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The Cultural Identity of Students: What Teachers Should Know

September 21, 2005

Every student conies to the classroom with a set of behaviors and characteristics that makes him or her unique and that will affect his or her academic achievement. Banks and Banks (2005, 13) noted, “Behavior is shaped by group norms … the group equips individuals with the behavior patterns they need in order to adapt.” Furthermore, students identify with certain groups to experience a feeling of belonging. Campbell (2004) stated that students of all ages have a strong need to belong to groups, because groups provide a source of motivation.

Students may identity with certain groups because of race, social class, or religion. These categories are some of the social constructions of culture; they provide a sense of cultural identity. To enhance academic success, teachers can use information about cultural identity to create learning environments that recognize the cultural contributions of students.

Student Self-Concept

The set of beliefs that individuals hold about themselves is termed self-concept or self-image (Bennett 2003). Socializing agents- such as peer groups, media, parents, and teachers-influence the development of a positive or negative student self-concept. A positive self-concept contributes to the academic success of the student, while a poor self-concept “becomes one of the most challenging individual differences in how he or she will learn” (Bennett 2003,222).This challenge requires teachers to address a variety of social and academic needs of students.

As students develop their selfconcept during adolescence, they also develop a sense of cultural identity. “Cultural identity is adapted and changed throughout life in response to political, economic, educational, and social experiences” (Gollnick and Chinn 2002,21). An awareness of their self-concept and cultural identity provides the foundation for how students define themselves in terms of how others view them. Thus, teachers need to view students as cultural beings, embrace student diversity, and validate the cultural identity of students. In doing so, classrooms that model tolerance and appreciation of student differences will be created.

School Environment

Developing an awareness of cultural identity and how it affects education and interactions with others in school can be challenging for adolescents. Teachers must be aware of how much cultural identity influences the education of students. In addition, teachers must be cognizant that their teaching practices, their interactions with students, and their own ideas about identity influence the academic success and social development of their students. According to Tatum (1997,18), “the concept of identity is a complex one, shaped by individual characteristics, family dynamics, historical factors, and social and political contexts.”

The cultural identities of students are constructed from their experiences with the 12 attributes of culture identified by Cushner, McClelland, and Safford (2000): ethnicity/nationality, social class, sex/gender, health, age, geographic region, sexuality, religion, social status, language, ability/disability, and race. Students’ cultural identities are defined by these experiences, and students learn these identities within a culture through socializing agents (Campbell 2004). Therefore, teachers must understand that these cultural identities define who the students are.

Students can discover and share their cultural identities through writing projects that focus on their cultural heritages. The resulting writing can trigger other lessons that incorporate the cultures of students. By developing lessons that highlight students’ cultures and experiences, the teacher actively engages them in learning. Therefore, teachers are meeting the students where they are. In this way, an awareness of the cultural identity of the student affects how well the student will interact with the teacher, how well the student will interact with his or her peers, and how the student views his or her acceptance within the cultural group and within the classroom (Campbell 2004).

Student-teacher and student-student interactions are predicated on whether or not each person’s needs are met. The teacher can meet students’ needs by modeling a concerned attitude for the well-being of students and by creating a caring environment where students feel valued and appreciated. For example, a teacher may set the tone for a caring classroom environment by including students’ viewpoints in the development of classroom rules or responsibilities. A teacher also may show care and concern for students by expressing an interest in their daily or extracurricular activities. In turn, students should respond positively to a teacher who understands the cultural dynamics of the classroom. Students will strive to build a respectful rapport with the teacher because they feel that the teacher genuinely cares about them.

Multicultural Teaching

Teachers can help students feel comfortable with their cultural identity and assist them in their learning by using a multicultural teaching approach that embraces diversity in the classroom. Campbell (2004, 60) wrote, “Multicultural education should assist students as they learn and explore their changing identities.” Teachers with a multicultural education perspective can assist students through culturally relevant teaching, which Gay (2000, 1) defined as “using the cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning encounters more relevant to and effective for them.”

Culturally relevant teaching starts by the teacher getting to know students on a personal level, building teaching around the students’ interests when possible, and showcasing the talents of students and using those student gifts as teaching tools (Bennett 2003). These three areas allow the classroom to become learner- centered and promote the academic success of all students. Culturally relevant teaching, according to Bennett (2003, 257) has three underlying principals: “students must experience academic success,”"students must develop and/or maintain cultural competence,” and “students must develop a ‘critical consciousness’ through which they may challenge social injustice.” That is, teachers must empower students to succeed by providing them with a learning environment which respects their culture, embraces their diversity, and celebrates their differences. Teachers can empower students by spending more time mentoring them rather than managing them.

What is it that teachers should know?

* Our students need to belong, to be valued, and to be appreciated on a daily basis.

* Students’ cultures have value in the classroom, and these cultural identities must be validated through lessons and teaching practices.

* A philosophy that demands high expectations of all students is the beginning of empowering students for success.

The teacher’s ability to identify with students or understand the cultural identities of students is necessary for addressing the needs of every student. Therefore, teachers must learn as much as possible about their students so that they can structure activities, build curricular materials, and tap into resources that will help all students be academically successful.

“Teachers must empower students to succeed by providing them with a Learning environment that respects their culture, embraces their diversity, and celebrates their differences.”


Banks, J. A., and C. A. McGee Banks, eds. 2005. Multicultural education: Issues and perspectives, 5th ed. New York: Wiley.

Bennett, C. I. 2003. Comprehensive multicultural education: Theory and practice, 5th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Campbell, D. E. 2004. Choosing democracy: A practical guide to multicultural education, 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Cushner, K., A. McClelland, and P. Safford. 2000. Human diversity in education: An integrative approach, 3rd ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill.

Gay, G. 2000. Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Gollnick, D. M., and P. C. Chinn. 2002. Multicultural education in a pluralistic society, 6th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.

Tatum, B. D. 1997. ‘Why are all the black kids sitting together In the cafeteria?’ and other conversations about race. New York: Basic Books.

Lisa A. Jones is an Associate Professor of Multicultural Education at the University of Houston-Clear Lake. She teaches courses in Community Collaborations in Diverse Settings and Foundations of Multicultural Education. She is a member of the Zeta Omega Chapter of Kappa Delta Pi.

Copyright Kappa Delta Pi Summer 2005