Introduction to Culturally Responsive Teaching

One of the most critical aspects of inclusive teaching is creating an environment in which each child feels accepted, represented and cared for. In order for students to flourish, educators have the responsibility to give students the tools and support they need to strive academically and in turn become active citizens. Therefore, it is important to equip educators with the proper knowledge about approaches that will help guide students in their development and thus create an inclusive classroom environment for all students. The following section is meant to provide an introduction to Culturally Responsive Teaching or CRT as a tool for inclusive education in regard to gender identity.

There are several key scholars that have trailblazed the path to coining the term culturally responsive teaching. Gloria Ladson-Billings first introduced the framework of culturally relevant teaching in 1995 as a tool with which to create the academic success of all children whilst celebrating their diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds. She emphasized the importance of children beginning to recognize, understand and critique social inequalities (Muñiz, 2019). In 2000, Geneva Gay built on the research from Ladson-Billings and introduced the term that is used today, culturally responsive teaching, in which she focuses on the teaching strategies and practices (Muñiz, 2019). In her theory, she concentrates on the student as a whole, using their unique cultural knowledge and prior experiences to create meaningful learning for all students. Incorporating a more progressive view of the term culture is Django Paris. Paris expanded the work from Ladson-Billings and Gay and introduces the term culturally sustaining pedagogy in which he incorporates the concept of culture in its full fluidity. Arguing that it’s important to recognize the evolution of culture and to move towards “…understanding how youth reshape cultural practices and identities” (as cited in Waitoller & King Thorius, 2016, p. 373). Thus, it is the job of educators to not only draw from the cultures of learners but also to sustain those cultures. At the core of these theories is the belief that culturally responsive teaching has the ability to “…empower students not only intellectually but also socially, emotionally, and politically” (Muñiz, 2019). All of the aforementioned pedagogies promote asset based teaching that celebrate student’s identities as a whole while encouraging critical reflection of social inequalities.

In order to gain a deeper understanding of what culturally responsive teaching is, it is important to examine the term culture. Culture cannot be viewed as something static. Our society is constantly evolving, from clothing trends, to language slurs to greetings, it all shifts and grows. The same goes for culture, “…a culture is a living system. People living now are the bearers of the culture they received from the prior generation, but they also become the generators and carriers of culture, as they have adapted it, into the future” (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine et al., 2018, p.23). This is extremely important to keep in mind when considering the development of culture amongst historically marginalized groups such as non-gender conforming individuals. Historically, marginalized groups have found ways to create their own cultures in which they are able to celebrate their diverse identities. For example, in New York City in the 1960s, underground ball culture among Black queer folks began to emerge. Balls are competitions in which drag queens perform a variety of different drag genres and categories. Drag Kings and Queens usually take on a drag persona and adopt a drag name. Balls often served as a safe haven for gender non-conforming or queer youth as they were able to express their identity freely. As stated in (Buckner, n.d.) “The balls create a welcoming, non-critical space for the queer community to construct their sense of self in their own hidden world free of the constraints that mainstream society puts on gender and sexual expression”. A popular netflix series by Ryan Murphy called Pose sheds light on the ball scene in the late 80s in New York. The show has been praised for representation as the cast features “…the largest trans cast in scripted television history, as well as writers and producers including Janet Mock and Our Lady J.”(Ramaswamy, 2019). Part of celebrating student’s identities and cultures is learning about and teaching their history. Culturally responsive teaching aims at informing students about the trauma experienced by historically marginalized groups while centering their healing and giving them the tools to create change in their communities.

Benefits of Culturally Responsive Teaching (CRT)

As Ladson- Billings suggested, culturally responsive teaching raises academic success amongst all pupils as they are presented with meaningful content that is representative of their own experiences and thus creates deeper understanding of a subject. It is easier for our brain to absorb meaningful content if it is able to make a connection to background knowledge or experiences (Understood, 2020). Therefore, when educators recognize and tap into children’s background knowledge, an optimal learning environment is created. Not only does CRT raise the expectations for all students and empower students through centring their experiences to create meaningful learning, it also builds cultural understanding amongst pupils. Students are able to learn about different perspectives and cultures and in turn build empathy towards their fellow peers. In the long run, this will help students to begin to understand and celebrate their differences. Culturally responsive teaching encourages educators to move away from the deficit mindset and to recognize the multiculturalism in their classroom as an asset. This is especially important for students in historically marginalized groups. As mentioned in the previous section, studies have shown that gender non-conforming students have highted levels of anxiety, school avoidance, depression or of being bullied (Lee, 2019; Meyer et al., 2019; Pettway, 2016). For gender non-conforming students, especially those who also find themselves in another historically marginalized group, it is of utmost importance to be represented in spaces that are typically occupied by cis-gendered white individuals. When student’s identities are centered, when their cultures are celebrated and recognized, the teacher-student relationship shifts into a partnership of learning and in turn, education becomes liberation.

What does CRT look like in the classroom?

Culturally responsive teaching is not something that can be taught but rather a pedagogy that should be ingrained in every aspect of teaching. It also will look different in every classroom largely depending on the educator. As mentioned in Figure 2, it’s important for educators to begin by reflecting on their culture and everything they bring to the classroom. Without this critical reflection it is difficult to truly begin to understand the cultures students bring to the classroom much less the harmful biases that an educator may embody. Jennifer Eberhardt explains how, “By adulthood, everyone has bias. Bias is a result of our brain’s tendency to categorize people, places, and more. This function is useful in a world of stimuli, especially when we need to act quickly. But bias can lead to discrimination, unfounded assumptions, and worse, especially in times of hurry or stress.” (as cited in Williams, 2020, p. 19).

Therefore, it is crucial for educators to critically examine their membership to different identity groups (i.e gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, etc.) and really try to understand how these identities impact their perspectives and actions (Muñiz, 2019). In recognizing personal bias, a culturally responsive educator should also be able to identify institutional and systemic biases and work along with students to dismantle these systems.

Another important step to applying culturally responsive teaching to the classroom specifically for non-gender conforming students is communication and language. As mentioned in previous sections, use of vocabulary is important to establish a safe space in any classroom. Culture greatly influences the languages used as well as the non-verbal communication. For this reason, educators should seek to “…understand how culture influences communication, both in verbal ways (e.g., the tone of voice, rhythm, and vocabulary used) and nonverbal ways (e.g., the amount of space between speaker and listener, eye contact, body movements, and gestures)”(Muñiz, 2019). To read more about using gender inclusive vocabulary in the classroom refer to the relational approaches section. Probably the most vital in creating a culturally responsive classroom is the inclusion of real world issues. However, it is imperative to go beyond the issue and explore solutions with students. Students should feel empowered to create change and begin to recognize the injustices that exist within the system. In doing so, community members should be involved and actively give feedback and input to further enrich student’s learning.

Further tips on culturally responsive teaching in the classroom can be found here


Children’s literature can be a great educational tool. However, if not chosen carefully, it can also contribute to the further alienation of historically marginalized groups. The following section will analyze the children’s book “When Aidan became a brother” written by Kyle Lukoff illustrated by Kaylani Juanita.

The resources used to analyze these books are typically used to select anti-racist and anti-biased children’s books. However, these lenses are very valuable to use to select gender inclusive literature as well. Rudine Sims Bishop famously stated in her essay “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors” in 1990 that, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part.” This goes for all children that belong to historically marginalized groups. White cis-gendered children historically have and always will see themselves represented in children’s literature and teaching materials. Sims emphasizes the importance of representation for both children who do not find themselves in society’s marginalized groups as well as those who are. As mentioned in the previous section, studies show that from a very young age, children begin forming their identity by gathering information from their environments. This information is typically gathered from their families, tv shows, movies and children’s books (Winkler, 2009, p. 3). At this stage children are beginning to learn about the broader social norms that exist in their world- these norms can be communicated through children’s literature.

When selecting literature, it is important to analyze the message that is being portrayed and who is portraying this message. The author and illustrator are often forgotten when analyzing and selecting children’s literature. However, oftentimes learning about the author and illustrator can inform the reader about which perspectives may be missing and in turn which could be presented accurately. Sometimes it may be difficult to gather a lot of information on authors, however, it is still important to utilize this information in order to gauge the accuracy of the story.

Author and Illustrator

The author of “When Aidan became a brother” is Kyle Lukoff, a white transgender man. He is a young adult and children’s book author, one of very few transgender authors, and former librarian. He has written several books based on gender non-conforming children and is able to reflect his own experiences as a transgender man in the texts he writes. Kaylani Juanita identifies with she/her they/them pronouns and is a mixed race femme queer illustrator. She illustrates inclusive literature focused on activism and empowerment of Black and LGBTQI+ people. With the aforementioned information, one can assume that Kyle is able to portray firsthand experiences as a transgender child. However, as a white man, he is not able to portray the added layer of complexity which is Aidan’s race. However, Kaylani is able to incorporate different cultural aspects of blackness through her illustrations that may otherwise be lacking.

The story follows a young child who does not identify with the sex he was born with. After a while he is able to express this to his parents. Aidan gets to choose a name that suits him and becomes a boy. His parents soon tell him that they are going to be having a baby. Aidan is very excited to become a big brother. In an attempt to protect the baby from the hardship he experienced as a gender non-conforming child, he tries to help his parents prepare. This is a story about love and acceptance and is a wonderful book to begin talking to young children about gender identity.

Selecting the right children’s book is crucial and can be quite intimidating. However, with the awareness of a culturally responsive teacher and the help of students, the process can become liberating. It is extremely valuable for students to find stories in which they see themselves reflected, their identities are celebrated, and their experiences mirrored. Not only does it create a deep sense of belonging, it also captivates the attention of students which in turn results in students becoming more engaged in their learning. Involving children in the selection of children’s literature is particularly beneficial as it creates student agency, encourages critical thinking and promotes cultural awareness. 

Try this out

The “Empowering Educators Guidebook on Race and Racism”  by Julye M. Williams PhD offers great questions to reflect on when selecting children’s books. Use these questions to guide your analysis of one of your favorite children’s books or the one introduced above and focus on gender inclusivity.

  • Is the author of the book representing their community or lived experience?
  • Who will this story affirm?
  • Who will this story silence or harm?
  • Will this story make someone feel like they don’t belong or like an outsider?
  • Does this storyline disrupt or reinforce a stereotype?
  • Does this story make generalizations about people?
  • Does the story feature present-day characters and experiences?
  • What is the theme of the book?
  • Does this story center joy or trauma?
  • What voices are not being heard and how can you include them through discussion?











Gender identity under the cultural lens

In the following section, the definitions of sex and gender that were introduced throughout this chapter will be examined through a cultural lens. First of all, it is important to note that the notion of gender and the discourses around it are phenomena occurring in western societies. As gender began to be studied and became institutionalized as a field of scholarship in the 70s and 80s in English speaking countries and cultures, the view on sex, gender, and sexuality changed. Robert Stoller’s book ‘Sex and Gender’ (1968) made publicly transparent that gender identity is not only influenced by biological influences, but also by sex assignment at birth as well as psychological and environmental influences. His findings revealed evidence that challenged ideologies such as the cross-cultural sharing of universal binary categories (Zimmermann, 2008). Variations in gender roles and ideologies were among others first identified by Margaret Mead, who recognized different perspectives among three African tribes on male and female roles as well as differences in ideas about femininity and masculinity. Her work led to a greater look at cross-cultural variations on a global level, which resulted in new conceptions of the contemporary anthropological approaches to sex, gender, and orientation.


Cultures around the globe define sex differently by measurable indicators. Some create sex categories according to anatomical traits, while others may categorize it according to the hormone level or chromosomal arrangements (Krahl, 2002). Therefore, sex is a social construct that can vary cross-culturally, as it is an invented idea created according to specific social criteria.
The Eurocentric culture typically defines sex based on a binary female-male construct with disregards to intersexual persons, which indicators fail to fit neatly into either of the designated categories.
However, many cultures have incorporated a third or more sex categories into the social construct of gender.

From a cultural perspective, gender is defined as a representation based on socially constructed beliefs and practices regarding the roles, responsibilities, and obligations that are associated with sex. These gender related roles root in culturally defined norms and values that are assigned and considered appropriate for a certain gender. Like sex, gender ideologies vary cross-culturally, they are learned and shared, which makes them dynamic in change (Kuhnle, 2002).




Pause and think
Think about your parents’ and grandparents’ ideas about the roles and responsibilities of men and women. You will probably notice changes in values within one generation – Educators have the great opportunity and responsibility to start raising awareness from  primary school age on to pave the way for fully inclusive future generations.


Increasing awareness of intersexuality and sexual ambiguity in scientific communities and popular culture seriously calls to question the construction of sex categories and social organizations that rest exclusively on a binary male-female system. Its limits become obvious when thinking of terms such as ‘transgender’ and ‘gay’, which are new western constructs. Invented to define individuals, who do not fit into the binary paradigm, they are assuming the existence of only two sexes (male/female), as many as two sexualities (gay/straight), and only two genders (man/woman) (Nagoshi, 2014).
Contrary to this view, archeological evidence is rich with evidence of multiple genders, transgender, and intersexuality from ancient art and mythology to medieval texts. Individuals living within a sex different from the one they are assigned to at birth is a universal concept, as the wide range of third gender categories have existed and continue to persist throughout the world. Diversity among sex and gender identity has been documented to exist within most if not all societies. According to West and Zimmerman, there are numerous divergent descriptions of alternative gender roles throughout
the world in medical as well as anthropological literature (1987).

Take a tour
Use this map to explore other cultures’ view on gender diversity.


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Inclusive Perspectives in Primary Education Copyright © 2021 by room305 and Inclusive Education Class 2020-2021 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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