All Are Welcome Here! Quick, Cultural Connections to Content Instruction for Diverse Learners

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John Wolfe with Rita Platt

“Culturally responsive teaching” or “culturally relevant instructional practices” are hot topics in ESL teaching. We value this and applaud the many text-based resources that help all students to feel welcome in their schools and represented in the curriculum. It is important. It matters.

We think, as a profession, we can do more. Below you will find two very simple, easy-to-implement, ideas for increasing curricular connections between school and the home cultures of students.

Teachers, if we are to grow as a profession, we must be collaborative, communicative, and ensure that we are continuously learning together. In that spirit, please know, this is a nascent idea. We look forward to hearing from our colleagues near and far in order to make the idea better, stronger, and more effective!

Quick, Cultural Connections to Content Instruction for Diverse Learners

Before looking at the suggested routines below, it is  helpful to think about the goal embedded in the concept.

Simply put, the goal is to move towards materials, routines and practices that provide teachers and students with opportunities to “touch bases” with diverse student home lives – but that will also flow in and merge with ongoing instruction.

In other words, to develop routines that provide quick, effective, “low-effort” connections to the family home culture for English Language Learners and other students from diverse backgrounds.

Below, you will find two examples, the “Mulitcultural Glance Across” and the “Multicultural Home Check In.” As you read through them, think about ways you could adapt the ideas to your own teaching.

Multicultural Glance-Across

In this model, the teacher uses quick examples from student home cultures to demonstrate universality of standards-based key conceptual learning.  The glance-across method works well for social studies, but conceivably could be used in any content. Similarly, though maps are used in both examples, any graphic could be used.

Example 1:

In a 7th grade social studies class the students are learning about how communities are formed and how geographic factors influence where people settle.  The class includes several students who immigrated from Mexico.

Teacher: So we’ve been learning that throughout history, people tend to settle close to water – for drinking water, for irrigation, for transportation.

Let’s see if that’s true with Mexico.  On this map, I’ve marked the most populous cities in Mexico.  Do they follow the rule?

Example 2:

In a 10th grade history class the students are learning about the American Civil War including the caus20140208_mam988_0es and effects. The class includes students from Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea.

TeacherOver the next several weeks we’ll be learning about the American Civil War. Civil wars happen all over the globe. Though the causes and effects of the American Civil War are unique, it can be helpful to think about other civil wars as well. Let’s look at this map and talk briefly about civil wars in general. 

Multicultural Home Check-In (HCI)

In this model, the teacher sends home key terms from the standards-based lessons s/he is teaching. Students explain the term to a family member and ask for connections.


Teacher:  So we’ll find these relationships – predator/prey, parasite/host – in all environments.  And to demonstrate, we’re going to do a Home Check-In on this.  Get out your HCI Notebooks.hci

Write down the key terms and any notes you need to understand what they mean. For some of you, that will include the home-language translation, because we’ve seen that this is often the easiest way to explain the concepts to your parents or grandparents.

You know the drill. Go home and find someone to talk to, explain the terms to him or her, and ask her or him to tell you about an experience they had or they know about.

Take notes and be be ready to share next Thursday.

Why and How

While both the Glance-Across and the Check-In can be done on the fly, they’re more likely to happen if the teachers can rely on ready-made, “drop-in” materials to support these two strategies at key moments in their class.

Both methods will take extra planning and time. But, it is worth it. Look below to see why.

Authentic Review of Learning. Sharing the learning with family members provides opportunity for authentic review of key learning content.

“Translanguaging.”  Authentic opportunity for many English Learners to explain their learning in an L1 (first language), resulting in deeper processing and learning.

Parents/Family Aware of Content Learning. This helps parents to hear about occasional content topics, stimulates home discussions of learning, which results in deeper processing and learning.

Messages of Inclusion, Acceptance and Valuing of Diverse Families. Both methods hinge on helping all learners feel valued. Both help students think about their heritage in connection with their new homes.


It is important to think about how these methods might impact students. Below are a couple of key considerations.

“Risk of Exoticizing.” As any inclusion practices, the reporting and sharing aspect of this would have to be done with tact and care. We don’t want to exoticize the experience of diverse students.  (I was once planning a connection to a math lesson on units of measure and I very much wanted the students to go home and ask parents and family members about the longest distance traveled on foot.  I knew from talking to Somali colleagues that until recently, even city-born children would be sent for the summer out to travel with nomadic herdsmen as part of a rite of passage or just to toughen them up. As a result, they’ll walk hundreds of miles in the course of a summer, primarily on foot.  While some students would be happy to share grandparents’ stories about this, others might prefer not to.

This approach would require, therefore, both a respect for privacy and the development of a classroom that respects diversity and the range of stories and experiences students bring.

“Drop-In Connections.”  We imagine this as a vast set of standards-related “drop-in” connection supports for key content. We have a feeling that this is unlikely to be done on the fly as part of lesson prep, but it would be an ideal project for a PLC, a University pre-service class, or even a parent-teacher volunteer group.

An Ongoing Effort. This is in a brainstorm stage right now, but as the project continued, we’d hope to be able to tweak both the Glance-Across and Home Check-In assignments to the most effective.

Connect Lightly.  Again, we want to stress that what we’re looking for here are fast, light connections woven throughout content instruction in multiple subjects. A network of quick connections would be a great step towards demonstrating to students, teachers and community that the questions and issues raised in school are continuous with the Home Culture experience and concerns.

One danger of stopping “regular instruction” for a special unit on the student Home Language cultures or history is that this can often suggest that the student cultural background are “special cases,” out of the mainstream of Social Studies or Science or Language Arts.  By lightly touching on Home Language cultures repeatedly through these two strategies, we stress the opposite.

We are truly looking forward to hearing from you! What do you think about the Glance Across and the HCI?

rita-and-john-croppedRita Platt (@ritaplatt) is a Nationally Board Certified teacher. Her experience includes teaching learners of all levels from kindergarten to graduate student. She currently is a Library Media Specialist for the St. Croix Falls SD in Wisconsin, teaches graduate courses for the Professional Development Institute, and consults with local school districts.

John Wolfe (@johnwolfe3rd) is a teacher on special assignment for the Multilingual Department at the Minneapolis Public School District. He has worked with students at all levels as well as provided professional development to fellow teachers. His areas of expertise include English Language Learners, literacy, and integrated technology.

Find John & Rita at 3C’s Educational Consulting.

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