The Importance of Culturally Responsive Classrooms

Schools are recognizing that they need to create environments where every student feels valued, seen and heard. An expert from The Roeper School offers insights.

As our global society grows more diverse, it is more important than ever to recognize the different cultures, backgrounds, perspectives and belief systems that surround us daily. With this comes a responsibility for educators to create spaces where all students belong. 

“At The Roeper School, we are intentional about our commitment to culturally responsive classrooms,” says Cynthia Harris, Lower School Dean. “This is not an add-on or an afterthought for us. It drives the creation of curriculum and influences everything we do.” 

What are the components of a culturally responsive classroom?

For Harris, it starts with the basics. “When a student walks into the room, what do they see on the walls? Do you see anyone who looks like you? Do you see anything that represents your culture?” 

It’s not just what students see on the walls, says Harris, but also in the instruction they receive. “At The Roeper School, when students hear a story, we ask them to consider the source – what is the other side – whose voice is not heard? We encourage students to ask questions and consider all points of view so that they can have a broader view of the world and learn to work with people who are different from them.” 

One of the other important features of culturally responsive classrooms is engaging with families from different backgrounds. This is not something done just on holidays or special occasions, says Harris, but is an integral part of the school’s classroom experience. “We have an open door for families to visit us,” says Harris. “Sharing experiences is an important way for students to both listen to others’ experiences and to see themselves.” 

This “mirror and window” philosophy originates with Emily Style, an educator and co-founder of SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity). Style developed “mirrors and windows” as a framework for building an inclusive curriculum. SEED is an important part of The Roeper School’s mission, says Harris. “We want to give our students a window into experiences they may not have had, but the mirrors are equally important. Students need to see themselves represented as well as learn about others.” 

The Roeper School has been involved with the SEED program since its start in 2007, making it one of the longest-running school SEED programs in the United States. SEED seminars provide educators with the tools to address diversity, drive social change within the school and create greater equity for all. In addition to school staff, Roeper offers SEED courses tailored to parents/caregivers and students in the middle and upper school. 

Strategies for creating culturally responsive classrooms

Building relationships is key to Roeper’s mission, says Harris. “We spend a lot of time building relationships with our students to help them feel a sense of belonging and to identify their strengths.” 

The way the curriculum develops at Roeper is another aspect of their mission. “Our students’ passions and interests often drive what we choose to study. Our students’ voices are very important to us,” Harris says. “Students are involved in the creation of agreements that determine how we govern our classrooms and interact with each other.” 

Course materials are another helpful tool. “When learning about different cultures, we like to use source material written and developed, when possible, by individuals who are members of those groups. Our materials are representative of our students as they exist in the world, whether they come from different cultures or different neighborhoods,” Harris notes.

It’s all about honoring and respecting the students who attend Roeper as well as the greater community at large. To that end, the school has a multicultural leadership team to help ensure inclusion. The school conducted a diversity audit to address any potential shortfalls in its diversity, equity, inclusion and justice mission. “This audit ensures that our mission is more than just words on paper,” says Harris.

Of course, no school year is complete at Roeper without special events and there are many. One of the biggest is a large school-wide celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, open to the community, where students explore issues of diversity, equity and inclusion through celebration and discussion. Another popular event is “Mix It Up Day,” which serves to break down social barriers at the middle and upper school campus. Cultural Exploration Day is another school-wide event that raises awareness of the many facets and benefits of diversity.

“While we have several large-scale events to support our school’s mission, this is happening on a smaller scale every day, all year long,” Harris says.

Key principles for culturally responsive classrooms

As a leader in the subject, The Roeper School serves as a model for other schools that want to offer a more culturally responsive classroom experience. Harris suggests following some basic principles as a guide: 

Recognize your biases. Acknowledge your personal biases and work to overcome them. Awareness helps build an inclusive environment. 

Actions speak louder. It’s not enough to say you value your students. Follow through with actions.

Accountability partners. Regular check-ins with an established accountability partner can help you stay on track.

Continuous learning. Embrace opportunities to expand understanding of diverse cultures and perspectives. 

Culturally responsive classrooms need intention and commitment. However, the efforts will pay off in student outcomes and a more inclusive society, says Harris. “We want our students to be able to fully function in a global society, embracing and celebrating who they are while respecting others who are different from them.”

For more information about The Roeper School, visit roeper.org.

Jenny Kales
Jenny Kales
Content editor Jenny Kales has been in the business of writing for more than 20 years. A natural storyteller, she loves helping Metro Parent clients tell their stories in a way that resonates with their audiences.

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