“I am because we are.” -African Proverb (October 2018 CRT)

[8 minute read] Our 2018-2019 calendar emphasizes developing an understanding & responding to the context of your classroom. We start with an inspirational quote, back it up with research, then provide you with classroom application ideas. Our October 2018 blog post, written by Dr. Marian Moore, takes a deeper dive into moving to an equity cognitive frame.

“A culturally responsive student-centered curriculum is rich and meaningful because it takes into consideration the experiences, realities, and interests of the students. All lessons must be relevant to the students’ lives. Teachers start from students’ own experiences and build on them to help students understand new concepts. The belief that all students come to school equipped and prepared with basic experiences and fundamental knowledge is key to this direct method of teaching a diverse population of students whose experiences change on a daily and sometimes hourly basis.” -Dr. Barbara J. Shade, Cynthia A. Kelly, and Mary Oberg, Creating Culturally Responsive Classrooms.

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Applying equitable classroom practices such as using inclusive instructional materials, visual aids and props can facilitate cultural understanding and improved learning. According to Gay (2000), “Making explicit connections between instructional resources used in classrooms and lived experiences of students outside of school improves the mastery of academic skills as well as other dimensions of learning, such as interest, motivation, and time-on-task.”

Read to learn about:

  • Collectivism
  • An equation for creating learning partnerships
  • How to create an equitable learning space

How can moving to an Equity Cognitive Frame can create student success?

Culturally responsive teaching is a method of improving equity in the classroom. Being able to build relationships with students, assessing their needs, knowing their motivations, and how they learn enables equity. Incorporating equitable classroom practices validates students and their experiences.

According to Hammond (2015), a key organizing principle of culturally responsive teaching is collectivism – a focus on group interdependence, harmony, and collaborative work. In a collectivist, community-based culture, relationships are the foundation of all social, political, and cognitive endeavors. In the culturally responsive classroom, we need a less authoritative relationship with students and more of a learning partnership that supports them to take ownership of their learning.

In the United States, the dominant culture is individualistic. We celebrate people who “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We have a strong focus on competition and becoming the “top dog.” On the other hand, collectivism can be summed up in the African proverb, “I am because we are.” We recognize that individualism and collectivism exist on a continuum. Some cultures are individualistic with little or no collectivistic elements, while others might be primarily collectivistic with strong elements of individualism. Turns out that the culture of many African American, Latino, Pacific Islander, Native American, and Asian communities leans more toward collectivism, also called communalism.

You should not stereotype cultures into an oversimplified frame, but instead, want to offer the archetypes of collectivism and individualism as a way of understanding the general cultural orientation that connects diverse students in the classroom. Keep in mind that how collectivism is expressed across communities varies. What might be acceptable in one collectivist-oriented community might not be acceptable in another. What does stay the same is the focus on relationships and cooperative learning. It is simply a starting point for building on the shared culture of your students.

(Adapted from Zaretta Hammond’s, Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students.)

Reframe instructor-student interactions, especially cross-cultural relationships with diverse students

The learning partnership is made up of three components that work together to turn this unshakeable belief into reality. Think of it as an equation: rapport + alliance = cognitive insight.  Each part of the learning partnership is essential. Each phase acts as a stepping stone to the next. You cannot ignore one and expect to develop the others.

Building Rapport

First, building rapport focuses on establishing an authentic emotional connection with students that builds trust. Neuroscience tells us the brain feels safest and relaxed when we are connected to others we trust to treat us well. It responds to this connection by secreting oxytocin, called the bonding hormone. Oxytocin acts as “affective glue” that creates a unique student-instructor bond.


In the alliance phase, we use this emotional connection and trust to come together as a team of two to tackle a specific learning challenge. The student and instructor each agree to bring their will and skill to the effort. Because there is trust, the instructor can raise the bar and “push” the student into their zone of proximal development without having the student withdraw, become defensive, or disengage. It is in this phase that we help students acquire the tools to grow an academic mindset and become independent learners. This alliance sets the stage for cognitive insight.

Cognitive Insight

Cognitive insight is about making the invisible visible so the instructor is able to get a better understanding of the student’s thinking routines and learning moves. When diverse students feel unheard, unseen, and unaffirmed, they often go through the motions of “doing school” while hiding their cognitive capacity. When there is rapport and alliance, the student allows themselves to be vulnerable and reveal what is getting in the way of their learning. In the process, the student becomes more aware of their own learning moves and can begin directing their learning.

In this phase, both the instructor and student will gain a better sense of the student’s particular learning strengths, content misconceptions, and challenge areas. Too often, instructors try to figure out a student’s learning process based on test scores or other types of assessments, but these things do not offer any real understanding of the student’s learning moves. Getting low performing learners to be open and vulnerable enough to show you their learning moves begins with deep trust.

Application: How can instructors create an equitable learning space?

The following practices can help build positive and culturally respectful relations in the classroom.

Use body language, gestures, and expressions to convey a message that all student’s questions and options are important

    • Smile often
    • Nod head in affirmation
    • Lean towards the student
    • Turn towards the student who is speaking to express interest

Arrange the classroom to accommodate discussion

  • Arrange seating to facilitate student to student discussion
  • Arrange seating to facilitate teacher to student discussion

Use a variety of inclusive instructional materials, visual aids, and props to support student learning (e.g. ethnic literature, books, theorists, etc.)

  • Use multiethnic frameworks, theories, resources, and props to illustrate concepts and content
  • Use appropriate technology to illustrate concepts and content

From Equity Initiatives Unit Office of Human Resources and Development Montgomery County Public Schools, Maryland http://www.montgomeryschoolsmd.org/departments/development/resources/ecp/ECP%20-%2008-13-10.pdf


To support faculty who are exploring and implementing culturally responsive teaching in their courses, we’ve created a Private Facebook Group to facilitate collegial conversations.

CRTxACC members are encouraged to share resources, experiences, and questions to deepen their understanding of culturally responsive teaching.

Join the Online Community


Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hammond, Z. (2015). Culturally responsive teaching and the brain: Promoting authentic engagement and rigor among culturally and linguistically diverse students (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Shade, B., Kelly, C. & Oberg, M. (1997). Creating culturally responsive classroomsWashington, DC: American Psychological Association. pp. 112–113.


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