Essential Takeaways from Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond

In this episode of the Empower Students Now podcast, host Amanda shares her summer plans and introduces a series of episodes where she provides overviews of eight books on educational equity and social justice that she read in 2021. She also offers a toolkit for teachers that includes editable planning tools, charts, posters, mentor texts, assessment tools, and conferencing tools. Amanda then discusses the book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” by Zaretta Hammond, which focuses on moving students toward becoming independent learners, especially marginalized students or students of color. She highlights the importance of cultural awareness and establishing trust with students.


It is the summer of 2023. I hope you are enjoying yourself this summer, doing some relaxing, letting loose spending time with people you love and care about. I’m doing the same, going on trips. I have a trip coming up at the end of June, early July. We are headed to Washington State where I actually grew up. I grew up on Woodby Island. Well, it was one of the places I grew up. My family, my parents met in the Navy, and so I’ve lived a lot of different places, but I call Washington home because it’s where we landed in the end. And I spent most of my childhood there. I also lived in Guam, Japan, Texas, and I was born in Virginia. I’ve been all over the place anyway, so I’m gonna head to Washington. I’m also going to, uh, head even further north to Vancouver, bc and I’m so thrilled for that.

While I’m gone, I’m going to be releasing some, uh, some videos, some audio from 2021. So that summer I was really, really prioritizing learning about educational equity and social justice. And so I decided to read, I read a lot, but, um, before 2021, and I decided to read even more and do a summer English Teacher reading series, is what I called it, where I read eight books on educational equity. And then I shared pretty much an overview of each book and the key takeaways, um, and ha and like practical application of the information in each book. And so I thought it would be so awesome to release these on the podcast, uh, for the next several weeks, this summer. And there are eight books in this series. And I, I have recordings for each book as well as notes, uh, available to anyone for purchase.

So the books are the Anti-Racist Writing Workshop, the Knowledge Gap Reading, reconsidered, pointless, project-Based Writing, culturally Responsive Teaching, and the Brain Grading for Equity and 180 Days. If you are interested in getting my notes and my about 20 minute overviews of each of these books, uh, you can look down in the show notes of this episode and I linked where you could purchase this. In addition to all of those book overviews and the notes, I also have a toolkit for teachers that includes editable planning tools, charts and posters, editable choice boards, mentor texts, editable assessment tools, support for struggling writers and editable conferencing tools. So that’s also included in this. And there’s even more, there’s videos like professional development videos about, um, implementing all sorts of different practices like, uh, teaching mini lessons and planning for mini lessons, uh, using your Google Drive to plan an entire year, uh, trying to implement project-based learning in your classroom, how to cut, uh, grading time and make grading more meaningful.

There’s, there’s a whole bunch of things in this kind of big package that I have available, and it’s not expensive. It’s only $36 for all of this. And whenever you purchase something from me, you are raising your hand saying, I support you, Amanda, and I really, really love your stuff, and I want you to keep doing what you’re doing. Uh, so anytime that you buy something from my website, it’s supporting this podcast and supporting the work that I do. And I, I really, truly, truly, genuinely appreciate you as listeners, and I hope that you can benefit from the materials that I create. So, without further ado, I’m going to go ahead and let you listen to the one of my favorite books from this series, culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain. It is an excellent, excellent book. And I actually just recently listened, listened to the, uh, overview of that book, and, um, it’s really, really good.

I’m really happy that I re-listened to it because I am about to teach high school English Language Development classes, two of them, level one and level two. And so I am learning all about how I can support multilingual students, and I’m super excited about that. And I feel like this book really, uh, reminded me of some really, really important foundational concepts when it comes to culturally responsive teaching. And I’m, I’m just like super grateful that I listened to it again, even though I, I recorded this two years ago. It’s still absolutely relevant and important today. It, I think it really is. This is a timeless, timeless book. And, uh, I just really respect, respect so much. The author of this book, Zaretta Hammond. So go ahead and take a listen, and if you’re interested in the other books, click that link in the show notes in the episode description, and, uh, go check it out. Okay, thanks for listening. Welcome to the Empower Students Now podcast, A podcast about equity, neurodiversity, mindfulness and student engagement. There’s a lot that needs to change in our education system. The good news is teachers have the power to make these changes. Now,

Welcome again to my fake library. It’s just a virtual background. Today we’re talking about culturally responsive teaching and the Brain by Zaretta Hammond. Here’s my one sentence summary of this book. Culturally responsive teaching involves awareness forming, learning partnerships with students, acquiring knowledge about the brain and information processing, and developing a community of independent learners. So in chapter one, uh, Hammond goes into, uh, the difference between, uh, independent learner versus a dependent learner. And the entire book is framed around trying to move our students, especially marginalized students or students of color, um, towards the independent, uh, side. So a dependent learner is, um, one that really relies on the teacher for a lot, is unsure how to tackle a task. Can’t really complete tasks without scaffolds. Often is passively sitting, stuck, waiting for the teacher to intervene, and often just doesn’t get it and gives up.

This actually sounds like my daughter . Um, an independent learner is someone, a tea, a student who uses strateg strategies to ta tackle tough tasks, uh, regularly attempts tasks without scaffolds, um, uses strategies to get unstuck, and is able to, uh, retrieve information from long-term memory. They have lots, it’s stored in their long-term memory. Um, and then, so Hammond also talks about how we really need to get our students ready for rigor, ready to become an independent learner. And she talks about the ready for rigor framework. So there’s four, uh, quadrants of the ready for, uh, rigor framework. So there’s awareness, just the teacher’s awareness of the different levels of culture, and she talks about, um, just the surface level culture and deep culture and shallow culture, and what those all mean in the book, and how we should be aware of these, these things.

And, um, deep culture is really just kind of like if you move to another country, um, you would take those things from your culture that are really deeply embedded into the new country, and it would be really hard to, um, deeply detach those things from you as a person. They’re just deeply embedded. Um, okay. Then there’s also the learning partnership. So that’s the second quadrant. And so, oh, shoot, awareness, I’m not done with awareness. So there’s also just knowing what your own cultural lenses and the beliefs and ideas that you have that have been, um, framed because of the culture you’ve grown up in. Recognizing your brain’s triggers around race and culture, and just broadening your interpretation of culturally and linguistically diverse students learning behaviors. So just our, our awareness of that. Then the second quadrant is the learning partnerships. Just re-imagining the way that we interact with students as more of a partnership, um, taking responsibilities, uh, to really, um, reduce students’ stress in your classroom, uh, and microaggressions in your classroom or outside of the classroom, and realizing that those happen every single day.

Help students cultivate a positive mindset and, um, and to just, uh, take ownership of their learning and give them language to talk about their learning moves. And then there’s a third quadrant, which is information processing. This is providing students with adequate challenge, um, and also, uh, incorporating oral traditions because other cultures, not so much the us but other cultures have these oral traditions in their, uh, cultures connecting, uh, relevant culturally, uh, relevant examples and metaphors, uh, from students’, communities in everyday lives. Uh, let’s see, cognitive routines that use the brain’s natural learning system. So understanding how the brain learns using formative assessment and feedback to increase, um, the learner’s capacity and long-term memory. Then there’s the community of learners and learning environment quadrant, uh, creating an environment that is safe intellectually and socially, uh, making space for students voice in your classroom, and, um, using classroom rituals and routines to support a culture of learning. And also using, uh, restorative justice practices, uh, to manage conflicts and redirect negative behavior. So that is the ready for RI rigor framework, and the whole book is really written around, uh, this framework.

Next I wanna go into just the definition of culturally responsive teaching from this book. So here’s how Hammond defines culturally responsive teaching 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 content in order to promote effective information processing. All the, while the educator understands the importance of being in a relationship and having a social emotional connection to the student in order to create a space safe space for learning. Uh, in chapter two, she talks about the levels of culture, which I kind of briefly talked about a little bit, uh, and, and the importance of knowing that, you know, not every student in your classroom comes from your culture. And so, uh, some of the, their behaviors might be, you know, a little bit different from where you came from and your background, and just being aware of that, uh, and being aware that you might be misunderstanding a student’s behavior.

There’s a really, really powerful story on page 58. There are stories embedded, uh, throughout the book about just interactions between students and teachers, which are, is they’re really powerful stories. Um, so I’m just gonna read a little bit from this so you get an idea of what this story, uh, is about and how you can kind of misunderstand a student’s behavior. Uh, we all a operate from a set of cultural frames of reference. The challenge is that if we routinely interpret other people’s actions solely from our own cultural frames, we run the risk of misinterpreting their actions or intentions. When I’m talking with teachers about this idea of interpreting others’ behavior through our own cultural frame of reference, I use the example of an exchange between an African-American student and a white teacher, um, that highlights this. The student was up and out of his seat, sharpening his pencil along with other students.

As the teacher was about to begin the lesson, she got his attention and said, James, would you like to take your seat? James said, no, and continued to shape sharpen his pencil. The teacher became outraged and sent James to the principal’s office for being defiant. James was surprised and didn’t understand why he was being sent to the office. When asked what happened, he said the teacher asked him a question and he answered her question. This exchange highlights classic cross-cultural miscommunication. In reality, the teacher was not asking James a question or giving him a choice. Indirect directives are a feature of white middle class cultural communication style at home. And in his community, James recognized someone giving him a directive because it was direct. James, take your seat please, rather than posed as a question with choices. Um, so I just think that’s such a, like, really, uh, important story to share with you as I’m doing this overview, uh, cuz it shows that we all have cultural references, uh, that we come to the classroom with.

She also talks about collectivism versus individualism and that, um, individualism is a, and these are cultural archetypes, and individualism is really what the United States, um, uh, values. And it’s more, you know, like you’re independent and it’s important for you to, um, succeed kind of on your own and win and you know, this culture of competition. Whereas collectivism is, uh, really a cultural archetype of, um, Latin American countries and, and African countries. And it’s more of a community based, um, culture where it’s supportive and people work as teams to get things done. Um, and so I just think, you know, it’s important to understand that, um, that these exist and there are different countries believe different things and, and behave in different ways, and we need to be aware of this. Uh, and then she goes on to discuss the way that the brain works, which I find so interesting.

In chapter three, uh, she talks about the limbic region, which is made up of the, uh, I don’t even know if I’m gonna be able to pronounce this right, the reticulating reticular activating system. Uh, this is critical for, uh, alertness and attention. She talks about the amygdala and that this, this part of the brain, um, is really part of the, the lizard brain, the oldest part of our brain, and it is like the brain’s guard dog, and it’s always hyper aware of, um, of, of safety. Uh, and it’s like our fight, flight, freeze response. Uh, and then she talks about the hippocampus and like that this is where all the knowledge is stored, and this is where working memory and information processing happens. And she talks about other parts of the brain and neuroplasticity, uh, and how our brain, uh, we have something called gray matter.

And gray matter, different people have different amounts of gray matter, which I thought was really in interesting. It’s not a fixed amount. Uh, like for example, each of us has 1.5 gallons of blood running through us. Uh, but because of neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to grow an unlimited amount of gray matter, uh, we have different amounts of gray, gray matter. And, uh, and so I just think this is all really, really interesting. She also, uh, goes into, uh, what microaggressions are, and that microaggressions can really trigger our amygdala and our fight or flight response. And this, um, shuts down the brain’s ability to learn new information. And so if a student is experiencing stress, um, because of something that happened outside of your classroom or something you said, or something someone else said, um, this can really affect students’ ability to learn. Um, and a microaggression is just subtle, everyday verbal and nonverbal, slight snubs or insults which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to people of cov color based solely on their mij marginalized Group me membership.

And so, um, she also talks about micro assaults, micros insults, micro invalidations, um, and just that all of this can trigger the brain’s fight or flight response and shut down learning. Um, and so for example, a micro assault is when, uh, students of are har pa punished more harshly because of their race, um, or that a teacher is not pronouncing a student’s name correctly, um, and doesn’t really make an effort to do that. That’s a micro insult. Or just confusing two students of the same race and kind of brushing it off and saying like, oh, they all look alike, it’s just wrong and it hurts. Um, or micro invalidations trivializing or dismissing students’ experiences playing, like saying that they’re playing the race card, um, and just invalidating it. And just the importance of stu of teachers recognizing that inequalities exist and, and, and saying it out loud in your classroom, uh, and allowing students to write about these things.

Uh, there’s also a page on, uh, 65 that talks about just social interactions that can activate threats in the brain. And I thought this page was really, really helpful, um, because we all, uh, care about these things. So social standing, um, is your sense of importance relative to others. Uh, your, in your social network and the organization’s hierarchy certainty referring to students, um, or your ability, um, to clarify, uh, what’s going on in your environment and just predictability in your environment. This is why it’s really important to have routines in your classroom. Uh, control just your ability to control your own life, um, and have a positive impact, uh, connection, your connection to others. Um, so if any of these are threatened, um, learning stops equity referring to your sense of fairness, uh, and exchange between people and feeling equal. Uh, so these are just different, um, social interaction elements that can activate threats in the brain.

Now, uh, she also goes on to talk about just preparing to become a culturally responsive practitioner and, and realizing that we have implicit biases, that we have our, we all have our lizard brain, which really reacts, it doesn’t think your prefrontal cortex is the more modern part of your brain or the newest part of your brain that’s more able to stop and recognize that you’re having negative thoughts about a student. And, and there’s, you know, unconscious biases going on in your mind. Uh, she uses an acronym called soda when you are triggered and recognizing your triggers as a teacher, stop, observe, detach, and awaken. Um, so that’s awesome. And then she goes on to talk about how to form learning partnerships with students. So, um, this is just really, really vital and, uh, and so a learning partnership is, first you need to make sure you’re establishing trust.

And there are many, many ways that we can generate trust with our students. Um, just being vulnerable with them, um, and smiling, honestly, asking them about their lives, um, finding similar, similar interests with your students, showing concern for them and their families, uh, showing that, you know, being positive with them and, and showing you know, that you’re competent as a teacher and that you, um, believe that they are, um, valuable, a valuable part of your classroom. Um, so these, all, all these things generate trust storytelling. Um, and so in order to establish a partnership, it’s really, really important that you, um, generate trust with your students. And, um, let’s see. So on page 90, there was a really important story about a student, um, and this section’s about learned helplessness. Uh, so let’s see. Let me just read the definition of learned helplessness. Learn helplessness is the student’s belief that he has no control over his ability to improve as a learner because he doesn’t believe he has the capacity.

He doesn’t exert any effort when faced with a challenging work assignment or a new skill to develop, think of learned helplessness as the opposite of hap having an academic mindset or a growth mindset. Um, and it’s just so sad because we often misinterpret misbehavior and we, we want students to comply. And, um, and things like that when really a lot of students’ behavior is, um, is in reaction to all their years of school, of, of not feeling like they belong, of not feeling like their teachers care about them, um, and of just having a harder time, um, with their learning because of all these amygdala triggers, uh, and microaggressions that go on around them. Um, many students go from grade to grade, like Tyree is a student that’s talked about in this chapter. Without becoming proficient readers and writers or mathematicians, their awareness of their own lack of academic proficiency leads to a lack of confidence as learners.

Unfortunately, many culturally and linguistically diverse students start to believe these skill gaps are evidence of their own innate intellectual de deficits. They earn internalize the negative verbal and nonverbal messages, adults at school sent to them in the form of low expectations, unchallenging remedial content, and an overemphasis on compliant behavior. Um, and so, you know, when you start to, um, this is called internalized oppression. So this is when you’re a student internalizes the negative social messages that they’re getting about their social group. And this is just, just a travesty. It’s, it’s awful. And this is why it’s so important to build trust and to become allies of these students. Um, so there, there’s, uh, a lot of information about what an alliance is. So basically it’s a shared understanding and agreement with you and the student, uh, to tackle a specific goal together, a shared understanding and agreement, a, about the task necessary to reach that goal along with confidence that these activities will lead to progress, a relational bond based on mutual trust, that creates an emotional connection and sense of safety for the client or student in order to do hard work necessary to achieve the goal.

And so you create a pact with students, um, and you constantly are revisiting that pact with them, and you’re, you’re basically setting a goal and celebrating their wins with them, uh, and you’re becoming what’s called a warm demander, is what she calls it. So a warm demander is, um, just really focuses on building trust with students and wrapper, um, um, and just showing warmth in non-verbal ways such as smiling, uh, tone of voice, just good natured teasing, just showing personal regard for students holding high standards for them, just the tough love stance, uh, and having students reflect on their own progress and, and what they’re going through. Uh, and then she talk goes on to talk about, um, feedback and the way in which we can give feedback. Uh, she has some really, really awesome ideas about that. Instead of sandwiching like positive, negative, positive, um, she has a different kind of feedback protocol that she, uh, details, which is pretty cool.

Um, there’s like nine steps to it, but, and it’s all about, you know, really, um, validating students’ abilities, uh, providing very specific feedback that’s actionable and timely creating space for students to react to this feedback. Um, having students paraphrase what they heard you say, um, offering emotional support and encouragement and just stating your belief in there, in the student, uh, and having, and, you know, teaching students, um, how to create a counter-narrative about their identities, which I think is just beautiful. Uh, and then she talks about information processing and how the brain processes information. So, um, there’s different parts of the brain, uh, that process information. So there’s input, elaboration and application. And actually, um, I don’t know what book I read recently about this, but maybe it was the knowledge gap where there’s, uh, working memory, there’s short-term memory and long-term memory. And so when learning happens, the process of learning is this.

So, uh, new information, you have to pay attention to it, right? You have to ignite, uh, interest in order to learn new information. But students can only hold so much new information in their brains. Um, and in their, their, uh, short-term memory and in their, whatever they’re working with currently is working memory. And it takes, uh, time, it takes chunking, you know, giving small chunks of new information, giving students opportunities to the information, and then lots of information to, or, uh, opportunities to review and reflect on that information. And, um, this develops the neural new neural pathways in students’ brains. So that’s just a very, hopefully brief overview of the book. Um, so now I’m just gonna go into my review of the book. So I believe this book is an important one to read for any teacher who wants to be a practitioner of culturally responsive teaching, which should be every teacher.

I appreciated that Hammond discusses that culturally responsive teaching is about more than decorating your walls with artifacts that highlight your students’ cultural background or the background of other cultures. It goes beyond reading literature by diverse authors. It’s about creating an emotionally safe and responsive environment. Um, and I love this quote, culturally responsive classrooms focus on the wellbeing of everyone rather than just f focusing on covering the day’s lesson plan in their, in the book. Um, there’s a story about a math teacher who felt that teaching equations was pretty straightforward and he didn’t understand how he could incorporate culturally, culturally responsive teaching into his subject area. Other teachers understand culturally respon, misunderstand, culturally responsive teaching as tying everything to students to what you do to students culture. But that’s not what cultural responsive teaching is. Um, it’s about considering how the brain works when you’re planning your lessons.

It’s considering the cultural norms of students and, and knowing that when they behave in ways that you might label as misbehaving, um, there you might be misunderstanding the situation, being aware of our implicit biases and doing the work necessary to make our classrooms a safe and accepting place for all students. The only thing that I questioned about the book was Hammond’s negative view of fact-based learning and direct instruction, or the passive receptive style is what she termed it of teaching. She says, this is a quote, school practices that emphasize lecture and rote memorization are part of what Martin Haberman calls a pedagogy of poverty that set students up to leave high school with outdated skills and shallow knowledge. I question this idea because of some of the other books I’ve read, such as the Knowledge Gap and Seven Myths About Education. Both of those books were written by white authors.

By the way. They argue that one of the reasons that in qualities exist in education is because, and the this, this knowledge gap exists is because schools and teachers aren’t providing students with enough factual knowledge. Um, and so Hammond says that when we look at the educational experiences of many groups marginalized by race, language and socioeconomics, we see that they often get watered down curriculum that doesn’t require higher order thinking. But Daisy Krista doula argues that students can’t think critically. And Natalie Wexler argues this too, if they don’t have the knowledge base first. Um, I think that all of these authors really do have students’ best interests in mind when, when writing their books. Um, and they believe that all students, uh, need rigor and, um, that students that we need to have high expectations and teachers need to believe in their students. Um, and so I think all the, the authors would agree with that.

Uh, so should you buy this book? Uh, yes. If you wanna learn the nitty gritty of brain science and how this science relates to learning and supporting our students of color and becoming independent learners, there’s also reflection questions in the gr in the book that a group of teachers studying the book together would find very valuable. Um, but if you’re like looking for a reference book of activities to do in your classroom that are culturally responsive, I really don’t think this, this book is the one to buy. And honestly, I don’t even know if a book like that even exists. Culturally responsive teaching isn’t about hosting a cultural fair or giving presentations about, you know, a student’s heritage. Ham Hammond has taught me that it’s so much more than that. It’s about teaching strategies that rely on what we know about the way the brain works.

It’s about listening to your students, learning how to pronounce their names properly, treating them with respect, making strong efforts to create a sa safe and welcoming classroom space where students feel confident and empowered. It’s about realizing that many of our underachieving students have acquired learned helplessness and acting disengaged or saying Your content is boring. These are just strategies you students use to save face. It’s our job to see past this quote unquote misbehavior and make every effort to become these students’ allies, make, make learning packs with them, and keep boosting their confidence with small wins. Um, and I’m gonna end with a quote. Culturally responsive teaching is also about this. Here’s the quote. Being hopeful can be hard if as social justice educators, we continually beat the drum of oppression and social inequity culturally and linguistically diverse students know this reality already. Instead, we should focus on highlighting a community’s resiliency and vision for social change. Culturally and linguistic diverse students are not helpless victims. Okay, so I hope that this, um, this overview, this review has been really, really helpful for you. Um, I can’t wait to, to read your responses to the discussion questions for this book in the Facebook group. Please participate. I would really, really appreciate it. And, um, and thank you so much for watching.

All right, that is the recording from 2021 about this book. Again, if you’re interested in getting these overviews about the seven other books, click the link in the description of this episode and you’ll be taken to a page where you can purchase these book talks and get access to all my notes and a tool toolkit of materials you can use to apply what you learned from the books. If you do purchase this book talk series, you are supporting the work that I do. It’s only $36, it’s well worth it. Um, and I appreciate you and thank you for supporting my work and growing as a social justice educator.


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