Effective Instructional Practices for Diverse Learners

Using popular culture resources to engage learners.

Middle level teachers can make learning engaging by using popular culture texts. When faced with the challenge of engaging students, many teachers often struggle to create relevant learning experiences while also meeting the needs of each learner.

Four teachers at an Atlanta area school learned to integrate various aspects of popular culture into their daily lessons. During a six-week afterschool project titled Literacy Through the Arts, teachers were guided through the process of creating more engaging and interactive instructional activities. Using Common Core Standards, teachers collaborated to select a theme and popular culture resources to support and enhance their lessons.

When teachers are committed to effective interdisciplinary instructional practices, they use students’ unique characteristics, backgrounds, prior experiences, interests, and assets to make learning connections and demonstrate behaviors and attitudes that encourage and embrace cross-cultural understanding. Offering challenging but attainable cross-content and disciplinary literacy instructional activities, this article presents some of the instructional practices that were used to help diverse learners achieve a higher level of success in school.

Understanding the Problem

The numbers of adolescents who are academically, linguistically, or culturally diverse are increasing in the middle grades. Teachers must work toward understanding the differences that exist among students and use the students’ unique characteristics to make learning connections. In his article, The Myth of the Culture of Poverty, Paul Gorski warns teachers that they must understand the sociopolitical context of schooling, and address issues such as racism, poverty, and sexism through age-appropriate resources. The sociopolitical context of schools may require teachers to use creative, out-of-the-box strategies and resources to bring concepts to life.

In Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, Lisa Delpit tells us that all children should be seen as multi-dimensional beings with a complex array of hopes, dreams, aspirations, skills, knowledge, and needs. Therefore, curricula should be culturally sensitive and strategically effective with skills that will unlock the doors of power to students of diverse backgrounds. It is essential that teachers recognize the influence of the hidden curriculum—practices and policies—that make it difficult for diverse student populations to engage in and benefit from high-quality educational experiences. To address the hidden curriculum, teachers can learn to incorporate a variety of cultural components and characteristics into instructional activities by cultivating an interest in students’ cultural communities.

Teaching the Children and Not Just the Material

The first step in incorporating effective interdisciplinary instruction for diverse learners is to teach the students and not just the material by creating a bridge between the content that is taught and the prior knowledge and experiences that students have. Utilizing knowledge of students’ social, cultural and language backgrounds, teachers can incorporate students’ cultural capital into lessons and scaffold lessons by utilizing student strengths. This may take the form of an interest inventory to determine what students are interested in as well as on-going pre-assessments to determine what students know. Teachers should provide feedback to all students, avoid comments that highlight stereotypical gender roles or expectations, encourage active participation in all academic activities, and hold the same behavior expectations for boys and girls.

Change the Way Material is Presented

The second step in effective interdisciplinary instruction for diverse learners is to change the way material is presented. For academically diverse students, it is important to clarify exactly what students must know, understand and do. Students who are linguistically diverse may benefit from multimodal texts, while culturally diverse students may benefit from real-world examples.

Academically Diverse

Clarifying exactly what students must know, understand, and do begins when teachers can deconstruct standards. By identifying what students are expected to know and how they are expected to demonstrate what they know, teachers can effectively construct the instructional activities that students need to engage in to master a standard.

For example, to master CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.6-8.6, Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose, students must know “how to identify point of view or purpose,” and recognize the author’s point of view or purpose. A teacher may need to provide opportunities for students to practice identifying an author’s point of view or purpose. Additionally, students may need to understand that the author’s point of view is often revealed multiple times in a text. To conclude, the teacher must determine what students will do to demonstrate that they can identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.

Linguistically Diverse

Teachers might integrate cartoons, film, quotes, or music that students can identify with to increase student engagement and support teaching with diversity and cultural competency in mind. For example, Willow Smith’s song I am Me talks about feeling free and the liberation that she experienced with that acceptance. Letting the listener know that their validation does not define her, the teenager invites everyone to create, redo, and renew themselves. Most middle level students will be able to identify with the song’s social justice concept and the printed lyrics can be utilized as a reflective writing assignment. After hearing the song and receiving the printed lyrics, students can create a list of words, then group and label the categories, thereby developing categorization skills, building vocabulary, and activating critical thinking.

Culturally Diverse

Using texts that interest students and incorporate their home language can both honor the real-life experiences of students and create a positive learning environment in the classroom.

To guide students toward mastering the math standard “Understand that fractions are also part-whole ratios, meaning fractions are also ratios,” a math teacher used a recording of a Verizon wireless caller discussing his billing rate (http://verizonmath.blogspot.com/2006/12/verizon-doesnt-know-dollars-from-cents.html). Students were able to learn the how powers of 10 move decimals.

Quotations can be used as an opening activity, and lead to powerful discussion about critical issues. Quotations from literary giants can be paired with quotations from popular culture. For example, once students understand the central focus of a quotation they can research additional quotations that support the same focus from entertainers, actors, comedians, etc.

To explain the concept of mutualism, the science teacher played Jason Derulo’s song Whatcha Say. Playing one line at a time, the teacher questioned students, asking them to describe the relationship described in the song. With one student describing the relationship as “mutualism” the teacher provided additional information, taken directly from the text, as evidence to support the student’s claim. The teacher explained that in biology, the relationship is known as mutualism and referenced the relationship between a bird and a flower.

The literacy project provided teachers an opportunity to plan interdisciplinary lessons using popular culture texts. These teachers began to alter their perceptions of what knowledge was valuable and, as a result, gained access to students’ cultural sphere of influence. The teachers indicated that this instructional practice allowed students to remain engaged while deepening their understanding of content. Teachers also enhanced their relationship with students while they helped students understand the connection across subjects.