Culturally Responsive Teaching

What is Culturally Responsive Teaching?

“Culturally responsive teaching” is everywhere at IslandWood. From our work with students and teachers in the Seattle area, to our programs on Bainbridge Island, this approach to teaching and learning influences every aspect of our educational philosophy and practices.


So, what does it mean? Simply put, culturally responsive teaching refers to an educational approach that honors students’ individual learning styles, identities, and life experiences as a way to deepen learning and spark engagement.


Whether you’ve never heard of the term before or want to explore how to incorporate culturally responsive strategies into your own teaching, we hope the following conversation, examples, and resource list will help deepen your understanding of this powerful educational approach.

A Conversation With Our Educators

We spoke with three of our educators – Urban School Programs Coordinator, Celina Steiger; Director of Campus Programs, Dr. John Haskin; and Day Programs Staff Instructor, Ben Berrick – to learn more about how this approach shapes our educational programs throughout the organization.


Read the conversation here →

Examples of Culturally Responsive Learning Activities

Lessons themselves are not inherently culturally responsive, though some are easier to adapt and run using culturally responsive practices and mindsets. For example, many activities and materials included on IslandWood’s Learn site describe and advocate for culturally responsive modes of teaching.


The following are lessons that our educators have used with a culturally responsive lens. Each lesson includes an example of what a culturally responsive version of that lesson might look like, as well as an example of what to avoid.


The culturally responsive approach to each of these activities emphasizes student choice, prior knowledge, critical thinking, and group discussion, key elements that not only honor students’ identities and learning styles, but help foster a strong and collaborative learning environment.


Pathmaps are visual representations of students’ passions, knowledge, or identities. Learn more about what path maps are and how we use them in the School Overnight Program here and here. Apart from being a great opportunity to learn more about each student, this activity can be a great way to learn about how a group of students functions best. Is this a group that works well with music in the background? Is this a group that can productively chat while working? Do they prefer individual space and silence? By observing the group during this activity, instructors can respond to student needs and interrupt or challenge negative behaviors in real time.

Culturally Responsive Approach:

The instructor starts out by sharing something about themselves and their own identity. For example, the instructor says that they have dyslexia, and shares that they struggled in school because others teased them for not appearing to work hard and for avoiding reading out loud. The instructor shares that they are proud of the fact that the doodling they did during class to help them concentrate has helped them develop their drawing skills. Students then make their own pathmaps featuring something they are proud of, or have worked hard at. Follow up discussion about these maps helps the instructor learn more about their students, and the students learn about each other.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

The instructor shares surface-level information in their own pathmap, such as the schools they attended, towns they lived in, and number of family members they have. When a student asks whether they can write their pathmap instead of drawing it, the instructor insists that they draw it. When students share their maps, the instructor does not facilitate conversation or ask any questions and sets a strict time limit for each student to share to make sure the activity is done in a pre-determined time frame.


With some guiding structure, a community agreement allows students to work on creating rules and expectations for themselves. This helps students name dynamics within their group, make connections between knowledge that they each bring to the group, and explore questions they have for each other. Learn more about how we use community agreements with students at IslandWood here.

Culturally Responsive Approach:

While creating a community agreement, students write down what they need from the group. The instructor challenges the whole group of students to work individually or in small groups to create 15-second skits to show what they need in the group dynamic. Before students begin performing their skits, the instructor lays out a few norms about how students can ask the skit performers clarifying questions after they perform.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

While each students writes down what they need from the group, one student refuses to write, saying that they don’t need anything from the group. The instructor doesn’t challenge this or ask any follow-up questions, and never returns to this idea while working with the student.


This is an approach that allows students to choose the level of challenge that is appropriate to them during a given activity. This helps instructors meet kids where they are and honor multiple methods for approaching challenges in the classroom.


Read about an example of the challenge by choice approach here.

Culturally Responsive Approach:

A group is struggling with a task they have been assigned. As the students try to communicate with each other, hurt feelings arise. The instructor pauses the activity, gathers their students together, and facilitates a discussion using communication norms that have been established previously. All students get a chance to share how they’re feeling and what felt challenging to them about the situation at hand. The instructor offers the chance for students to redefine the challenge based on their feedback. The group of students then alter their task slightly and succeed with this new course of action. Afterwards, they debrief, sharing appreciations of each other, reflecting on how they changed their approach, and voting on whether to tackle the original task.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

A group of students is struggling with a task, and communication is beginning to break down. The instructor pauses the task, prompts a brief re-planning of how to tackle the task at hand, and shuts down students when they try to share their frustrations. Later in the day, communication begins to break down again due to residual, unaddressed frustrations.


This is an activity where students work together to categorize things as either “living” (biotic) or “non-living” (abiotic). The activity can also help students strengthen their critical thinking skills by questioning what things belong in each category.


Learn more about how we use abiotic/biotic sorting at IslandWood here.

Culturally Responsive Approach:

The instructor asks individual students to sort objects (for example, a rock, cup of water, branch, coal, shell, moss, and lichen) into “living” and “non-living” categories. Students are then put into groups of 3-4. In these groups, students share their thoughts on the categorization and re-sort these objects based on group consensus. Next, the instructor runs a “four corners” activity to gauge students’ agreement or disagreement on whether each object is living or non-living. The instructor then leads a debrief to emphasize the role of the discussion process, pre-existing knowledge that students bring, and personal experience in defining what is considered alive and what isn’t.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

Students sort objects into living and non-living categories. The instructor then provides a key of “correct” answers and shares them with students one by one without a discussion of how and why students might approach these categories differently.


Check out an example of a culturally responsive approach to community cooking here.

Culturally Responsive Approach:

While cooking or baking together as a group, an instructor invites students to share what cooking skills they recognize and who taught them these skills. While the food cooks, the instructor leads a discussion of students’ favorite flavors, meals, and special occasions involving food, as well as people in their lives who have passed on food-related knowledge to them.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

While cooking or baking as a group, the instructor gives a rundown of food safety skills. The group of students makes pizza and talks about how great pizza is.


Learn more about using “I Am From” poems with students here. To see a bit more about the I Am Poem” activity, check out this video!

Culturally Responsive Approach:

The instructor learns that their group of students enjoys musicals and rap. They introduce the “I Am From” poem activity as way for students to share about themselves and the people, places, and things that have shaped them. When it’s time for students to share their poems, the instructor helps students create a list of group communication and listening norms. The instructor also draws on their knowledge of the students’ love of music to make djembe drums available as to incorporate into their poem sharing. After students share, the group reflects on what it was like to write and perform their poems.

Non-Culturally Responsive Approach:

The instructor shows an example “I Am From” poem. Some students want to add illustrations to their poems, but the instructor asks all students to focus on writing instead of drawing. The instructor does not make time for students to share their poems, but instead collects the poems at end of the lesson to review.

IslandWood Graduate Program students collaborate while sitting at a table outside.

Books & Resources

Want to learn more? The following is a selection of books and resources that have been useful to our educators in influencing their approach to culturally responsive teaching. We hope they’re helpful for you too!


Have recommendations for other culturally responsive teaching resources we should include in this list? Let us know in the comments below!



P.S. Looking for other ideas and resources curated by our educators, including anti-racist education resources? Check out our Educator Resources page!

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