In part 1 of this 4-part PLtogether interview with Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain author Zaretta Hammond, Zaretta discusses culturally responsive teaching- what it is and what it is not.

– Hi, and welcome to another PLtogether Lounge Talk. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena, the video coaching platform for streamlining feedback to teachers. Today, we’re joined by Zaretta Hammond. She is the author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, and she’s also someone who previously taught writing, and now has a collection of children’s writing in the form of a large library of children’s books. Zaretta, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me.

– Well, let’s start by kind of bringing folks in to the kind of area of culturally responsive teaching, and I… In discussing that, and I think we should start by defining it. What does that mean? ‘Cause I feel like we use that phrase a lot, and in some ways we kinda like throw it around like a buzz word, but like that feels a little dangerous.

– Yeah it actually is. So we start with defining it, and I think this is where for those educators that are really really committed to equity it behooves us to really get more nuanced in how we talk about it. So culturally responsive teaching, typically we talk about it in the same realm of social, emotional, learning and development, it’s about relationships, and if we get on par with relationships, then we’re being culturally responsive. Another way we talk about it as motivation. Like we’re motivating bringing elements and artifacts of students’ racial or linguistic or ethnic identities in the classroom, and therefore kids will be more motivated, but we don’t typically talk about it in terms of the changes in instruction that actually increase students’ cognition. Yet and still Dr. Gloria Ladson Billings, who coined the term based on her research, put regaining academic prowess in the center of that. Then what you start to understand is, culturally responsive teaching is not a thing, it’s not a program, it’s actually an algorithm. So we know the way the brain works. What we have to first do is have that brain come in ready, so that there is a sense of connection, it’s not flooded with stress hormones, but at the same time, that in itself is insufficient. So the core of culturally responsive practice is the ability to help the student level up their cognition. I call this getting them ready for rigor so that they can carry more of the cognitive load. It is the antidote to inequity by design. So when we go into schools and we see black and brown kids being those kids chronically at the lower end of achievement then we want and need to accelerate learning. The way we accelerate rate learning is, through increasing the students, what I call their learning muscles. Right? Giving them the opportunity to grow the capacity to take on more rigorous content. But the ability to do that requires this algorithm. And here’s the rub. Just like I explained, it’s not a kind of a quick one-off thing. Right? Just like I had to kinda go through a little explanation there. And this is where we kinda get ourselves in trouble. We think it’s a kind of a turnkey plug and play, I do it, I don’t do it. All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is to whose culture is it responding?

– Well, I like that one. I’ve never really thought about it from that perspective. I wanna call out something you said which in some ways feels so important, given the broader let’s say banner issues as we think about coming back to school this upcoming year, which is… This is distinctly different from the conversations that schools should be having around social, emotional learning. That like you shouldn’t bundle it all together as, oh well we’re investing in social, emotional learning, and therefore we’re getting culturally responsive teaching almost for free. Right? Like these are different areas to focus on. So maybe help us understand, to differentiate that. Like, how should we… How should we start? I mean, you talk about being responsive to students. So what does that mean? How does that interplay with this idea that you just mentioned, which is like, whose culture are you responding to?

– So there are a couple of things in that, and we can kind of piece them apart a little bit. So the first is to just address whose culture are you responding to. American public education, and by extension charter schools, charter school networks, are predicated on the paradigm of white Eurocentric content orientation toward learning and added to that, was designed to actually create racial stratification. That was one of its primary objectives. So when I talk about it is responsive to a dominant culture, that being Eurocentric, predominantly white, and focused on producing racial stratification through the underdevelopment of students’ cognition. So when we are talking about things that are going to upend inequity by design, we’re now calling in the interplay of anti-racist trauma informed, and culturally responsive. But to your point, all three of these get very conflated. People think they’re interchangeable, and next thing you know, they think they’re getting a twofer. We’re doing trauma informed, therefore we must be culturally responsive. And here’s the thing, trauma informed practice has to be contextualized in the sense of what are you assuming about trauma? Right. Just assuming all black and brown children are traumatized, in itself has racist overtones. And so, and undertones, all tones. And so really being able to be precise about what is it, in it could be, kids are coming from low income communities, white, black, brown doesn’t matter. All of those stressors, those ACEs, as people have talked about, are things we want to minimize in schools. So again, getting kids to feel connected, having a sense of trust allows them to rewire their brain so they don’t have that stress response. That’s what trauma informed practices. Now you could be doing that in ways that don’t centralize students’ racial identity and still be practicing good trauma informed practices, but to be culturally responsive means that you are pulling in the methods when you are doing trauma informed practices that are the ways within those communities that people have minimized stress, and built resilience. So anything can bring… You can layer on a culturally responsive practice, but you’d have to be deliberate about that. Just being trauma informed, doesn’t mean you’re culturally responsive. So again, there’s nuance there. Anti-racists, same thing Right? You can be anti-racist, that’s what we’re saying no to. We’re looking for microaggressions, taking, getting racial bullying addressed and taken out of schools addressing it in ways that regains and reinforces trust in a school culture and community is really important. That’s the anti-racist. But just because you’re saying no to something, doesn’t mean you’re saying yes to something. And the culturally responsive teaching practices is what we’re saying yes to. Bringing in those other ways of doing, being, belonging, that are not just window dressing, that the way in which the culture of a school or a classroom is shifted is to rebalance the collectivists and individual orientations. And not just based what a teacher who does not have any understanding of another culture thinks that is, but really because there is input from families, from the students, from communities, to say, this is what makes us feel a sense of belonging and connectedness.

– I like how it was, there’s that phrase ‘yes, and’ when you’re brainstorming. I was thinking of that yes, and, ’cause it was yes to, like you were saying trauma informed teaching practice, and being deliberate about how you are being culturally responsive.

– Yeah.

– Go ahead.

– I will say though, Dena Simmons who is leading a lot of this work around more informed social, emotional, learning and development, really talks about checking your own biases when you’re doing trauma informed work and social emotional because you can, those can be weaponized as well. She calls it white supremacy with a hug. So again, checking the narratives that lead you to these practices. So it’s a ‘yes, and’, with a caveat.

– Well Zaretta we are going to take a break. If you are finding this video shared somewhere out there on the internet, make sure to head to for the rest of this conversation, as well as many others. Zaretta thanks so much for joining us on PLtogether.

– Thank you for having me.