Learning challenges special education with shadow project

A Special Education Teacher Talks Culturally-Responsive Classrooms

Photo description: LaShell Holton smiles and poses with two of her students in their classroom.

LaShell Holton is a special educator at Hayhurst Elementary in Portland, OR. She’s partnered with The Shadow Project for over a decade.


Thank you for speaking with me today! 

LaShell (LH): Thanks for having me, I’m excited to be talking about this topic.

Let’s jump right in. Can you talk about the responsibility that teachers have to create culturally-responsive classrooms?

LH: As educators, we have a chance to model being vulnerable and honest. It’s super important that we understand our own implicit and explicit biases. We have to recognize that our culture influences how we respond to students, and not all students share our backgrounds. For instance, were you raised in a collective community, or were you raised in a community that’s all about self sufficiency and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps”? This includes grappling with White Privilege and how our biases show up in the classroom. We see the impact in discipline policies and data. We might unfairly discipline students if they are from cultures that speak louder or respond better to certain communication styles, compared to dominant cultural norms. 

As an African American teacher, at the beginning of learning about culturally responsive teaching, I thought I don’t need this. Then I realized that we all need to learn it so we can model it for our students. Being culturally-responsive is beneficial not only for our students of color or those from another country or language, but also for our white students or more privileged students. If it’s not modeled for them that everyone is valued and we don’t judge people who are different from us, how can we learn and grow together?

It has to be modeled for students in the classroom if we want to see it happen in the real world.

At my previous school, we started doing restorative justice circles, social emotional-learning, and talking about anti-racism. These are topics that were never discussed in school when I was growing up. But we cannot turn a blind eye or think children are too young to understand. They are the future. We don’t want to continue on with the divisions we are seeing. We want to build understanding. And in preparing students for their futures, one of the most valuable assets to employers is the ability to work well and collaborate with people from diverse backgrounds.

Culturally-responsive books are often regarded as an important teaching tool. Can you talk about that?

LH: Well, there’s a difference between books that are meant for children to learn about cultures of the world or to see their culture reflected in a story [Read this educator explain the “windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors” metaphor for books]. The Shadow Project provides books for my students about various cultures and celebrations, and books in particular languages like Spanish which are helpful for some students and families. And I’m realizing that this kind of reading is a valuable resource for teachers too, to deepen our learning and teaching practice. 

I’ve also been asking myself, Am I trying to get a child to teach me about their culture, or am I informing myself about each and every child? There’s a difference. If a student belongs to a particular ethnic or cultural background, that doesn’t mean that culture is all encompassing of their lived experience.

That’s interesting, you’re saying that culturally-responsive classrooms won’t all look the same, and won’t be created in the same way. What does this look like for you and your students?

LH: At my previous school, I had a unique opportunity because we had many students in our school who are Muslim from a variety of backgrounds. Some come from Arab countries or are Somali-speaking. Some have experiences of being in a refugee camp, or being 1st or 2nd generation immigrants. But they share many cultural celebrations. Sometimes I see a shared impact when they are absent from school or are fasting. I’ve learned when children are at a certain age when they are expected to participate in cultural traditions. 

That’s just one way that I’ve come to learn in my classroom. During Eid al-Fitr, I thought, Now which Eid is this? I considered, Is it appropriate for me to offer a snack right now or have a classroom party? Not having that experience, I knew I needed to do my own research to learn what’s appropriate. I was willing to get outside of my comfort zone to do that.

It’s just best practice. We say we want to know all of our students, but do we really want to know all of our students in a meaningful way? That also includes learning about a student’s family, and that will be felt by the family.

This comes back to my point about having my students teach me. If students are open to talking about their culture, there’s nothing wrong with asking about it. But, it’s important to be aware of their emotional intelligence. I pay attention to a student’s body language to see if they are feeling comfortable and in their safe zone, or if they are looking around at others because not everyone in the group has their same experiences and they feel isolated. 

And that feeling of discomfort might be magnified for students from cultural backgrounds that are marginalized in our society. Do you see that show up in your class and how do you respond to that?

LH: Absolutely. When you look around, even as adults, if you don’t see other people who look like you or speak like you, you can automatically feel like I need to sit back, listen and observe. When this happens in a classroom, a teacher may assume a student doesn’t want to or isn’t willing to participate.

For example, I had a Spanish speaking student in my class. I grew up in Los Angeles and I’ve learned some Spanish but I don’t get a chance to practice much. I said something to this student in Spanish, and she froze. She was looking around like, Don’t talk to me in Spanish, because she wanted to be seen like all the other English-speaking students around her.

When you are one of few, you have a heightened sensitivity and you might wonder, Am I being seen like all the others? Will I be called on or put on the spot? 

As an African American female, it’s taken me time to be comfortable in my skin when I’m in spaces where no one else has the same background as me. You can imagine how that translates to a young child in a school setting with peers and authority figures. I have a double consciousness and empathy for my students, given my personal experience. 

Can you discuss cultural-responsiveness in the context of Special Education classrooms?

LH: Special education classes provide a unique context: students already have a certain amount of empathy with one another because they realize they are not the only one who struggles with learning or reading. I see their comfort levels; they know they can make mistakes and be safe. That is such a unique thing because in General Education classrooms, sometimes children who struggle can fly under the radar and develop behaviors to avoid or escape work. So it’s a whole other consciousness to have, to make sure that we are building a classroom community to be seen and safe with each other.

Students feel supported in my classroom because I set the expectation that we accept what everyone brings. And I don’t assume that my students are empty vessels. [Read more about building on students’ cultural knowledge to enhance their learning.]

Sometimes you have to forgo the sequenced lesson plan. You still want to have rigor and you want to see students reach grade level standards and believe they can get there. But you also want to build community. As those positive relationships develop, you’re able to move forward with academics more effectively, without classroom dynamics that impede their learning.

Without a safe, nurturing, supportive classroom environment, you’re not going to have learning. You have to build trusting relationships. That’s a big part of creating a culturally responsive classroom. 

We recently heard from Special Education teachers who use The Shadow Project programs, like yourself, who said that Goal Setting helps them resist White Supremacy, by encouraging students to set goals that are personally meaningful to them and not rooted in harmful norms around learning.

LH: That’s interesting. Yes, you can really personalize goals and introduce the whole concept to children at such an early age and it’s not only around academics, but personal goals too. I ask students, What do you want to be able to do or do better? It’s usually a hobby that they are interested in, and I turn that into an opportunity to introduce goal-setting to help with their IEP goals or academic goals.

The Shadow Project supports my students to build a growth mindset.

I give them an opportunity to share, by asking What went well today? It’s kind of like an exit ticket. I want to show them that they met the expectation and did well, but also have them be mindful and reflect on their accomplishments. And when I give them my own feedback and award them “Shadow Bucks” for working hard and making progress on their goals, it deepens that trust.

To learn more about The Shadow Project’s school programs, visit our page: https://www.shadow-project.org/school-programs/ 

Sign up for our newsletter