Building trust, breaking through 

One educator's journey into culturally responsive teaching 

Story summary:

Listening, caring, building trust, and knowing each student individually. These are among the pillars of “culturally responsive teaching.” In this piece, we take you inside a classroom at O’Keeffe Middle School to see how these strategies, and more, are helping students break through to become independent learners, prepared to succeed and defy the achievement gap.

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On a recent Friday morning at O'Keeffe Middle School, Tracy Warnecke was looking for students to help with a project. She poked her head inside a Spanish class. "Can I take Eliana to help me? Can I also take Lilly?" 

"You two are gonna help me with a project," she told them as they joined her and fellow eighth-grade student Isaiah and headed for the library.  

Nearby, two teens were steering a coffee cart into a classroom. Warnecke approached them and put her arm around them. "All my boys are here, I'm lovin' it! You okay? Awesome, awesome." 

O'Keeffe Principal Tony Dugas calls Warnecke "one of the very best" when it comes to getting kids to push themselves academically and achieve at high levels by relating to them, connecting to their lives, understanding them, and gaining their trust. 

The term used in the education world to describe this is cultural responsiveness. It refers to research-based strategies meant to engage, challenge, and build learner independence by being responsive to the cultural and language assets of all students. 

In part, this involves adults reflecting on their own identities and becoming aware of and rejecting any biases or assumptions they may have about students – particularly students who don’t share a similar background with the teacher.

The result is trust. An agreement between a teacher and students that they will work together tenaciously to meet learning goals. With strong relationships in place – the kind Wernecke has spent the past seven weeks of school building – teachers are able to gain insights into how each of their students think and approach problem-solving so they can better push and encourage each student. 

This is what I'm here to witness today. 

"My friends, let's go this way," Warnecke said, returning to her project helpers. "I chose both of you because you're ridiculously organized and I can trust you to do this project." 

In the library, about a dozen locked, black cabinets housed brand new Chromebooks. The next week, the entire school would go "one to one" – meaning every student would receive a digital device to use in school. 

Tracy Warnecke unlocked her classroom's cabinet and gave Lilly and Eliana instructions for classifying and stickering the Chromebooks before leaving to fetch a class list she'd left behind. I wanted to hear their take on the subject of cultural responsiveness. Here's what they said.

Back in room 223, Warnecke began prepping for Eliana and the rest of her afternoon English Language Arts and Social Studies students to arrive. She pulled up a set of instructions on the 65-inch computer monitor and dimmed the lights. She positioned herself by the door to welcome and check in with students as they arrived.

"I might not always be at the door, but if I'm in here, we're like, 'Good morning, good morning, good morning. How we doing?' You read their body language. The great thing about middle schoolers is they wear their emotions on their sleeves. They're full of hyperbole, and they just wanna be heard," she says.

Routines and rituals

"But like all kids, they want the structure. They want to know what they're supposed to do and how they're supposed to do it. I think that's just people. I think people like structure. And I'm very, very clear on my expectations."

In fact, she spends the entire first week of school teaching expectations, classroom routines, and building community.  "And I teach absolutely everything and assume nothing. For example, we greet every [day], and I teach them why and the purpose in all of that."

On this particular day, it was clear her students knew what they were expected to do next. One by one, they began gathering the materials noted on the screen quietly and independently. 

In a few minutes, meditative music filled the room and the afternoon kicked off with high fives and mindful meditation to calm and focus brains.

Routines like these beginning-of-class rituals – greeting students at the door, high-fiving your tablemates, mindful meditations – not only create social bonds among students, but they help teachers spend more time in meaningful instruction. 

Over time, routines become invisible and part of the classroom culture that help create a positive energy and the classroom's ethos. When routines are carefully taught, modeled, and established in the classroom, children know what's expected of them and how to do certain things on their own. – Zaretta Hammond

Everyone gets what they need

The lights back on and the music stopped, it was time to get to work. While explaining to students how the next two hours would be structured, one student stood up and left the room unceremoniously. A few students quietly pointed this out.

"That's OK," Warnecke reminded them. "He has a plan. And he's getting what he needs. Right?" They nodded understanding and she picked up where she left off. 

The lack of fanfare reflected an unmistakable sense of community, mutual respect, and understanding of expectations among the students, which is remarkable so early into the school year.

"I stress with both of my classes that we are a community. And when the community's not doing well, when certain individuals are not doing well in the community, we're all in it together,” Warnecke told me later. "I also have a really sweet group of kids this year and they help each other, which is awesome."

'You just have to pay attention'

And she's taken the time to get to know them, to hear them. "I run my classroom in a circle. The first week of school, we had tables against walls in a circle, where it was kind of like a restorative justice circle. The kids just start to share. You just have to pay attention and you just start to ask. You just start to listen to who are your kids and how do they react," she says. 

A few students offered their take on her approach to building a community that fosters listening, shared expectations, and fairness. 

This cornerstone of culturally responsive teaching – listening, caring, building trust, and knowing each student individually – can mean the difference between a student falling through the cracks and the student ultimately prevailing. But it doesn't stop at caring. Culturally responsive teachers know each student brings assets to the classroom. They look for them, recognize them, and then build on their strengths. 

As an example, a former student of hers had some trauma in his history. He had moved here from a larger metropolis, where life involved housing insecurity, among other difficulties.  She remembers him as "a sweet boy and kind and considerate. I think that's the key. It's finding the gifts that they bring to the classroom, finding the good in all kids, and recognizing that the front that they give you is not who they are."

The trust forged between them ultimately helped pave the way for his success. She showed she understood what was happening in his life. And in doing so, he responded to her high expectations for him. He stretched himself and took risks. He let her push him to break through. "He never fell behind. He got all of his work done. He was able to keep up in class.”

Ben, a student currently in her class, explains her approach to getting to know students this way: "She pushes herself onto you in a good way. She cares."

Take away that mutual trust and you dampen students' willingness to engage in complex, high-level learning through what educators call "productive struggle," or persevering in the face of struggle as a natural, expected, and beneficial component of learning.

"Middle schoolers do not like to be uncomfortable," Warnecke points out, chuckling. But they are learning to "savor the struggle" because they are finding out that writing often doesn't involve a right or wrong answer.  Sometimes, "they want me so badly to define exactly what they should be doing."

But one of their current assignments in a unit about slavery offers more flexibility than that. There is a rubric and an assignment description, but beyond that, she tells them, "You have carte blanche to do what you want. So we start to see them grapple with that."

The assignment: Every student who chose this writing exercise must select a random letter of the alphabet. They take that letter and connect it to a concept they learned from reading the book To Be a Slave

"They have to write a MEL-Con paragraph. They have to provide textual evidence. They have to [understand] the content that leads to textual evidence, and then provide the link. That's hard. That's some seriously high-level writing and thinking about a really difficult topic."

She treats all learners as independent leaners. Dependent learners, by contrast,  are unsure of how to tackle new tasks and are dependent on the teacher to carry most of the “cognitive load” of a task. This disparity gets at the roots of the achievement gap, according to author and former educator Zaretta Hammond.

As educators, we have to recognize that we help maintain the achievement gap when we don’t teach advance cognitive skills to students we label as ‘disadvantaged’ because of their language, gender, race, or socioeconomic status. Many children start school with small learning gaps, but as they progress through school, the gap between African American and Latino and White students grows because we don’t teach them how to be independent learners. – Zaretta Hammond

Nicolas, a student in today’s class, says that she holds him to high expectations as a learner. “She’s told me that multiple times: ‘I think you can do it,’” he says. If he gets stuck, “She’ll just motivate me more.”

'I'm here with you. I have struggles too.'

Warnecke is unflinching in her approach to talking about sensitive topics in class, whether they have to do with race, gender, sexual orientation, or other subjects. 

Zach, one of her students, tells me, "We're talking about slavery. That's a really hard unit to learn about. Some kids might feel guilty because their race did something bad to another race. But I feel like a lot of kids are open about it. And I feel like that's really good."

Classmate Hannah adds, "I feel like she's helped the class grow as a community and we can kind of just talk about whatever. She has lots of different ways of getting you to's very open."

Creating a safe space for sensitive and productive cultural conversations, and being vulnerable yourself in sharing pertinent examples from your own life, are yet more examples of strategies embraced by culturally responsive teachers.

As Ben puts it, "She tells us how sometimes she doesn't feel comfortable walking in public with her girlfriend. That's like saying, 'I'm here with you. I have struggles too. Let's work together to overcome them.'"

Savannah, a student in Warnecke’s morning class, agrees. Here’s what she said.

Hannah offers a second example of Warnecke demonstrating openness about personal background and life experiences:  "Like when we were learning about privilege, she shared about her privilege." On the third day of school the entire O'Keeffe eighth grade class participated in a "privilege walk." Here she is with Ben to explain what that entailed. 

Tracy Warnecke explains that they didn't just launch into this activity without context. She and other eighth grade teachers teaching American History build up to it in their lessons and in conversations the first few days of school on identity. 

"It's always such a great eye-opener, and it kind of breaks down those barriers of assumption that people make about one another based off of skin tone or hair texture. A lot of the times, it's the kids who are in the back that we don't expect, and it's the kids in the front who we don't expect. So it's a great way to start that dialogue of diving into who we are as a community and really working on that sense of identity of ourselves in a classroom," Warnecke says. 

She's getting at one of the pillars of culturally responsive teaching, which is reflecting on the assumptions each one of us makes about others and separating our assumptions from what we know about someone based on listening to what they say. 

The power of choice

History, as a subject, can get a bad rap among middle school students. But teachers who make links between academic content and student experiences, perspectives, and personal goals, have a greater chance at making the lessons come to life and mean more for students.

Feliz, another student in Warnecke’s morning class, gives a great example.

“I connect content to their lives. I connect history to current events,” Tracy Warnecke says. “It’s making it personal for them, which really enhances the curriculum.”

This approach, along with giving students choices, makes students much more motivated to work hard, to struggle productively. She tells a story about a former student who was particularly interested in the subject of gang prevention. In the course of his research, he read that community centers can help keep kids off the street and out of gangs. But then it occurred to him that many community centers close at 6:30 p.m.

“And so he got to really understand what was going on in his neighborhood, and he was way into that work because it was a topic he was interested in. Having that power of choice and knowing they have a voice in what they get to do, it makes the engagement so much higher.”

Warnecke looks at her charge to teach U.S. History to students as priceless opportunity. “They're opening to the world, they're going out in the world, they have these phones where they're getting these soundbites and these little pictures and memes.”

She tells her students, “If you don't have the background knowledge, you're not going to understand. Let me teach you what that means. Let me teach you why that's important. Let me teach you about our government and how it's supposed to function, and then you can make choices that will benefit our country.”

It’s been a journey

Twenty-one years into her career as a public school teacher, she says it’s been a journey to get to the point where culturally responsive teaching is second nature. “And it's a journey by making one thousands mistakes first and just constantly reflecting upon my practice and knowing what I can do better the next day. It's also through thousands of hours of grad school and professional development, that I just take what I learn and I apply it here in the classroom. Some days it goes well, some days it completely bombs,” she says.

Whatever each day brings, she believes “You gotta laugh. You gotta laugh, have some fun, and enjoy each other.”

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