Responding to Place, the Community, and the Individual

Culturally responsive teaching means incorporating the environment and the people of the place our classroom shares, as well as considering the cultures represented within each student in the classroom. For example, during the math trail, we were asked to consider our surroundings in a different way than a college campus. While it engaged us in math, we were also engaged in the history and culture of the land we were learning math on! I was struck by the level of community involvement in Paula’s classroom as well, as she brought forest service workers out to help her students’ survey skills or hosted an event at the library for the community to learn about 4th grade research on the history of the neighborhood. The learning seemed to be more powerful when it was rooted in connections with people and places that were “home” to students. All of a sudden, students had purpose and value to their work. I thought working in small groups forced us to grapple with each other’s differences in culture as well. For students, it would take more scaffolding and facilitating, but the experience of confronting conflict, making a compromise, or using someone else’s strategy to solve a problem is transformative to the perspectives and social skills students take with them.

Besides teaching lessons rooted place, I heard from the Elders the importance of each individual’s culture in their learning. Many Elders eluded to the importance of respecting the spirit of each being, of embracing everything and everybody as a resource. I think this is at the core of Gloria Billings’ thoughts on teaching, that everybody’s spirit is acknowledged in the classroom, that everyone has knowledge and capability in them that is wrapped up in the complexity of their culture. Hearing these words from the Elders as well was inspiring, and I think that for educators to really take them to heart, we need to be humble, honest, positive, and flexible.

I have incorporated a few culturally responsive strategies into my music classroom in the past year. At the elementary school level, I invited the cultural specialist to come in and teach the paddle song to 5th graders, as we did a unit on work/functional songs. I have incorporated local songwriters into units on songwriting and invited local performers to come work with students in sectionals. In performance classes, students play for community events such as at the Pioneer Home or the Folk Festival. I am always sure to contextualize each song we learn by exploring where in the world it came from and how it is a reflection of the people’s culture. Certainly, I wish I could find more ways to get students to study music of native cultures, or music of their own culture, but often I feel handicapped by the skills/technique/content I am responsible for teaching. I was inspired by Paula’s amazing connections with the community to create some sort of teaching artist workshop where students could learn native song and dance and perform it together (I believe Sealaska did something similar in Juneau schools last year). A music history class focusing on music of Alaska would also be an incredible project for students to sink their teeth into.
My grand take away from thinking about culturally responsive teaching this week, is that it doesn’t need to be so involved in each lesson. The connections and contextual information can be very subtle, yet still so important. From a year of experiencing this work, I know how difficult the connections can be, yet how rewarding they are. Teaching is really more about facilitation and relationships than about knowledge!


This was my second time hearing about Scott’s interdisciplinary work in Nikiski, but this time I really enjoyed experiencing the quiz at the beginning. I was an opportunity to remember what it feels like when a teacher asks you to bring your cultural background knowledge into the classroom. When a survey like this happens, it provides so much opportunity for involving students in community projects.

I was also very moved by Ernestine Hayes’ reading last week. She is inspiring because she isn’t afraid to say things how they are, no matter how much dis-comfort she might receive. I think this is a behavior to aspire to as a culturally responsive teacher in order to really advocate for our students against a fairly racist system of education we work in.

2 thoughts on “Responding to Place, the Community, and the Individual”

  1. Sophia, I enjoyed reading your blog about ways you already included in your classes a few culturally responsive strategies. I think you’ll be a great teacher and your upcoming trip will only enhance that. Good job!

  2. Thank you for sharing some of the ways you have incorporated culturally-responsive teaching into your classroom in the past year. It was wonderful to read about your experiences and ideas. I especially like that you had your students perform for community events.

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