Ideas to Spark Your Culturally Responsive Teaching Mindset in Writers' Workshop

Not a Set of Strategies, A Shift in Mindset


I just finished re-reading Zaretta Hammond's book Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. Something about this read resonated more with me than previous times I have read this book. Perhaps it is all my focus on writers' workshop as I prepare for back to school, or maybe it is while I get ready to help facilitate back-to-school professional development on this topic to my colleagues that I paid more attention to the conversation or lack thereof about culturally responsive teaching in the English classroom.  Either way, I like to call this the "brain-on-fire syndrome." You wake up thinking about an issue and have to write, talk, or meditate it out in order to get it through your teaching processing system. Culturally responsive teaching involves a shift in mindset about students in my classroom, but more specifically about students that I often will label as "struggling writers." It is not a coincidence in teaching that the term "culturally responsive teaching" often is parallel to conversations about students of color, English language learners, or students of lower socioeconomic status. My general education classroom looks entirely different from my advanced education classroom.

The question really is, how can I become more aware of my mindset in both of these types of classrooms? And what kind of work needs to be done so that the gap of skill level between general and advanced transcend common institutional boundaries? Let's start with what this post is not. This post is not a set of engagement strategies. It is not a how-to manual to help you approach classes that are struggling with behavior and academics. In turn, this post is going to propose a shift in mindset to get you thinking about how we as teachers approach writing workshop, and also how we as teachers view our writers of color. It will also offer my personal experiences and my observations of bias in the classroom to lend as an example for the conversation. All too often, the buzzword "culturally responsive" is being thrown around like it isn't addressing a crisis of epic proportions in and outside of the classroom. Hammond defines culturally responsive teaching as...

"An educator's ability to recognize students' cultural displays of learning and meaning making and respond positively and constructively with teaching moves that use cultural knowledge as a scaffold to connect what the student knows to new concepts and and content in order to promote effective informational processing. All the while, the educator understands the importance of being in relationship and having a socio-emotional connection to the student in order to create a safe space for learning" (15)

This definition exposes the importance of relationship and building rapport in the classroom. Furthermore, it addresses the need for educators to have many mindsets not a one-size-fits-all approach to student learning. Now, before you say "I have heard this before," let me start with this: I have heard this before and I am unsure of how often I get a chance to truly differentiate for students, talk with them one-on-one during writing conferences or about their writing, or know my students on a deeper level that requires the ability to not only know my students by their name, but know their background, cultural identifications, beliefs, and family systems. How well do we know students? My answer would be I know some of my students more than others, and the difference is the mindset I use to interact with many of my students on a day-to-day basis. 

Key Points from Hammond's Book

Book Take-Away #1: Identify the role of dependency

Hammond gets right to the point about culturally responsive teaching. She states, "Classroom studies document the face that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students (Allington and McGill-Franzen, 1989; Darling-Hammond, 2001, Oakes, 2005). Their curriculum is less challenging and more repetitive. Their instruction is more focused on skills low on Bloom's taxonomy. This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle..." (12). She goes on to explain how this creates a vicious cycle of dependent learners in our classrooms. These students are often in the general education classrooms or "non-honors" classes and then get tracked into a cycle of less opportunity overall. For example, in my building, if students have to take remedial classes, they do not get access to some electives like art or music. This causes tracking of our lower-level students into classes that are not focused on creativity, imagination, or diversification. 

Book Take-Away #2: Build awareness first

Culturally responsive teaching is again not a strategy in and of itself. It is a lens and a mindset as to how we as educators approach situations, strategies, and problems. While some may argue this is semantics, let me offer this example. Let's say that I have tougher class where most of them scored in the lower 20% percentile (This was a real-life scenario two years ago). An inexperienced teacher, might be so focused on where to begin in terms of content that they don't take a chance to use strategies that build rapport first. Rapport leads to awareness. The first rule of teaching is that we are teaching students first, and then content second. Hammond recommends that we take 4 different perspectives when applying a framework to our curriculums and helping students of color in any subject area (17). 

Four Framework Areas:

1. Awareness

2. Learning Partnerships

3. Information Processing

4. Community of Learners

Looking at these four areas, Hammond then elaborates that a majority of the work when starting out is in awareness. This area is critical when creating a classroom rapport and establishing a safe zone for writers in the English classroom specifically. Hammond references the term "intellectual apartheid" as a way to describe the achievement gap in education (31). Teachers can get easily overwhelmed with the fact that not only does their job matter, it matters every single day. This lone reason to constantly feel like we are first-responders on the scene is among the many reasons why teachers leave teaching. However, this matters. Addressing the achievement gap as if someone's life were on the line is the single most important reason to seize the day. Carpe deim the crap out of the achievement gap because it matters. I am often left with the gut feeling that what I do for my struggling writers is not enough. The bottom line is it isn't. However, what if everyone felt this way? There would be many hurt guts, but the gap would continue to get smaller and smaller. 

Book Take-Away #3: Get brain savvy

I don't know how the brain works on a mature level. I get the basic concepts and use these concepts when I talk about growth mindset in the fall to my students. However, no matter the activities that show dendrites reaching out and connecting with each other, teachers need to be reflective about specific, complex processes to get better as practitioners. Chapter 3 in Hammond's book will make your head hurt in a good way. She breaks down the different components of the brain and what they process. 

1. Reptilian Region: This region controls reaction, and it scans for threats (37-38)

2. Limbic Region: This region manages emotion and memory (38). 

3. Neocortex Region: This region controls abstract thought, imagination, and planning (40). 

Knowing this information, we can identify which area students are currently using in their lessons in the classroom. For example, many of my students exist and stay in the "fight-or-flight" region of the brain. They never come out of that to demonstrate creativity, independence, or new memories that are positive in the classroom. 

Book Take-Away #4: Build capacity

After understanding the brain and how the ability to see the world through lenses of culture, teachers have to build capacity for many things before instruction can be received. They have to build capacity for compassion, love, trust, and kindness. When planning for specific instruction, Hammond recommends four steps in keeping the lesson responsive, relevant, and engaging (128). 

1. Ignite-Getting the brains attention

2. Chunk-Making information digestible 

3. Chew-Actively processing information

4. Review-Having a chance to apply new learning

These four methods help teachers have the HOW to any good lesson. We often will start with the warm-up, but why not call it the IGNITE. We often have giant lessons, why not CHUNK them down. Teachers are rushed, we need to give time to CHEW and then REVIEW. This method seems reflective and an honest way to approach lessons in any classroom-not just the ELA one. 

Application to Writers' Workshop

Mindset Challenge #1: Start with personal narrative

I like to start with personal narrative no matter what the circumstance each year. My curriculum now calls for it, but I think every teacher of writers (which includes all teachers in my opinion) should start with some sort of personal narrative or get students talking about who they are. A critical component to helping yourself become a better teacher with a culturally responsive mindset is first sharing your culture, your identify, and your stories that make up who you are as a person. While at first this can feel like "exposure" to students, it helps build trust to build a better classroom environment. This helps build learning partnerships overall. Hammond states, "Too often though, we ignore the quality of our interactions with students and instead focus primarily on the curriculum. In culturally responsive teaching, relationships are just as important as the curriculum (72). This relationship aspect carries over into the writers' workshop because students have to feel comfortable with each other and you in order to share their writing. This is why peer review sucks in most classrooms-teachers are not taking the time to build rapport and relationship first and in-depth. 

Mindset Challenge #2: Look for strengths-Not just for weaknesses

As teachers we have time to assess the damage, and apply the strategies from our toolboxes in order to intervene. In terms of classroom management, if I see Student A arguing inappropriately with Student B, I know how to respond. Same goes with writing in the writers' workshop. When I see a student's piece of writing, I know how to give feedback. This conferencing with students is the main reason I became a teacher-to talk about writing! However, all to often I will focus on the revisions, edits, or changes instead of focusing on what they need to celebrate. Writing is a celebration of the voice. How great is your party?

Mindset Challenge #3: Focus on cooperative learning 

Hammond makes a point to express the unawareness that most teachers have about cultural archetypes, and also the assumptions that go alongside cultural norms and boundaries. She states, "Most European cultures were rooted in an individualistic mindset, while the collectivist worldview is common among Latin American, Asian, African, Middle Eastern, and many Slavic cultures" (25). Are teachers being diligent about utilizing cooperative learning not only as a mindset, but as a response to culture in the classroom? I will be the first to recognize that I try to work as many cooperative learning strategies into my curriculum, but when it comes to writing, I find it to be incredibly isolating. One of my goals is to make writers' workshop more about community and more about talking about writing in class. The more activities I can build into my curriculum where students depend on each other, the more trust will be evident in my classroom. 

Mindset Challenge #4: Minimize the threat of writing

Writing is scary. Using the knowledge of the brain structures from Chapter 3 of Hammond's book, you can see how many writers will respond to writing with the "fight-or-flight" syndrome. Writing is the main process that we use to convey ideas, emotions, and beliefs. This connection to culture and identity is more than evident.  This nervous feeling often results in behavior in the classroom. Minimize the threat of writing by providing mentors, establishing rapport with students, and building an environment where students feel safe to express their opinions and ideas. The absolute surest way I know how to do this is to share parts of me through writing and storytelling. By sharing who I am, I let my students know that is is okay to be vulnerable and take a chance. 

Mindset Challenge #5: Build new information from old information

Moving unit-to-unit can be a challenge in any classroom. As I sit down to lay out my pacing guide the fall and get a grip on my new look at the wring workshop overall, I cannot forget that this information has to connect to the previous information I have first taught my students. Hammond states, "All learners have to connect new content to what they already know. What we already know is organized according to our cultural experiences, values, and concepts" (49). Students need the relevance of information they have already learned in context to new information that is being presented. For example, I have a personal narrative writing unit before I move into an informational writing unit. I often will teach the basic elements of a paragraph to my struggling sixth graders, but do I teach them how it looks based on genre? I get caught up in trying to close the gap between my struggling writers and my functioning writers that I lose sight of how the brain works when collecting new information. 

Mindset Challenge #6: Maybe "advanced" is overrated?

The math teacher on my team and I often discuss doing away with advanced or honors classes because it tracks students, and is inherently a part of systemic and institutional separation of students based on race, language, and socioeconomics. How amazing would it be to have students of all abilities in one room working together and being challenged on their own intellectual level? Doing away with "Advanced" makes it harder on the teacher, but the student then would not face the "watered down curriculum that doesn't require higher order thinking" (49). All to often I think the intentions of "meeting students where they are" does not always intersect with the ability to challenge them at the same time. In order to grow, students must be challenged mentally. As writers, we cannot help them understand all aspects of the writing process, or help students to identify as writers without challenge or rigor. 

Mindset Challenge #7: Talk less 

In writers' workshop it is easy to hog the air time when it comes to reviewing. Let students talk about their writing. Let students have most of the air time in the conferencing session. As teachers, let's provide the structure for the conversation and sit back and let students lead the direction of the conference and where they want to go. I was never a fan of student-led conferences at parent-teacher conferences because I feel that this time is dedicated to teacher assessment and observation; however, during writers' workshop? Of course. I wouldn't have a better place for students to take the reins. This in turn helps struggling writers "make a pact" with their own work and "set a deadline for mastering their own learning targets" (96). 

Mindset Challenge #8: Writers should track their own progress

Hammond argues that the "social justice aspect" of culturally responsive teaching is when dependent learners take over their own learning (100). This involves students making their own decision about learning and not becoming passive about projects in the workshop. Hammond recommends checklists, rubrics, graph paper or tally sheets, space to store data, and regular time to think about and process their own data (100-101). In the writers' workshop, this may mean that students have a means to collect data on their writing that is not necessarily just grades. I have tried using binders in the past to track this, but I think I will transfer this over to conference sheets this year during my writing workshop walk-a-rounds. 

Writing Mindset Reflection: How are you developing your culturally responsive teaching mindset? What is going on in your building to promote a better mindset in all classrooms?