Culturally Relevant Teaching

This week I have been looking at ISTE Coaching Standard 3b which asks coaches to partner with educators to identify learning content that is culturally relevant. This standard opens up so many questions for me.  The obvious ones are: What is culture? What does culturally relevant mean?  Relevant to whom? But more specifically, what does culturally relevant mean in a fairly homogeneous environment, like the one in which I teach? My big question is:

How can coaches help teachers create a culturally sensitive learning environment in which students are given a variety of opportunities to learn more about their own culture, to appreciate cultures which are different from their own, and to explore ways to interact with other cultures?

1. Coaches help teachers understand the characteristics of a culturally sensitive learning environment.

How can we foster a culturally sensitive learning environment?

Check our own Bias

Firstly, we need to look to ourselves as educators, after all we set the climate for our classrooms, don’t we? It’s not a comfortable task to look at our own bag of bias, explicit and implicit, which we carry with us. As an teacher, am I aware of what bias I am revealing in my own classroom? What do my actions, my language, and even my passivity tell my students about my attitudes, or perceptions? We need to be open to checking our own biases and willing to correct them.

Peggy McIntosh calls this bag of bias a “knapsack.” Are we ready to take a look at our knapsack? I urge you to read White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, by Peggy McIntosh. Here’s a link to an excerpted essay version. McIntosh lists 50 statements which reveal white privilege, and even though this was published in 1990, three decades ago, sadly, most of the statements are still relevant in 2020. I’ve listed all 50 statements in the following slider. Read them.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

Peggy McIntosh’s list of 50 statements identifying daily effects of white privilege.

I have chosen those conditions that I think in my case attach somewhat more to skin-color privilege than to class, religion, ethnic status, or geographic location, though of course all these other factors are intricately intertwined.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.

1. I can if I wish, arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
2. I can avoid spending time with people whom I was trained to mistrust and who have learned to mistrust my kind or me.
3. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.
4. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.
5. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time and place cannot count on most of these conditions.

6. I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
7. When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
8. I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
9. If I want to, I can be pretty sure of finding a publisher for this piece on white privilege.
10. I can be pretty sure of having my voice heard in a group in which I am the only member of my race.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, code books, visas, clothes, tools, and blank checks…

11. I can be casual about whether to listen to another person’s voice in a group in which s/he is the only member of his/her race.
12. I can go into a music shop and count on finding the music of my race represented, into a supermarket and find the staple foods which fit with my cultural traditions, into a hairdresser’s shop and find someone who can cut my hair.
13. Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearance of financial reliability.
14. I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
15. I do not have to educate my children to be aware of systemic racism for their own daily physical protection.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

… an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious.

16. I can be pretty sure that my children’s teachers and employers will tolerate them if they fit school and workplace norms; my chief worries about them do not concern others’ attitudes toward their race.
17. I can talk with my mouth full and not have people put this down to my color.
18. I can swear, or dress in second hand clothes, or not answer letters, without having people attribute these choices to the bad morals, the poverty or the illiteracy of my race.
19. I can speak in public to a powerful male group without putting my race on trial.
20. I can do well in a challenging situation without being called a credit to my race.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.” (Elizabeth Minnich)

21. I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
22. I can remain oblivious of the language and customs of persons of color who constitute the world’s majority without feeling any penalty for such oblivion.
23. I can criticize our government and talk about how much I fear its policies and behavior without being seen as a cultural outsider.
24. I can be pretty sure that if I ask to talk to the “person in charge”, I will be facing a person of my race.
25. If a traffic cop pulls me over or if the IRS audits my tax return, I can be sure I haven’t been singled out because of my race.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

Whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal, so that when we work to benefit others, this is seen as work that will allow “them” to be more like “us.” (Elizabeth Minnich)

26. I can easily buy posters, picture books, greeting cards, dolls, toys and children’s magazines featuring people of my race.
27. I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out-of-place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared.
28. I can be pretty sure that an argument with a colleague of another race is more likely to jeopardize her/his chances for advancement than mine.
29. I can be pretty sure that if I argue for the promotion of a person of another race, or a program centering on race, this is not likely to cost me heavily within my present setting, even if my colleagues disagree with me.
30. If I declare there is a racial issue at hand, or there isn’t a racial issue at hand, my race will lend me more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

As far as I can tell, my African American coworkers, friends, and acquaintances with whom I come into daily or frequent contact in this particular time, place and time of work cannot count on most of these conditions.

31. I can choose to ignore developments in minority writing and minority activist programs, or disparage them, or learn from them … I can find ways to be more or less protected from negative consequences of any of these choices.
32. My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races.
33. I am not made acutely aware that my shape, bearing or body odor will be taken as a reflection on my race.
34. I can worry about racism without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.
35. I can take a job with an affirmative action employer without having my co-workers on the job suspect that I got it because of my race.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

To redesign social systems we need first to acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions. The silences and denials surrounding privilege are the key political surrounding privilege are the key political tool here.

36. If my day, week or year is going badly, I need not ask of each negative episode or situation whether it had racial overtones.
37. I can be pretty sure of finding people who would be willing to talk with me and advise me about my next steps, professionally.
38. I can think over many options, social, political, imaginative or professional, without asking whether a person of my race would be accepted or allowed to do what I want to do.
39. I can be late to a meeting without having the lateness reflect on my race.
40. I can choose public accommodation without fearing that people of my race cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

I was taught to think that racism could end if white individuals changed their attitude … Individual acts can palliate but cannot end, these problems.

41. I can be sure that if I need legal or medical help, my race will not work against me.
42. I can arrange my activities so that I will never have to experience feelings of rejection owing to my race.
43. If I have low credibility as a leader I can be sure that my race is not the problem.
44. I can easily find academic courses and institutions which give attention only to people of my race.
45. I can expect figurative language and imagery in all of the arts to testify to experiences of my race.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack
Peggy McIntosh

A “white” skin in the United States opens many doors for whites whether or not we approve of the way dominance has been conferred on us.

46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.
47. I can travel alone or with my spouse without expecting embarrassment or hostility in those who deal with us.
48. I have no difficulty finding neighborhoods where people approve of our household.
49. My children are given texts and classes which implicitly support our kind of family unit and do not turn them against my choice of domestic partnership.
50. I will feel welcomed and “normal” in the usual walks of public life, institutional and social.

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Get to REALLY know our students

Secondly, we need to know our students. I mean, really understand who they are, where they come from, how they think. We need to do more than just a quick student profile at the beginning of the year, or a test to figure out what sort of learner they are, or what their favorite snack or birthday treat will be. All that is a start, but is meaningless unless we use that information about their hobbies, unique skills and their strengths to inform our teaching, create engaging lessons and give our students a sense of belonging in our classroom.

Change our pedagogy to reflect our cultural sensitivity

Thirdly, we need teach in a way that ensures our students see themselves and their communities reflected and affirmed in the curriculum we teach. Here are three pedagogies to consider:

In the mid 90’s Gloria Ladson-Billings coined the term culturally relevant pedagogy to describe teaching that engages learners whose experiences and cultures are traditionally excluded from mainstream settings. According to her, this teaching must help students develop positive ethnic and cultural identities while simultaneously helping them achieve academically. Culturally relevant pedagogy would also help students realize and respond to current social inequalities. Ladson-Billings sees our understanding of culturally relevant pedagogy as fluid. Her work has been the foundation of many other scholarly investigations, significant among them the work of Geneva Gay and Django Paris.

Geneva Gay defines culturally responsive teaching as “using the cultural characteristics, experiences and perspectives of ethnically diverse students as conduits for teaching them more effectively. It is based on the assumption that when academic knowledge and skills are situated within the lived experiences and frames of reference of students, they are more personally meaningful, have higher interest appeal, and are learnt more thoroughly.”

Django Paris questions whether the terms relevant and responsive go far enough to describe how educators should be including, validating and confirming diverse cultures. He suggests culturally sustaining pedagogy as an alternative. This pedagogy goes beyond curriculum pieces and empathic teaching. According to Django, ” culturally sustaining pedagogy seeks to perpetuate and foster—to sustain—linguistic, literate, and cultural pluralism as part of the democratic project of schooling … and embraces cultural pluralism and cultural equality.”

The common thread in all three responses to the question of culture is their focus on the student.

2. Coaches help educators understand the value of culturally responsive teaching (CRT)

Adapted from New America

New America has developed a list of 8 teaching competencies which define a culturally responsive educator. New America notes that this is not an exhaustive list, but it it is framework that administrators and teachers can begin using to determine how effective they are at integrating cultural inclusion and understanding. Coaches can help teachers become more intentional about CRT by encouraging teachers to include these competencies into their curriculum and by modelling them within their own curriculum.

8 Competencies for Culturally Responsive Teaching

1.Reflect on one’s cultural lens
2.Recognize and redress bias in the system
3.Draw on student’s culture to shape curriculum and instruction
4.Bring real-world issues into the classroom
5.Model high expectations for all students
6.Promote respect for student differences
7.Collaborate with families and the local community
8.Communicate in linguistically and culturally responsive ways
New America: Culturally Responsive Teaching

A Practical idea coaches can use to have conversations about CRT

Read a book together

Start a book group. At the moment I am in a book group. We meet once a week in Microsoft Teams. We’re reading Roadmap to Reconcilliation 2.0 by Brenda Salter McNeil. Hopefully this quote from the introduction can show you why it would be a compelling book to share with others: Whether you’re starting with a fresh vision for multiethnicity and need to know where to start, or whether you’re already weary from the journey and need encouragement and solutions, this book will be an invaluable resource for you. Let’s strive together for more than just a few feel-good moments between people and begin to seek a more sustainable, systemic restoration so that our communities, both local and global, can better reflect the kingdom of God.

Although the book is primarily about reconciliation, there is no way it can be read without reflecting on the way in which we personally deal with all cultural diversity (race, ethnicity, gender, age, social standing, religion, etc.) Each chapter ends with a section called Getting Practical. This section challenges readers to think about their own journey, their own responses, or as at the end of Chapter 4, gives readers practical ideas to give their cultural responsiveness ‘feet.’

We need a roadmap to guide us through common points of interest and past the social terrain and political boundaries that will arise as we journey together and encounter challenging questions like these:
* How do we respond to current events?
*How do we hold differing life experiences in tension?
*How do we embrace diversity in our communities?

Roadmap to Reconciliation 2.0

Another book I’d like to suggest is an anthology of stories from The Moth: All these Wonders. If you don’t already subscribe to their podcast, I highly recommend that you do. We really only get to know each other when we know our stories, don’t we?

“Honesty matters. Vulnerability matters. Being open about who you were at a moment in time when you were in a difficult or an impossible place matters more than anything.” from the forward by Neil Gaiman

All These Wonders

The Education page of the The Moth website is a filled with information for teachers:
* Sign up for The Moth Teacher Institute. Unfortunately we’re too late to sign up for this Summer, but put it on the calendar for next summer.
* Sign up to receive The Moth’s curriculum resources.
* Download free page of  tips and tricks suggested by The Moth storytellers for engaging young people in the storytelling and story-listening process.

The Education page of the Moth website also has resources for teachers to use with students:
* Read stories collected from The Moth contributors their anthology of stories, All These Wonders. High-school student and neuroscientist alike, the storytellers share their ventures into uncharted territory—and how their lives were changed indelibly by what they discovered there. With passion, and humor, they encourage us all to be more open, vulnerable, and alive. All These Wonders has a comprehensive teacher guide.
* Listen to personal stories on The Moth podcast such as Pastels and Crayons told by Aleeza Kazmi – a poignant memory of struggling with color and identity while working on a self-portrait in the first grade.
* Create a memoir telling a personal story based on prompts from Storytelling School with The Moth. Lesson #21 is about SETTING. Students watch or listen to “When People Ask Me Where I’m From” by Beth Gebresilasie, and then are prompted to write their own story:

At The Moth, we believe in celebrating the diversity and commonality of human experience. Often, listening to someone’s story will remind us of a story from our own lives. While you almost definitely have not had Beth’s exact experience, it still may have reminded you of a story from your own life. Get inspired by these prompt questions to tell your own story!

  • Tell us about a time you told someone ‘it’s a long story’
  • Tell us about a time you had to leave your friends, family or community
  • Tell us about a time you were excited for a new experience
  • Tell us about a time you made a friend easily

The Moth also has classes for high school students and opportunities for students (and teachers) to tell their stories in a story slam.

If you have read a good book that encourages conversations about cultural issues in general or culturally responsive teaching in particular, please share it in a reply to this post.

To be honest, I’ve found this post quite difficult to write. Each time I start on a paragraph I think there is just so much to say, how do I cover it all. Something else I’ll share here is some dismay. I suppose my really big question is how do we as teachers make culturally responsive/sustainable/sensitive teaching stick?

I’ll end this post with some final words from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality,
tied in a single garment of destiny.
Whatever affects one directly,
affects all indirectly

Letter from Birmingham Jail


MCNEIL, B. S. (2020). ROADMAP TO RECONCILIATION 2.0: Moving communities into unity, wholeness and justice. Place of publication not identified: INTERVARSITY Press.

Muniz, J. (2019, March 28). Culturally Responsive Teaching. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

Education Program. (n.d.). Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

Blog: Storytelling School with The Moth: Weekly Storytelling Activity #21. (2020, July 8). Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

Gay, G. (2018). Culturally Responsive Teaching. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: A Needed Change in Stance, Terminology, and Practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93–97.

Rucker, N. (2019, December 10). Getting Started With Culturally Responsive Teaching. Retrieved July 13, 2020, from