Last year I had the pleasure of interviewing Zaretta Hammond before TLC regarding her work in the field of education. Zaretta is a national education consultant and author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain:  Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor for Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students. She is a former writing teacher and has been consulting with school districts and non-profit organizations around issues of equity, literacy, and culturally responsive teaching for the past 20 years. You can read our full interview below.

How did you come to write about culturally responsive teaching?

The seed was planted about 20 years ago when I was teaching composition. Students were breaking down and crying when we would discuss their writing, which made me realize that they were not feeling confident as learners, particularly as writers. So my goal became to help them recapture a sense of confidence through learning more robustly. That is, when their writing improved (their competence), their natural confidence started to come back. I began to see the connection between accepting students as who they are, understanding how they process information, and turning that into a scaffolded approach. This is what Gloria Ladson-Billings called “culturally responsive teaching.” It was a vehicle for helping students improve their competence and reclaim their confidence. When these two things work together, student learn content in a deeper way.

Tell me a bit about your publications and also elaborate on other books

My book, Culturally Responsive Teaching and The Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (Corwin, 2015), came out of my teaching and my experience providing professional development to teachers over the past 15 or so years.

I routinely saw a disconnect in how teachers wanted to close achievement gaps but were still only focused on covering the content rather than helping the learner process information. This is one of the core ideas in my approach to culturally responsive teaching. A lot of teachers want student engagement and look to culturally responsive teaching as a tool for engagement; yet, they continue to teach in the same way where they are doing most of the processing. Engagement comes when we are doing complex cognitive work that is fun. They are carrying the cognitive load during the lesson and not helping students carry more of it. They over-scaffold for students. I try to help them realize that it’s really about helping learners consciously think about their learning moves – having a conversation with them about their processing moves, not just about the content.  Remember: Only the learner learns! So, our job is to help the learner get better at that.

A key idea in the book is that relationships are the on-ramp to learning and, thereafter, comes culturally responsive teaching moves to get students to do more “chewing” of the content or what’s called “productive struggle.” This is what grows brain power so they can carry more of the cognitive load; But if students are too stressed out, full of self-doubt, or feel they are in a hostile classroom environment, their brains shut down. So, relationships become a critical component to get the brain in the right condition for learning. Relationships are not a “touchy-feely” add-on, nor are they the end point but an onramp to deeper learning. This is where the neuroscience helps us see how social-emotional development, a sense of belonging and cognition are intertwined.

Do you want to say anything more about core ideas in your approach to teaching? 

Another core idea is helping teachers think about the information processing cycle. So the core ideas in the book center around four areas: Humanizing relationships, Balancing Cultural Orientations, Cultivating Academic Mindset, and Improving Information Processing Skills. The big idea is to understand that the goal of CRT is to help students reclaim their natural competence and confidence as learners. This begins with the learning partnership. Teachers are in a certain type of learning partnership with their students, and I help them rethink that relationship.

Another core idea is the need for teachers to expand their cultural lens. Yes, they need to understand the social-political context that schooling and learning are situated in, and their own relationship to privilege, oppression, etc.  You have to know what you are saying no to, but it is equally important to know what you are saying YES to. I help them understand how to build a bi-cultural lens and “widen their aperture.” If teachers and teams are going to be culturally responsive, they have to have that wider view. The fourth concept unique to my book, is the importance of understanding social and cognitive neuroscience. I’m not talking about so-called “brain-based learning,” but more about knowing how to manipulate the chemical balance in the brain – neurobiology – and how to operationalize that in the classroom – what does that mean for opening your classroom activities for the day, how are you closing it out, how are your students transitioning, what are the structures?

Do you want to say more about what distinguishes your work from other people’s work on teaching? 

The result of inequity in our schools is that students become dependent learners, so ultimately, it is all about helping students not only reclaim their sense of confidence but be the leaders of their own learning – getting them to the point where as independent learners they are carrying the majority of the cognitive load – they self-initiate.  But most approaches to working with diverse student population only focuses on engagement or multicultural education that highlights racial or cultural pride.  Those approaches try to bring in social justice themes but rarely is there any mention of cognition or helping the student learn how to learn more effectively. Cultural responsive teaching, as Gloria Ladson-Billings and Geneva Gay originally talked about it, has academic success at the core. That has gotten lost in how schools are talking about CRT. I’m trying to reclaim that. It is often difficult when you mention culturally responsive to teachers and leaders because so many think it’s just about having “courageous conversations.” So, when working with teachers, I don’t start by talking about implicit bias, as that often limits the focus to issue of social justice and for many produces defensiveness, which is not a good motivator for change. Instead, I start with asking: Who is carrying the cognitive load in the classroom? We anchor our work around instruction and then educators are able to see why examining issues of deficit thinking and implicit bias need to be addressed if we don’t want students to feel they’re in a hostile learning environment. Another thing that distinguishes my approach is the use of collaborative inquiry as the vehicle for professional learning instead of “sit and get” professional development sessions. You cannot “PD” your way to culturally responsive classrooms. Collaborative inquiry offers the opportunity to really see the dynamic dance we do with our students when they struggle. It’s not about giving teachers a single strategy, but getting them to see themselves as the catalyst to get the student to change his learning moves.

What are some of your key learnings over the past two years? 

My key learning is around the need for coaching.  Collaborative inquiry is especially powerful when coupled with instructional coaching.  Just giving teachers new strategies is not enough. We have to help teachers develop the capacity to build trust with their students – to be in a learning partnership. They need instructional coaches who can help them see their blind spots around building a community of learners were students have agency as learners. I think the idea of building an alliance with the students – being a warm demander of cognitive development – is still a new concept for teachers. They need the support of peers and coaches because most teachers don’t know how to build the structures and processes that give student more control over learning in the classroom.

Another key learning is teachers need to rethink the formative assessment structures in their classrooms. Formative assessment is a powerful equity lever; yet, because the word “assessment” is in there, there’s resistance. It’s equated with standardized tests and teaching to the test. But that’s assessment OF learning, summative assessments that we use to measure achievement gaps and such. But assessment FOR learning is about helping students become conscious of their learning moves and how to change them to improve their learning. Neuroscience supports this idea. The brain has what is called the “progress principle.” That is, we will persevere and hang in there when doing hard things if we see progress.  If your goal is to take 10,000 steps a day and you’re only at 2,000 steps per day after the first week. You begin to become conscious of opportunities to do things differently – park further away from your destination, take the stairs rather than the elevator. By week 3, you’re at 7,000 steps a day. You see the benefit of those small changes. You may not be where you want to be, but you’re so much closer to your goal. Just the act of seeing this progress raises the dopamine level in your brain’s reward center.  Dopamine is the “yummiest” brain chemical, and we will keep doing the things that stimulate it. It’s the brain’s way of saying, “keep going.” The degree to which we can get teachers to understand the connection between formative assessment and student agency, the more we will see students taking initiative in their own learning with eagerness.

 What’s a good metaphor for what culturally responsive teachers do and how do coaches help?

Well, I have two.  A metaphor I use often to describe what coach do to help teachers get better at being more responsive is the personal trainer. The personal trainer understands about how the body works, how to motivate, and how to get the client who wants to get into shape motivated to push past habits and mindsets that are counter-productive to the goal they want to accomplish – better health or to get into that summer swim suit. The personal trainer doesn’t just ask questions but provides the right inputs (new exercises and meal plans) but also helps the client see what habits are undermining progress, and how to fit this new way of being healthy into their everyday life.

And for teachers, I image the metaphor of village elder. When you’re in a community, a clan, or a tribe, there’s a person or group of people whom you look to for direction.  To that end, we need to help teachers see themselves not as the controllers of everything in the classroom and to loosen the reigns so students can uplevel their learning through critical thinking and decision-making around learning moves. Teachers in the elder role, provide the ethos of the classroom that is a community of learners who enjoy productive struggle and can do hard things.

What else do people need to know about your approach to teaching?

I think folks need to know the importance of practice.  People tend to say, “just give me the strategy; I don’t need that other stuff.” But we need that other stuff! I think we’ve gotten to a place where education has to come back to the idea of practice, to the recognition that a conceptual understanding is necessary to help you understand why you’re using a certain strategy and that without it, it just becomes something you do.

So, interrogating and understanding the conceptual underpinning of the strategies we use is critical, particularly, when we talk about what’s going to work for disenfranchised, marginalized youth. The older students get in schools that don’t properly prepare them, the deeper they move into learned helplessness, and the more likely they are to react with anger, distrust, and disengagement. So, it is critical to help teachers really understand  the conceptual grounding of culturally responsive teaching and the neuroscience that informs it in order to interrupt students’ learned helplessness.

I try to help teachers understand that it’s all about operationalizing the concepts. It’s hands-on professional learning by doing, not just theoretical stuff. Asking ourselves hard questions about our practice: What does this mean for what I might need to change in my classroom? What do I need to keep doing because it is work for my neediest student? What do I need to stop doing because it’s not helping even though I like it?

Finally, leaders have a lot to do with successful implementation of culturally responsive teaching and, again, it’s not just about the strategies. What we are really talking about here is change management, something most leader don’t connect to equity work.  I love the framework for change management in Chip and Dan Heather’s book, Switch (Broadway Books, 2010). Change management helps leaders shape the path for teachers. It shows them how to motivate people to change practice while maintaining a sense of community and wellbeing.  Change can be stressful.

Since our conference theme is it’s all about the kids, tell me a little bit about the impact your work has on kids

The main impact of my work is helping students become more confident and independent, so it is really all about the kids. This is the feedback I get from teachers. They are encouraged to see students thinking more deeply, increasing their learner behaviors, and enjoying learning more. Teachers that see positive impact on student learning behaviors realize that culturally responsive teaching isn’t “a thing,” but it a vehicle for turbo charging teaching and learning across all subject areas; it isn’t just about discussing racial issues, social justice issues, or finding commonality across ethnic differences (diversity & inclusion) . It is about bring cultural ways of thinking, being, and doing that resonate in diverse students’ brains when teachers add collectivist teaching moves to couple with individualist methods to help students see progress faster.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re going to present at TLC?

A main focus will be the importance of helping students become leaders of their own learning –student agency – helping them reclaim being confident intellectuals. If we as teachers, leaders, and coaches are advancing an equity agenda, how do we ensure that students reach that level of independence as learners, especially those who are at the bottom of the annual achievement data? What do we need to do in a classroom in terms of practices, mindsets, rituals, and routines?  Who do we need to be in order to be that village elder? My message will be that it is not enough to focus on the technical parts of change like standards and standardized test data, but also the emotional tenor of the classroom, so that when learning (and teaching) gets hard, we’re all hanging in there. We have the mindset and the tools. I want to talk about that in ways that feel empowering and get us excited.