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Transform Your Classroom with a Culturally Responsive Curriculum

May 18th, 2017

During my travels conducting professional development workshops at conferences and in schools throughout the U.S., one of the main complaints that I hear from teachers and school leaders pertains to “student misbehavior.”

Although they start their careers with high hopes and a desire to help students succeed, as a result of student misbehavior, many educators—especially those in urban, high-needs, and low-performing schools—quickly become frustrated and wonder if they chose the wrong career.

Classroom management problems and student misbehavior contribute to:

  • Teacher burnout
  • Teacher frustration
  • Teacher attrition
  • Lost instructional time for teachers
  • Lost learning time for students

During my 14 years as a junior high school and high school teacher in high-needs public schools, I had my share of experiences with misbehaving students. Though I made many mistakes, I also learned some important lessons about student misbehavior, classroom management, and effective instruction.

Before I share some of those basics, however, I’d like for you to reflect on four case studies:

Case Study 1 - If you were a school leader or classroom teacher, what would you do if a first-grader constantly cried in class?

Case Study 2 - As a school or classroom leader, what would you do with a third grader who rarely paid attention in class, failed to hand in work, and talked excessively?

Case Study 3 - As a school or classroom leader, how would you handle a sixth grader who made another student cry during a heated argument on the playground?

Case Study 4 - What would you do if you were a sixth grade teacher whose colleagues warned you that a low-achieving, excessive talking, feisty African-American girl, who had been retained in first grade, labeled as a “discipline problem,” and who rarely paid attention in class, had been assigned to your class?

These seem to be problematic situations for most teachers, but guess what? I was the student in all four case studies.

During my childhood as an African-American child from a low-income, abusive, single-parent home, educators placed many negative labels on me. I had numerous strikes against me, one of which was that I couldn’t see the chalkboard, and wasn’t diagnosed as “legally blind” until third grade.

Fortunately, I was able to overcome my circumstances and labels because of three factors: my faith in God, a few mentors at my church, and one "Turnaround Teacher" (Mrs. Tessem) who made the ultimate difference for me. Turnaround teachers transform students lives in positive ways because they are powerful, influential, and life-changing role models.

Using Culturally Responsive Curriculum

Mrs. Tessem made a huge impact in my life and the lives of others because she had the correct mindset about her students. She cared about her students’ overall well-being, and in terms of classroom management, she employed a culturally responsive curriculum to empower her students.

Culturally responsive teaching incorporates students’ racial or ethnic culture, views, and experiences into the curriculum in order to: improve their academic skills, and help them determine ways to use their knowledge and skills to improve their lives, communities, and society.

This transformational classroom management strategy can help empower "turnaround teachers" by improving instruction, teacher-student relations, and student-to-student relations; enhancing students’ academic skills; decreasing incidences of classroom misbehavior; lowering students’ chances of entering the prison pipeline.

According to Dr. Geneva Gay, the components of a culturally-relevant pedagogy should:

  • Acknowledge the legitimacy of the cultural heritages of different ethnic groups
  • Connect school and home experiences
  • Use different instructional strategies to address all learning styles
  • Teach students to value their own cultural heritage and that of others
  • Incorporate multicultural materials into the curriculum

Dr. Gay writes: “When the curriculum is interesting, comprehensible and culturally relevant, both teachers and students benefit. Students of color are less likely to be bored in class and are more likely to be interested and engaged. Therefore, they will be less inclined to misbehave in class. They are also more likely to be motivated to excel academically.”

Just as many adults do not know how to handle conflicts effectively—as evidenced by the growing number of acts of violence in our nation—the same is true of children and youth. Therefore, using a culturally responsive curriculum to teach conflict-resolution skills can become a win-win situation for educators, students, and our nation.

It is also one of the best ways to help students become more resilient and learn how to resolve conflicts wisely, while becoming more empathetic and better problem-solvers.

Throughout the U.S. Public School System’s history, ineffective and biased school discipline policies and practices have pushed many students of color and low-income students into the prison pipeline. However, by using a culturally responsive curriculum to teach students conflict-resolution skills, educators can reverse this trend.

Would you like to learn more about transformational classroom management? We recently hosted a webinar that you can replay here:

We also provide in-person training and resources around dealing with racial conflict and turmoil. Learn more


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

Ready to discover your one-stop shop for your district’s educational needs? Let’s talk.

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