87.5% (2007-2017), with the largest increase in Hispanic graduations during that same timeframe (67.4% to 82%).


While we see gains in graduation rates,
disparities remain in education and liter-
acy, health, poverty, and safety.
According to the National Center for
Educational Statistics (NCES), below-
grade-level literacy by race is as follows:
35% white, 34% Hispanic, 23% African
American, and 8% "other." Non-U.S.-born
adults make up 34% of the low literacy /
illiterate population in the U.S. The
National Institute of Literacy reports
that 43% of adults with the lowest
literacy live in poverty, and while the US
poverty rate was 11.8% in 2018 and

decreasing, 17.6% of Hispanics and 20.8% of African Americans were living in poverty in 2018, an increase from 2017. Poverty directly impacts generational literacy: 68% of US fourth graders are below proficient in reading, with 82% of them from low-income homes (Annie E. Casey Foundation). In addition, the Department of Justice reported that 75% of state prison inmates are "low literate" or did not graduate high school, and the Literacy Project Foundation reported that 3 out of 5 inmates can't read and 85% of youth offenders struggle to read. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, providing educational services to prisoners reduced recidivism by 7%.

Closing the achievement gap is more than a political banner; it is the goal of the twenty-first century school if we are to reconcile the disparities that the twentieth century revealed to us. A rising tide lifts all boats, and thus closing the achievement gap for all benefits all in every arena of our society. Culturally relevant education is a vehicle by which closing the achievement gap becomes possible.

🤔THOUGHT BREAK🤔: What are at least two reasons as to why we need a vehicle to close the achievement gap?

"Culturally responsive teaching is about helping culturally and linguistically diverse students who have been marginalized in schools build their skill and capacity to do rigorous work. The focus isn't on motivation but on improving their brainpower and information processing skills." ~Zaretta Hammond, Education Week Teacher

What isn't culturally responsive education?

Before we learn what culturally responsive education is, it's important to know what it's not. Jennifer Gonzalez interviewed Zaretta Hammond on the four misconceptions of culturally responsive teaching (listed below). You can read and listen to the interview here.

Misconception 1: Culturally responsive teaching is the same as multicultural or social justice education.

Hammond defines the difference between the three:

  • Multicultural education - celebrating diversity. In curriculum, we would also see this as incorporating diversity in our literature, honoring scientists and mathematicians from diverse backgrounds, and teaching multiple perspectives of history in social studies. However, diversity in and of itself does not necessarily equate to achievement.

  • Social justice education - building a lens for students to recognize and identify injustice. While important and necessary, identifying injustice won't help a student increase their reading level and cognitive abilities. Jennifer Gonzalez provides Social Justice resources here.

  • Culturally responsive teaching - "building the learning capacity of the individual student" and "leveraging the affective and the cognitive scaffolding that students bring with them" (Hammond). To test to see if your classroom is culturally responsive, ask yourself are my students of color, English language learners, and immigrant students learning? If they are not succeeding academically within your classroom norms, you may need to shift your pedagogical approaches to be more culturally responsive.


It's important to note that Hammond is not saying that multicultural and social justice education are not important, but that on their own, they do not address the achievement gap. Only when teachers address the culturally responsive dimension do they start to address what is necessary to bridge the gap. Click here for Hammond's Dimensions of Equity chart.

Misconception 2: Culturally responsive teaching must start with addressing implicit bias.

Hammond notes that while addressing implicit bias is important (she provides tools here), it is by no means the launching pad for culturally responsive teaching. If culturally responsive teaching is about instructional practices, examining implicit biases can delay and even derail instructional shifts. As Hammond notes, implicit bias is "not the starting point" because "you can't pivot to instruction. Whereas when you understand inequity by design, you can actually talk about instruction but also come back to talk about microaggressions. The sequencing is really important."

Misconception 3: Culturally responsive teaching is all about building relationships and self-esteem.

Hammond notes that while social emotional learning (SEL) is also important, feeling good doesn't necessarily move achievement. So, while relationship building and SEL are necessary because relationships are conducive to the cognitive work in culturally responsive teaching, SEL becomes the means to get to culturally responsive teaching. 

Misconception 4: Culturally responsive teaching is about choosing right strategies.

Hammond explains that there isn't a one-size-fits-all approach to culturally responsive teaching, no "off-the-shelf" two or three strategies that teachers can incorporate tomorrow in their classroom. For example, if a teacher is told that adding call-and-response helps reach diverse students, they may think that the strategy is enough to be culturally responsive. Hammond explains that the instructional strategy, much like SEL, is a means to being culturally responsive, not the means. The teacher can become culturally responsive when they, for example, use call-and-response to deepen student thinking. You can download Hammond's Diversity Kit here for more resources. You can also learn more about Hammond's book Culturally Responsive Teaching & the Brain by clicking here.

🤔THOUGHT BREAK🤔: What are the four misconceptions of culturally responsive teaching? How can we use these misconceptions to help us become more culturally responsive?

"The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes." ~Marcel Proust, La Prisonnière

What is culturally responsive education?

Watch this video "Creating a Culturally Responsive Classroom" by Alicia Discepola. General notes are provided for you below to focus your viewing.

  • Include learners in their learning

  • Open the lines of communication

  • Integrate high-quality digital content

  • Promote student voice and choice

  • Reflect on what we do and don't know

"I grew up like a neglected weed--ignorant of liberty, having no experience of it." ~Harriet Tubman

Watch this video "Culturally Responsive Pedagogy" by Jeffrey Dessources. General notes are provided for you below to focus your viewing.

  • Raise the level of your communication with authentic conversations

  • Diversify our views

  • Take risks

  • How do we reshape, adapt, and innovate our leadership curriculum?

  • Understand the cultural spaces your students navigate in even if you don't participate in those spaces

  • Redefine the meaning of "the educator" and "the student"

  • Commit to find leadership freedom to push us to a space of cultural responsibility and responsiveness

🤔THOUGHT BREAK🤔: Is culturally responsive teaching simply about meeting the needs of students or is it also about meeting the needs of school leaders and teachers? Explain your answer.

"Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them." ~Leo Vygotsky, Mind in Society

How can cultural responsive pedagogy foster literacy?

In her 2017 article "Employing culturally responsive pedagogy to foster literacy learning in schools," Janice Wearmouth explained how culturally responsive teaching can be used as a vehicle to close the achievement gap. The full article is found here for your reading pleasure, however, major notes are provided below.

  • Increased diversity in our nation's schools requires a pedagogy that is responsive to and respectful of all students as culturally situated.

  • Vygotsky references a necessary sociocultural approach to pedagogy. This approach needs to focus on "culture as a context in which learning takes place" where action and cognition intersect through the use of "language, signs, symbols, tools," etc. and the need to pass on these aspects of culture to future generations. Diversity, however, means that different backgrounds have different cultures, and thus different values are given to the "language, signs, symbols, tools" within each culture. Understanding culture therefore lends insight into how individuals acquire literacy learning.

  • Vygotsky proposed two planes of the learning process: 1) the interpersonal (learning from another) and 2) intrapersonal (learning by thinking and reflecting). Because of this, cognitive and social development are mutually facilitated and inseparable. So, a teacher can mediate language and literacy development; however, once a student reaches a level of competency in literacy, those literacy skills need to mediate cognitive development in order to promote achievement. Therefore, literacy is both a product of and agent of mediating cognitive development, which means literacy achievement is also a participation in social practice. Therefore, students develop their literacy by observing a model of written language structure and usage but also by participating in interpersonal conversations.

  • Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD): Learning mainly occurs through social interaction with others (especially a more able other), and the ZPD is the next steps in learning and the range of knowledge and skills the learners are not ready to learn on their own but can learn in interaction with more informed and experienced others. Therefore, the mediator must answer the following questions:

  1. What must I facilitate as well as scaffold to support students in activities they are yet unable to participate on their own in order to promote new literacy learning? and

  2. How can being responsive to students' existing culturally based literacy-related frames of reference support their literacy learning and cognitive achievement?

  • The need for culturally responsive pedagogy included the following:

  1. Children learn to communicate within their own cultural contexts; teachers need to mediate students' cultural context with the school cultural context​.

  2. Literacy learning and its context are not independent of each other; teachers need to create safe spaces for reading and writing to be understood.

  3. Student personal agency needs to be fostered in learning and achievement via interpersonal participation and discussion in literacy-related activities with more skilled mediators, which may include siblings and/or parents and families.

  4. "Learning to think" is a "function of appropriating speech-based concepts through cultural practice" in which students engage with different communities at home and school. "Mind" is not entirely in the head and includes transactions in culturally structured social and natural environments.

  • Beyond the classroom, being culturally responsive needs to be at the whole-school level, including decision-making, relationships, and partnerships with families. Because literacy learning is about participation, it is important for school leadership to recognize where language, culture, and experience are ignored, excluded, or dismissed as irrelevant both in the curriculum and the school community, as marginalization (whether intended or not) can have long-lasting effects, including students not acquiring competency in literacy skills necessary in mediating their cognitive development. In this way, school leadership needs to be continuously reflective of what the established school culture and identity accepts as the norm, especially during times of cultural influx due to internal migration or emigration. What is important is bridging the gap between school and home, where the school knows what counts as literacy at home, and then what the school can share with the home environment to promote academic literacy.

  • Teachers need to be aware of the "funds of knowledge" students bring to school, such as literacy through family interactions, stories, songs, music, and even religion. Because of this, school relationships with families (especially with the older siblings of students) become key in promoting the literacy development of students both at home and in school.

  • Cultural responsiveness in the classroom is social (interacting in scaffolded, reflective, respectful, collaborative, safe spaces), cultural (combining "academically-accepted" cultural resources as well as resources found within the students' ethnic and generational cultures), and historical (understanding cultural history, how it changes over time, and what values change over time).

  • The goal of culturally responsive teaching is to be culturally responsive to the individual student to promote individual literacy and cognitive development. Therefore, the teacher-student relationship  is central to this undertaking so that the teacher knows what interpersonal and intrapersonal activities must be scaffolded and facilitated in order to promote achievement.

🤔THOUGHT BREAK🤔: How can culturally responsive teaching be a vehicle for literacy and cognitive development at home, in the classroom, at the individual student level, and at the whole school level? 

"Preservation of one's own culture does not require contempt or disrespect for other cultures." ~Cesar Chavez

Bridging the Gap of Cultural and Cognitive Literacy
in Creative Ways

Being culturally responsive is about promoting the intellectual ability of all of our students, especially our students of color, in order to bridge the achievement gap. As Hammond has noted, this becomes complex and there is no one way of going about it. In the English classroom (which is my intellectual home), a first step of being culturally responsive is using texts that speak to the ethnic culture of the students in order to engage them in intellectual interpersonal and intrapersonal activities in a context that is familiar to them. Remember, as noted by Hammond, it is not enough be multicultural in the classroom by choosing texts by authors of color, neither is it enough to take a social justice approach and having them be able to recognize and respond to instances of injustice found in those texts, but in order to be culturally responsive, the teacher must facilitate social and individual activities that promote intellectual and cognitive development and therefore literacy.


The teacher, however, is neither faceless nor without identity. The teacher also comes to the table with "funds of knowledge" to share with their students, including culturally, especially if said teacher is of a different culture of their students. In addition to being mindful of the students' individual ethnic and generational cultures in the classroom, a creative way to be culturally responsive in the classroom is introducing students to aspects of your culture while bridging the gap between yours and theirs in pursuit of an intellectual, cognitive, literacy goal.

As noted in the introduction, I became passionate about multiculturalism and social justice after learning about my own ethnic history of the Italian American experience. As I have gotten older, the Godfather trilogy has become more than a series of films, it is a study into social-cultural history and literature within my own ethnic identity. I would like to clarify that I do not mean the mafia portion of the films, but the overarching narrative of the struggle of Italians in their home country, emigrating to the United States, and struggling to make a place for themselves in the New World, all within the context of family ties, faith, food, and loyalty. While my heritage is irrelevant to the conversation, the point is this: as noted above, my culture is my context to my frames of reference just as your culture is your context to your frames of reference; the goal of being culturally responsive is to bridge the gap in between by using those different frames of reference in order to engage in an intellectual, cognitive activity.  


When I teach film classes to high school seniors, one of the films I put on the syllabus is the Godfather Part II for multicultural (to expose students to a culture, namely Italian American, different from their own) and social justice purposes (beyond the moral ambiguity of Michael's actions being justified but that he justifies his actions by the injustices perpetrated against him as an Italian, as demonstrated in the senate hearing scene).


One particular scene that stood out to a student of mine was the meeting with Senator Pat Geary (Warning: strong language advisory), which initially confused my student because of misconceptions of what was happening in the scene. Senator Geary berates Michael and says how he wishes to "squeeze" him out of the Las Vegas casino industry because he doesn't like Michael's "kind" of people coming out to this "clean country" of America with their "oily hair, dressed up in those silk suits trying to pass" themselves off "as decent Americans."


The confusion arose because the student didn't understand how Michael, being first generation, born in the United States, was not considered American by Senator Geary, especially since Michael was essentially "white." I explained the historical context, how Italians were not considered white in society until just after their service in World War II and assimilating into American society, and that, the film being set in the 1950s, Italians were still in a middle ground in terms of racial acceptance, which was part of the reason for making the Godfather films in the first place. The student then thought for a moment and said, "Oh, then Michael is like me." Curious, I asked, "How?" "As a first generation immigrant from the Dominican Republic," she said, "I've been treated similarly for similar reasons."


We then engaged in a discussion about race and racism within a historical and literary context, and while it wasn't my intention going into the lesson, I learned how being culturally responsive can also mean bridging the gap between the students' cultures and the cultures depicted in a text (again, as long as the end goal is developing their literacy and cognitive skills).

🤔THOUGHT BREAK🤔: What are some creative ways you can be culturally responsive in your classroom by bridging the gap between yours and your students' ethnic and generational cultures?

"Better is possible. It does not take genius. It takes diligence. It takes moral clarity. It takes ingenuity. And above all, it takes a willingness to try." ~Atul Gawande, Better

Where do we go from here?

Culturally responsive education cannot be the new fad in teaching. The data shows us that our young people need us to find a new pedagogy to teach them in an ever-changing world. So, where do we go from here? We do what educators always do: we learn so we can teach. We become better so we can show our students how to become better. We change so that the world can change. We try so that our students have an opportunity to achieve. I hope that this self-paced professional development has lend you insight into the pedagogy of culturally responsive teaching so that you can dive deeper on your own. Thank you for your time.

"Be brave enough to start a conversation that matters."

~Margaret Wheatley

bottom of page