Where Crafting Fiction Meets Cultural Responsiveness

Piece of Paper for crafting fiction

This post delves into an important writing prompt, a crucial read, and how both influence me as an educator and writer. 

I joined Teachers Write! (a free, online, writing course created by author Kate Messner) hoping to foster a latent story-telling ability (Bear with me, I will get to the read!). I’m both unpracticed and uncertain about writing fiction. Nonetheless, come nervousness or foot-dragging I go to the keyboard each day, and write. Until last Wednesday’s assignment. I almost decided not to do it. I re-read it. Read the comments. Walked away. Came back. Read it again. Finally, I tried it out.

It’s not that the other assignments have been easy, they haven’t. But this one was particularly challenging. You see, author Christina Diaz Gonzalessaid to craft “authentic diverse characters…someone unlike you or your background”. My mind immediately went to differences in race, culture, and language. Differences that are complicated. Differences that I’ve been thinking alot about due to Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, by Zaretta Hammond.


Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain
click to purchase

For me, this book has been a game-changer. Truth be told, I’m only half-way through it. However, I can already feel the affects it is having on me as an educator and writer. Here’s a little bit about that.

Culture is critical in the school-lives of students, teachers, and families.

Sounds pretty simple, right? Yet in Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain it becomes profound. This is because Hammond demystifies what culture is, why it affects us, and how teachers can guide students in culturally responsive ways.  She does this by pulling back the curtain on the link between our neurology, our hormones, and our views of the world. For teachers, these links are paramount to “getting dependent students of color ready for rigor” (p.34).

Light-bulb-moment – One of the ahas from this book is having a way to categorize and articulate different layers of culture: surface, shallow, and deep.

  • Surface focuses on “observable and concrete elements…such as food, dress, music, and holidays” (p. 22).
  • Shallow “is made up of unspoken rules around everyday social interactions and norms…Nonverbal cummunication that builds rapport and trust…comes out of shallow culture” (p.22).
  • Deep envelops our “unconscious assumptions that govern our worldview…[and has] an intense emotional charge” (p.23).

In teaching – For a long time I had an inkling that adding features of surface culture to a classroom or school might be beneficial, but wasn’t enough.  Understanding cultural layers provides a framework for seeing our students as more than what they celebrate, wear, eat, or listen to. While these things are important, we need to get at the shallow and deep layers so that we can provide instruction that all brains will react to. Fortunately Hammond’s book provides a framework for how to do just that!

In writing – This is critical information when writing about characters that are different from ourselves. It might be easy to research surface layers of culture. But how do we go about excavating the shallow and deep culture of our characters? For me this is an important question, because I believe that without including these layers we run the risk of “unwittingly writing something that might be construed as offensive, inaccurate, or demeaning” (Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Teachers Write, 7/15/15). Lucky for us, in a teacher-writer-friendly-way, Ms. Gonzalez has shared valuable tips and tools for our use.

There is more to write about Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain than I could possibly include in one post. However, I want to share a few more salient topics so that you run out and by this book, now. It will definitely change you.

Additional Topics

  • The effects of socio-political context on intellectual apartheid and dependent learners
  • How poverty is not a culture, and why we need to view it differently
  • Cultural archetypes that all teachers (and teacher-writers) should understand
  • A framework for being a culturally responsive teacher
  • The importance of letting diverse students know we care, and doing so in ways they can relate to
Moving Target     The Red Umbrella     a Thunderous Whisper
Click books to purchase

I also want to highlight the wisdom of author Christina Diaz Gonzalez, and encourage you to read her works. In giving us an assignment to create characters that are different from us, Gonzalez validates the experiences of all children and readers. “We need books that reflect all the faces and facets of the world we live in and you should be writing about them”, she says (Teachers Write, 7/15/15). So thank you, Ms. Gonzalez, for opening my eyes to a new ways of crafting characters. And thank you for sparking deeper thought about working with students to include diversity in their writing.

For more on Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain

#edaware – July 2015 join the 8pm CST Sunday Twitter chat

www.ready4rigor.com – Zaretta Hammond’s website/blog

Ready4Rigor Facebook group – Member’s only group started by Zaretta Hammond

For more on diverse writing and books

The Importance of Diversity in Library Programs and Material Collections for Children – white paper from the American Library Association on why diverse collections are needed and what librarians can do

We Need Diverse Books™ – “a grassroots organization of children’s book lovers that advocates essential changes in the publishing industry to produce and promote literature that reflects and honors the lives of all young people”

Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books? – opinion piece on getting past fear about writing diverse characters, by author Roni Lonin in Huff Post Books


8 thoughts on “Where Crafting Fiction Meets Cultural Responsiveness

  1. I’m also participating in Teachers Write. I love many of the posts, and I am enjoying working on fiction for a change. I also like the idea of gaining a better more deeper understanding of those whose culture is different from mine. In reading your blog post, I’m really curious about what author meant by “getting dependent students of color ready for rigor.” I was wondering in what context the statement was made. I’m not sure how to interpret it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Michele –
      Thank you for the response. What a wonderful question you’ve asked. I’ll respond by sharing quotes from the book. I’d also like to iinvite you to join the Twitter chat #edaware 8 pm CST this coming Sunday. Your thoughtfulness would be a good fit for the chat. You can take part or “lurk”. Zaretta Hammond (Twitter @ready4rigor) author of Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain has been joining the chat. It’s extremely insightful.

      I hope to see you there, or back here, to discuss more!

      See quotes below:

      “Classroom studies document the fact that underserved English learners, poor students, and students of color routinely receive less instruction in higher order skills development than other students…This type of instruction denies students the opportunity to engage in what neuroscientists call productive struggle that actually grows our brainpower…As a result, a disproportionate number of culturally and linguistically diverse students are dependent learners.” (p. 12-13)

      “dependent doesn’t mean deficit. As children enter school, we expect that they are dependent learners. One of our key jobs in the early school years is to help students become independent learners…but we still find a good number of students who struggle with rigorous content well into high school, mostly students of color.” (p. 13)

      “A systemic approach to culturally responsive teaching is the perfect catalyst to stimulate the brain’s neuroplasticity so that it grows new brain cells that help students think in more sophisticated ways.”


  2. I appreciate Michelle’s question. It’s within the context of closing the achievement gap that I talk about how inequity in education leaves many students of color falling behind grade level, with low reading, writing and math skills. They struggle and are dependent learners who relay on the teacher to provide excessive scaffolding and to carry most of the cognitive load during instruction. There is a lot of talk about closing the achievement gap in education. Too often the remedy is to simply add more rigorous standards, but this approach ignores the fact that we have not given struggling students of color the higher order thinking skills, critical reading, and the analytical writing skills to be successful with more rigorous content. Hence, they are not “ready for rigor.” That’s where culturally responsive teaching comes in. It’s about empowering culturally and linguistically diverse students to become independent learners. It is able to help students build the skills that help them accelerate their own learning. It’s not just an engagement or motivational strategy. It’s true power is in building a student’s brain power. That’s a long answer, but I hope it helps.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Ms. Hammond for commenting on this question about your book. I am thrilled that you are able to take the time to share more of your thinking with us in this venue. Again, it’s a true honor to be able to engage directly with you.


  3. I agree learning about students’ backgrounds on a deeper level is important so we don’t offend them with what we learn on the surface. I wonder if there’s a go-to compilation list of readings that inform and entertains us .


    • Thank you for the comment Leanne. When you ask for a “go-to compilation list of readings…” do you mean fiction texts or reading about culturally responsive teaching or something else? I’d be happy to share more than what’s at the bottom of the post if I know more about what you are looking for.


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