Thursday / February 29

Working with Diverse Learners? 10 Activities to Develop Critical Cultural Competence

Cultural Competence

Classrooms in the United States are becoming more and more diverse. Educators are always seeking strategies to work effectively with diverse students and their families. However, just developing knowledge about students and their backgrounds is not enough. Having worked with many beginning and experienced teachers who engage in meaningful interactions with diverse students within and beyond the school settings, we argue that it is important for educators to develop critical cultural competence. This requires critical examination of ones’ own assumptions, strengths-based exploration of students’ backgrounds, and creative use of community assets and resources. We highlight 10 activities here for educators who are interested in developing critical cultural competence.

Critical Self-Reflection

  1. ABC Books – This is an example of an “All About Me” activity. Educators can create an ABC book about their family and cultural background with images and brief captions. It is important for educators to critically reflect on the “me I want I want others to see” and to reveal the “me nobody knows.” Thoughtful debriefing and discussion is where the learning to be critically culturally competent actually begins.
  2. A Snapshot of Me – Educators start with an activity called “It’s All in a Picture” by bringing 3-5 pictures they have cut from magazines that they feel represent themselves in some way. They put all the pictures they bring together and are asked to select one picture other than what they brought that they feel represents some aspect of their cultural identity. Most educators express their thinking about who they are as cultural beings in metaphors or similes.
  3. Personal Practical Theories – Personal Practical Theories (PPTs) are the pedagogical beliefs educators hold that guide their practices regarding teaching, learning, curriculum, students, schooling, leadership, diversity, etc. Educators first write about 3-7 PPTs using first-person language. Then, they gather data to determine whether they are actually carrying out and enacting their PPTs. Finally, they develop an action plan for enacting one of their PPTs that they have not been doing in their practice.

Students’ Backgrounds

  1. Diversity Fact Sheets – Educators learn where and how to learn more about their students’ cultural communities from this activity. An essential question that educators should ask themselves in completing this activity is, “If I taught a student from this country (or ethnic group, religion, or ability group/special needs’ group), what would I want to know about him in a general sense? Educators typically are asked to collect information from online sources to represent their growing understanding about a diversity group of their choice. Instead of trying to accumulate all the available information online, they are expected to review the available information, select what is relevant and applicable for teaching, represent the information in a concise format, and include classroom teaching applications where applicable. In this activity, educators display a collection of information about a selected group of students based on the question above and share their new knowledge with others.
  2. Active Listening – Our cultural backgrounds impact how we choose to keep or break eye contact in conversation, use body language to facilitate conversation or convey subtle messages, and display and react to certain accents, pitches, and volume in conversations. In this activity, educators select an interaction with students where misunderstandings were involved and practice using active listening strategies to clarify, encourage, paraphrase, and summarize the conversation. The goal is reaching a deeper understanding of how language, culture, and behaviors are intertwined.
  3. Classroom Observation and Analysis – Educators are encouraged to observe student interactions in classes. Through reflections, they identify potential cultural conflicts for students from diverse cultural backgrounds and engage in mentoring, peer coaching, and action research projects based on observations and analysis. The goal is to better understand and improve one’s practice.

Community Assets and Resources

  1. Touring the Neighborhood – Loading educators on a bus, or taking them on a walking tour of low income neighborhood, can be likened to a Hollywood actors’ home tour without the glamour. It may be perceived as deficit-laden. It is time to get off the bus and talk with, not to, these citizens about the ways they view the world. After all, they are the experts of their own lived experiences. The information gleaned from them could potentially aid administrators, teachers, and other school personnel in understanding more about how students come to believe, perceive, and receive school and the actions that occur in it. Further, getting off the bus to interact with community members can hopefully debunk some of the preconceived stereotypes “sightseers” had in the first place.
  2. Home-Community Camera Adventure – This is a cultural immersion experience for educators. Educators first select a student [from a different ethnic/cultural/language group from themselves] with whom they have been working to explore his/her community. During the visit, the educators will take a minimum of 10 pictures to capture 1) something historical of which they are not aware; 2) something that shows the natural beauty of the area; 3) a scenic or panoramic view; 4) something that shows the area is changing; 5) something that shows the resources available in this community; 6) something that could be used in a tourism brochure; 7) something that shows growth in the area; 8) something that is “kid-friendly”; 9) something that the educators feel could be improved about the area; 10) something that is surprising. The goal of this activity is to discover the strengths of the community. In doing so, educators find out they must speak directly with community members to determine some of the above 1-10 pictures listed.
  3. Walking a Mile in Another’s Shoes – Educators are asked to participate in one of the community adventures carefully selected in collaboration with community partners. The activities may include: 1) using public transportation to apply for an hourly-wage job; 2) applying for subsidized childcare or food stamps; 3) seeking services as an immigrant or refugee; 4) riding along with the police; or 5) roleplaying a gay couple enrolling their children in school. Educators then share their experiences and discuss resources in the local community. Of course, pre-planning to garner cooperation with the school and community agencies is an important part of the success of several of these experiences.

These are just some examples of activities educators can do to start developing their critical cultural competence. It is recommended that educators work together to debrief and reflect on their experiences with these activities through workshops or professional learning communities (PLCs). So the last activity is to bring these conversations into teachers’ PLC meetings.

  1. Professional Learning Community – Educators can work as a small group in PLCs to select and complete some of these activities and many others found in our book, Developing Critical Cultural Competence: A Guide for 21st Century Educators. Using the guiding questions (see examples:, educators can situate their discussions in their context and work toward collaborative action plans to better serve diverse students and their families.

Written by

Dr. Jewell E. Cooper is an Associate Professor in the Teacher Education and Higher Education Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on equity education as it relates to community-based learning, culturally relevant/responsive pedagogy, and teacher development.

Dr. Ye He is an Associate Professor in the Teacher Education and Higher Education Department at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her research focuses on the promotion of strength-based, community-engaged culturally responsive practices in education.

Barbara Levin has been a Professor in the Department of Teacher Education and Higher Education at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) since 1993. She was an elementary school teacher for 17 years before earning her Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley. Dr. Levin served as the Director of the Teachers Academy at UNCG, assistant department chair, and director of graduate studies. She was awarded the first Mentoring-Advising-Supervising (MAS) Award in the School of Education at UNCG. Dr. Levin also served as an Associate Editor for Teacher Education Quarterly for 8 years, and was co-PI on a 5-year, $1.4 million National Professional Development grant from the Dept. of Education called TESOL for ALL. Her research interests include: understanding how teachers’ pedagogical beliefs develop across their careers; case-based teaching; problem-based learning (PBL); universal design for learning (UDL); and leading, teaching, and learning with technology. Dr. Levin has published eight books and over 40 articles in well-respected research journals.

Cooper, He, and Levin are the authors of Developing Critical Cultural Competence: A Guide for 21st Century Educators.

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