Strategies for Cultivating a Classroom That Represents Students

Imagine walking into a family member’s home and seeing your photograph on the mantel, or being in class and hearing your professor use a cultural reference you connect with. These experiences make us feel like valued members of a community. This is the way students feel when they see images of themselves and their cultural references on our classroom walls and in the curriculum.

The fifth guiding principle of Responsive Classroom states, “What we know and believe about our students—individually, culturally, developmentally—informs our expectations, reactions, and attitudes about those students.” I would add that how we use that knowledge can have a huge impact on students’ learning. By using what we know about our students culturally to craft impactful lessons, we can foster an inclusive learning environment that enhances students’ sense of belonging and significance and leads to higher levels of engagement. The following are strategies for strengthening cultural connections in your classroom.


The first step in honoring students’ cultural references is learning about them. Being curious about students’ cultures and allowing them and their families to share this information can inform our lesson planning, improve teacher-student communication, and get us thinking about how we want our classrooms to look and feel. Some considerations that can help us truly know our students are:

  • Race/ethnicity
  • Family structure
  • Primary language, including dialects and slang
  • Activities/sports
  • Music/pop culture references
  • Social, religious, or other identities
Cultivating a Classroom that Represents Students

In the Responsive Classroom approach, teachers organize the classroom in ways that are inclusive and representative of all members of the class. In doing so, they demonstrate empathy and consideration of the individual, cultural, and developmental needs of all students. As you consider ways to make your classroom feel welcoming to a diverse group of students, think about how you might display:

  • Photos of students and their families
  • Visual representations of students’ cultures, including language/vernacular/slang
  • References to the academic activities, technology, and programming they are familiar with
  • Diverse and culturally relevant names used in texts, examples, and math problems
  • Images that celebrate the contributions of celebrities and historical figures that students identify with

Representing our students’ diverse identities in the classroom is a start to being culturally responsive, but it is also important to look for ways that our students’ cultural references can enhance academic instruction and boost achievement. We know that as students grapple with new content, it’s easier for them to make sense of it if they have experiences to connect it to. With this in mind:

  • Encourage students to include cultural references/connections in their work. Allowing students to express their learning by writing a song/rap or through visual arts, etc. leverages students’ strengths and natural ways of processing information.
  • Allow students to code-switch. This helps students to explore formal and informal English and learn when to use them. It also can help students break down challenging texts and concepts.
  • Use information about students’ lives and communities to plan engaging lessons and projects. Expose them to literature with characters they can identify with.
  • Informational texts about issues students care about (social justice, inclusion, culture) will motivate them and add purpose to their learning.
  • Research and service projects can build an appreciation for diversity and empathy for real problems in students’ communities.


Written by Deanna Ross, Responsive Classroom Consulting Teacher, and Educational Consultant and Coach
Tags: Building Classroom Community, Empathy, Family Connections

43 Replies to “Strategies for Cultivating a Classroom That Represents Students”

  • Deanna,

    I found your article insightful and I appreciate the practical strategies for making students feel like they are part of the classroom. I agree with you that using the knowledge we have of our students is one of the most powerful ways teachers can impact their learning. I’ve also learned from graduate courses that students who don’t see themselves represented around their school building don’t feel like they are part of the learning community. Your article is a reminder of the importance of taking the time to not only get to know my students, but to use that information to make their learning experiences personal. This requires empathy, which we would both agree that any good teacher should have. Thank you for encouraging me to reflect on my own practice!

    • Kira,
      This article also encouraged me to reflect on my own professional practice. Getting to know our students is time well spent when we consider the positive impact it has on both their personal life and learning. Thank you for your comment, it was well worth reflecting upon.

    • Kira,
      I totally agree!! We need to ensure that we are making an effort to ensure all students are included doing this time of social distancing. Our goal is to show our humanistic side during these trying times. In several of our students students has the intent to “code-switch”, I liked the fact that the article stated that we as educator should allow our students to “code-switch”.

      • Absolutely, this article gave me time to reflect on my own teaching philosophy/practices. It very important that I show compassion and empathy to ALL students because everyone is facing challenges during this difficult time.

    • So true…often get in a habit of spending more time with the students who speak up more…I need to assure to include all students!

      • I agree…realized how I tend to focus more time with the students who speak out more/demand my attention…I need to make sure I do my best to include all students, especially the quiet ones.

        • I agree. If you think about it, the quiet ones are usually the ones who need more attention and want to “fit in” because they feel culturally different.

  • Hello,
    Thank you for this profound article, as I agree that one of the most important things a teacher can do is to take the time to get to know students. This is especially true of knowing their family situation. I think language is an interesting component that you mention in terms of code-switching, I will work in my classroom to include practices of validating a student’s language!

  • Hi!
    Thank you for such an informative article! Taking the time to get to know my students, their families, and their values has been the most impactful action I could have taken. I find that the more I get to know my students and their families the more they learn. Making students feel known, present, honored, and accepted in their classroom is essential. I really enjoyed your point about having visuals of students around the classroom to make them feel honored and welcomed. Thank you for this insightful article! It really made me think about my own practices!

    • I absolutely agree, if you do not know your students then you can not reach them to teach them. Our school is very family oriented and the culture is so that everyone is involved. During the pandemic, I called,texted,emailed and face-timed students and parents to check in with everyone. If the family is not OK, the student does not learn.

  • Hello, I am in a responsive school. Getting to know a child is key to their learning. It takes time to get to know a student and their famiIy but it is crucial for the child to thrive in the classroom. I agree with this information but how do you do this if we begin the year with remote learning?

  • Deanna, I enjoyed your article. You provide good insight and helpful tips for creating an inclusive class environment. I like how you mention using visual representations of student cultures, celebrating historical figures they are familiar with and to do service projects in students’ communities. Thanks!

  • Hi Deanna, I enjoyed reading your article about ways to create an inclusive class environment specially catered to the students you teach . I teach middle school Math and I will have to think of ways to incorporate historical figures and characters they can identify with. I have done culture days in Math the last 2 years and it has been the best Math lesson ever.

    • Please consider these examples (thanks!): For example, Arabic numbers might have originated in India. Therefore, cultural transference across time can identify the origin and sharing of commonly known historical inventions and facts. Also, how did people in the different global areas (known now as continents) apply math and science in daily life, government, and collective gatherings without necessarily formally focusing upon math and science as academic disciplines? What comparisons can be made between generating and acquiring knowledge and skills through scientific reasoning and experimentation and the focus upon religious and philosophical or artistic ways of generating and acquiring knowledge? (This inquiry can be made without violating church-state prohibitions.) What other minorities (including females) and majorities (e.g., Europeans from Southern Europe) were not given opportunities and credit in major arenas (e.g., NASA), as happened to the Black female scientists at NASA? Indigenous people around the world were not and currently are not as uncivilized as some historians and cultures choose to portray them. (smile)

  • Your article was informative and provide relevant points in ensuring our students feel like they are still part of a classroom.

  • From all my years of teaching, this is so true. When kids feel part of a classroom they will excel.

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