Book Review: Culturally Responsive Teaching & The Brain (Hammond)

I saw this book during the summer of 2020, and what resonated with me what the integration of neuroscience into culturally responsive teaching pedagogy. In this book, Zaretta Hammond weaves together data, neuroscience and culturally responsive teaching in a way that surfaces how to access culture as a way to activate learning pathways in the brain.

You’d be interested in this book if you:
1) Wanted to learn more about CRT and the brain
2) Wanted to build your capacity in DEI and neuropsychology approaches to the classroom
3) Access the development of all of your students’ intellectual capacity
4) Most significantly, centre your own practices in the current sociopolitical climate
5) Want to reinforce and learn great pedagogical moves backed by neuroscience

What is CRT:

The application of CRT is more significant than ever, and Hammond’s work is timely and relevant. Originally written as a response to the achievement gap in the United States, her work has relevance to me as a white, male, independent school educator in that it challenges me to reflect not only on my implicit bias, but also my role in an institution originally established to protect and maintain white privilege. Her work supports my work to make me a better educator through CRT.

She begins by explaining how culture (not the surface, nor shallow levels), deep cultural understandings are a powerful way to connect with students. “But do I have to know about all the cultures in my classroom to really get anywhere?” Hammond addresses this question head-on. Deep culture means exploring the cultural archetypes of the different cultures in your classroom and seeing the schema of each and finding similarities. (pg. 26) In this way, we can connect with students in a deeper way, instead of only acknowledging the surface and shallow rituals, clothing and other artefacts. This is the way to connect with students and build belonging.

Structural Barriers:

As an independent school educator,  I am so thankful for the access to professional learning, books and articles, workshops and courses to support my development of DEI competency and understanding. Through these opportunities, and as Hammond highlights, no matter how adept we are, we have to raise our own awareness and organizational awareness of structural racism:

We have to entertain the ideas that a series of seemingly benign or supposedly well-intentioned policies actually create a negative cumulation and reinforcing effect that supports, rather than dismantles, the status quo within institutions. (pg. 30)

Our challenge is to step into this space with curiosity and generosity, to examine the ways we structure our classroom – interrupt practices that inhibit safety – and build practices that get at the intellective capacity, so that our students can meet their full potential with effective scaffolding.

Do you know about the Ready for Rigor Framework?

CRT is defined by Hammond as:

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 students knows to new concepts and content in order to promote effective information processing. All the while, the educator understands the importance of being in relationship and having a social-emotional connection to the student in order to create a safe space for learning (pg. 15)

Upon first reading, this just sounds like good teaching. However, as I read more, I came to understand that there are layers upon layers.

Neuroscience tells us that culture plays a critical role in [developing intellective capacity (pg. 16)

Hammond brings together neuroscience  and the “Ready for Rigor Framework” (image below) to build the bridge between cultural understanding and response to learning.

(1) Awareness: understand that there are 3 levels of culture and how to access the deeper level of cultural diversity, as well as recognizing the socio-political context, and your own internal bias
(2) Learning Partnerships: build trust through providing feedback in emotionally and culturally intelligent ways
(3) Information Processing: orchestrate learning so that it builds student’s brain power in culturally congruent ways
(4) Community Building: build belonging based on the deeper levels of the culture in your classroom, including the setting up of routines, practices and classroom rituals that reinforce the space as recognizing many different cultures as being valuable to learning; as well as establishing self-directed learning, ways for students to form their own academic identity; create a space that is safe

By combining these 4 areas of Ready for Rigor with culturally responsive teaching, Hammond sets up a structure of practices to support all students.

Scaffolding with the Brain’s Hardware:

In my book review of Deep Diversity and Reframed, I learned that our contemporary understanding of the brain needs to be brought into sharper focus. This book supports this as well:

Keep in mind that these three parts of the brain do not operate independently of one another. Instead, they do a synchronized dance. They communicate by sending electromagnetic and chemical messages back and forth. In addition to their own dance (pg. 37)

Hammond spends a great deal of time deconstructing the brain to demonstrate how we can use this knowledge, combine it with CRT pedagogy to connect and activate our students to learn.

For example, if our limbic system ‘creates our internal schema that acts as our background knowledge’, and our internal schema is inherently tied to our deeper cultural underpinnings, then as educators we can improve our intercultural understandings to create a safe classroom where students feel valued, and where they can be activated to learn.

When we look at the stress some students experience in the classroom because they belong to marginalized communities because of race, class, language or gender, we have to understand their safety-threat detection system is already cued to be on alter for social and psychological threats based on past experience. (pg. 45)

Thus, understanding the role that microaggressions play in priming students for threat responses is critical in our schools. As a white male who is actively trying to practice culturally responsive teaching, I am challenged now to recognize the actions and conditions that I set up that may make students feel unsafe, even if they cannot articulate what is making them feel that way. (pg. 47) “It is important to act according to students’ definitions, not your own.” (pg. 47)

The Role of the Educator:

This book is full of incredible provocations, resources and example for educators to integrate CRT into their practice, but the foundation is the educator doing the work themselves:

A critical step for teachers is to understand how their own cultural values shape their expectations in the classroom – from how they expect children to behave socially, take turns during discussions, or even pass out classroom materials. (Pg. 56)

This reminds me of Stuart Shanker’s words that when you seek to see your child differently, you will see a different child. (Reframed) Hammond provides incredible prompts to provoke building self-awareness – such as:

  1. Shift from the use of the word “lens” to “aperture so as to expand  our ability to recognize the different culture expressions (pg. 59)
    1. “Widen your interpretation aperture by exposing yourself to other cultural experiences…” (pg. 62)
  2. Be aware of cultural triggers (pg. 64)
    1. “We all get [our amygdala] hijacked  at times, but culturally responsive teachers know themselves well enough to anticipate situations that might trigger them.” (pg. 64)
  3. The SODA strategy (Stop. Observe. Detach. Awaken.)
    1. This calls to mind the work of Marc Brackett and the R.U.L.E.R. method to support educators for their own social-emotional learning and building that capacity in their students.

Through this approach, “Our tasks as culturally responsive teachers is to help them shift their mindset by helping them create a powerful counternarrative about who they are as learners.” (Pg. 120)

Hammond does an excellent job explaining concrete practices, like being a ‘warm demander’, to support educators in building their capacity.

Overall, this book is a great read as an educator interested in the intersection of DEI and learning. Her storytelling brings humanity and experience to the “why” of CRT. It leaves a lot of great provocations for educators to think about their own practices, and use this book as a jumping-off point.


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