Wednesday / July 24

#CorwinTalks: Strategies to Affirm Students’ Cultures, Languages, and Identities

Create a Sense of Belonging for Your Students

By Paul Hernandez

Developing an environment that affirms students’ cultures, languages, and identities is important for providing effective student services and teaching and learning. Educators must create a sense of belonging for students to develop this environment. You must take many steps to create a sense of belonging, including being vulnerable with your students. Being vulnerable does not mean placing your burdens on students’ shoulders. Instead, it means sharing yourself to remove the armor of titles and positions to connect with students. Without vulnerability, educators cannot connect with students in ways that create a sense of belonging.

Take the time to reflect and ask yourself if you are willing to be vulnerable with students. Identify what you are willing to share and not share. Work with colleagues to determine a balance of appropriate vulnerability. Think of how you will articulate your vulnerability with students. Once you identify what it means to be appropriately vulnerable, it’s time to share with your students. How you share your vulnerability matters. Start small and ease into the discomfort. Discomfort is a normal feeling when being vulnerable. In times of discomfort, remember that students learn more from educators who allow themselves to be seen as human beings instead of unapproachable authority figures.  

Your willingness and implementation of earnest vulnerability with students will pay dividends in connecting with them. When you connect with students, they will be vulnerable with you too. Keep in mind when students are vulnerable, you must respond with empathy and compassion.

Once students see your vulnerability and feel your empathy and compassion, it will positively transform their school experiences.

Vulnerability, empathy, and compassion will build the foundation for connecting with students. When students feel respected, cared about, included, and accepted, it means that they have developed a sense of belonging. In turn, it will affirm students’ cultures, languages, and identities as an important part of their educational experience and success.

Adopt Identity Safe Practices in Formative Assessment 

By Becki Cohn-Vargas

The strategy below is excerpted from “What is Identity Safe Formative Assessment” the first in a five-part series on identity safe formative assessment. Read the full post

Reflect on your assessment experiences. Were you proud of your accomplishments? Were you embarrassed after receiving a bad grade? Now, consider your students. How do assessments forge their academic identity, impacting their choices, their futures? 

Formative assessment (FA) is a process that empowers students and educators to guide learning through goal setting, evidence gathering, feedback, analysis, and planning. In multiple studies, a robust FA process is one of the most impactful instructional factors for improving learning and achievement (Marzano 2008, Hattie 2013). 

Identity safe teaching is an approach where students’ social identities are treated as assets rather than barriers to learning, where they feel welcomed, accepted, valued.

Incorporating identity safety in FA powerfully enacts belief in students. Author Mica Pollock (2018) explains that identity safe formative assessment (ISFA) “requires that teachers ask themselves: “Which of our everyday acts move specific students or student populations toward educational opportunities, and which acts move them farther away from it?’”

FA without a basis of trust may be experienced as confirming stereotypes or attributing inferiority rather than supporting learning. Thus, ISFA is crucial for students of all backgrounds to take charge of their learning, strengthening their academic competence and identity. 

Adopt an Approach to Being a ‘Warm Demander’ 

By Robert Q Berry III

The guidance below is excerpted from the blog “Three Ways Being a ‘Warm Demander’ is Culturally Responsive and Supports Students’ Mathematical Identity and Agency.” Read the full post.

Much of my research has focused on identity and agency of Black boys to understand the ways these boys make sense of, respond to, and participate in mathematics. Identity has to do with how students engage with mathematics, how others perceive them, and how they see themselves as participatory in the space. Agency is seen in the ways students take risks to make their mathematical thinking visible and how they leverage problem-solving approaches that work for them.

Teachers support students’ sense of agency in the values they communicate to through their words and actions, such as how they hold and express high expectations and show care for learners. 

For many students, high expectations and care are a proxy for how their teachers value them as people and learners.  

Warm demanders know students’ cultures, have strong relationships with students, and demand that they maximize their efforts, show respect, and follow classroom norms.  Warm demanders communicate their expectations of success by using personal warmth, while using instructional practices that insist on students meeting their high expectations.  From this perspective, caring in more than an affective connection between students and teachers.  It is actually a means for shaping students’ disposition towards mathematics, molding their mathematical identity, and developing students’ sense of agency by helping them believe that they can do mathematics.  

When being a warm demander as an authority figure, a caregiver, or a pedagogue, teachers overcome the passivity of low expectations and a low sense of agency through the care they show. They form connections with their students, which reinforces high expectations, supports positive classroom interactions, and demonstrates belief that all students can perform well in the mathematics classroom. Teachers must work to know and understand their students’ identities, histories, experiences, and cultural contexts; consider how mathematics and school experiences may differ for their students based on these contexts; and then connect these meaningfully with mathematics.  

Read more about the three categories of warm demanders here


Hattie, J. (2012). Visible learning for teachers: Maximizing impact on learning. Abingdon, UK: Routledge 

Marzano, R.J. (2008). Classroom assessment and grading that work. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

Pollock, M, (2018) Personal interview. Leadership Public Schools. Unpublished

Written by

Paul Hernandez, PhD, earned his doctorate in Sociology specializing in the sociology of education, social inequality, and diversity. Dr. Hernandez is a nationally recognized speaker and leader in college access and success, community outreach, and pedagogy for educators working with underserved/underprepared students and students at risk of dropping out of school. As a former faculty member, non-profit administrator and educational consultant, Dr. Hernandez works with higher education institutions, K-12 schools, and non-profit organizations helping them further develop and evolve their work with students and communities. Prior to earning his degrees, he was engulfed in gang culture and deep poverty, surviving on the streets of Los Angeles. Paul openly shares with others his unique personal story of being a youth at risk and how his path has influenced his work. He has learned ways to empower young people traveling a similar path, and through his inspirational messages hopes to share his lessons and passion with those working to address the multitude of challenges faced by diverse populations of youth at risk. Dr. Hernandez has been nationally recognized for his work and was awarded the National Education Association Reg Weaver Human and Civil Rights Award, the Michigan Education Association Elizabeth Siddall Human Rights Award, the Equity in Education award by the Michigan Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and an Honors Professor of the Year Award for teaching.


Becki Cohn-Vargas, EdD, has more than 35 years of experience as a teacher, principal, curriculum director, and superintendent. In each setting, she focused on educational equity and effective strategies for diverse populations. Her educational mission is ensuring identity safe classrooms where teachers strive to assure students that their social identities are an asset rather than a barrier to success in the classroom. Partnering with identity safety researcher Dorothy Steele, she coauthored Identity Safe Classrooms Grades K–5: Places to Belong and Learn; followed by Identity Safe Classrooms Grades 6–12: Pathways to Belonging and Learning, with Alex Creer Kahn and Amy Epstein. Her third book, co-authored with Kahn, Epstein, and Kathe Gogolewski, Belonging and Inclusion in Identity Safe Schools: A Guide for Educational Leaders, focuses on school transformation and was published August 17, 2021. Currently, Becki is an independent consultant and presenter. She was hosted at the White House by President Obama’s Education Staff and has worked to create inclusive climates in over 150 schools across the U.S.

Robert Q, Berry III is currently the Samuel Braley Gray Professor of mathematics education at the University of Virginia, and served as President of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), 2018–2020. He received his B.S. (middle grades education), Old Dominion University (ODU); M.A.T. (mathematics education), Christopher Newport University; Ph.D. (mathematics education), University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill. He has taught in public schools and served as a mathematics specialist since 1991. Robert has collaborated with teachers, leaders, parents, and community members across the United States and has been a teacher at nearly all levels. These experiences have afforded him a perspective on the issues facing mathematics teaching and learning across diverse contexts. He sees himself as a teacher who is always learning and improving my professional practice. He brings a strong sense of equity and fairness, rooted in my understanding of the mathematical experiences of students of color and the belief that all students deserve access to learning environments and resources that support their engagement with mathematics. He brings an ability to establish rapport and trust with people from diverse backgrounds by working to understand their perspectives, histories, and lived experiences. He understands the importance of building partnerships and how to draw on each partner’s strengths to achieve a common goal. In sum, he brings experiences and abilities that make me an effective advocate for teachers and students. He has published High School Mathematics Lessons to Explore, Understand, and Respond to Social Injustice with Corwin.

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