JEA book review: ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain’ serves as a toolkit for culture and diversity independent learning

JEA book review: ‘Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain’ serves as a toolkit for culture and diversity independent learning

By Sarah Verpooten, MJE and Kristin Taylor, CJE

This book review is first in a series of resources JEA is recommending to advisers in an effort to provide antiracist teaching resources to educators. JEA is committed to diversity, equity and inclusion in its membership and practices. See the official statement here.


Education consultant Zaretta Hammond describes herself as “a ‘boots on the ground’ teacher … a former writing teacher turned equity freedom fighter [whose] heart is forever with children and teachers in the classroom.” Hammond started her career as a writing teacher, and those years in the classroom led her to “understand how important literacy was to equity, and how neuroscience and culture should inform our instructional practice.” 

In her book “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students,” Hammond blends practical brain science with the need for awareness of individual and collective culture, arguing we cannot be effective teachers without first understanding how culture programs the brain. However, as she cautions early on, the book isn’t a “how-to guide on developing culturally responsive lesson plans in every subject area”; rather, it is “a mindset, a way of thinking about and organizing instruction to allow for greater flexibility in teaching.” 

In other words, the book is a toolkit for teachers ready to do the work of examining and leveraging “deep culture” to foster independent learning.

The book is divided into three main sections:

Part I: Building Awareness and Knowledge (Ch. 1-4)

This section begins with a discussion of dependent and independent learners and argues culturally responsive teaching (CRT) is a “powerful tool for helping students find their way out of the [achievement] gap.” Hammond examines the deep roots of culture and then links culture to neuroscience, illustrating how misunderstandings can shut down the brain and prevent learning. The section ends with concrete steps teachers can take to prepare to do this work.

Part II: Building Learning Partnerships (Ch. 5-7)

Relationships are at the heart of all good teaching. This section explores the importance of building trust between teachers and students and provides tools teachers can use to assess the state of their current classroom rapport. Hammond explores how teachers can become “warm demanders” as we forge learning alliances with our students and help them shift to a growth mindset.

Part III: Building Intellective Capacity (Ch. 8-9)

In the final two chapters Hammond provides hands-on tools, connecting the neuroscience of information processing (input, elaboration and application) to specific, culturally responsive strategies teachers can use to make learning stick. She ends with a discussion of how we can build a sense of community and connection in our classrooms to support all students of color and English learners.

Throughout the book, Hammond provides opportunities for teacher reflection. Each chapter ends with a brief summary, an “invitation to inquiry” and additional resources for those who want to know more. 

In her introduction, Hammond writes, “When we are able to recognize and name a student’s learning moves and not mistake culturally different ways of learning and making meaning for intellectual deficits, we are better able to match those moves with a powerful teaching response.” Ultimately, that is her goal: to expand teachers’ CRT vocabulary and spark conversations that help all students become independent learners.

Key takeaways

Although we found the entire book helpful, here are some key takeaways that struck us as we engaged with Hammond’s book.

Chapter 4: Preparing to be a Culturally Responsive Practitioner

Hammond asks the reader to look within to recognize and name our own Cultural Reference Points. (57) “We have the power to penalize those students who seem to be acting in ways that are inconsistent with our cultural view” but those actions may not necessarily be wrong, just different. (56) She invites teachers to explore their own triggers that activate threats in the brain so they can manage and maintain their own emotional intelligence. (65)

Chapter 5: Building the Foundation of Learning Partnerships

Because “the same areas in the brain light up whether we stub our toe or get rejected,” (76) teachers must continually build trust and rapport with all students in an alliance to keep student brains active and engaged. Hammond lists Trust Generators (79) and asks the reader to examine what points of connection they have with students. 

Chapter 6: Establishing Alliance in the Learning Partnership

As teachers, Hammond posits that we must “earn the right to demand” from our students. A combination of personal warmth and active demandingness creates a student-teacher relationship that allows a teacher to “push for excellence and stretch the student beyond his comfort zone.” (98) This role as Warm Demander moves students from dependent to independent learners and “is the social justice aspect of culturally responsive teaching.” (100)

Chapter 8: Information Processing to Build Intellective Capacity

How do we help dependent learners learn how to learn? To this point, Hammond focuses on the conditions that need to be in place to allow dependent learners to build “cognitive horsepower” (122). This chapter provides hands-on strategies to build intellective capacity — to use what we know about information processing to engage all learners: cuing the brain to pay attention, chunking information into “digestible bits,” providing time for students to “chew” the material using cognitive routines and unstructured thinking time and finally reviewing effectively to strengthen neural pathways (130). This chapter provides immediately usable strategies for culturally responsive classrooms.

Application to journalism classrooms

Reflect on these questions as you read. Please join Kristin and Sarah for a Zoom-in discussion Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 7 p.m. CDT as we explore how “Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain” can impact our student newsrooms. Sign up to participate in the Zoom-in here.


How can we make our classrooms more culturally responsive? How can we be leaders in our classrooms to welcome in students of culturally diverse backgrounds? What best practices for CRT do you already employ? What are you excited to try?

Cultural Bias and News: 

What is news? How does cultural background influence what our students believe is newsworthy? How can we encourage our students to see a broader picture beyond their cultural bias to expand coverage? Do the faces in our print or broadcast productions statistically match the cultural make up of our schools? What hierarchy, if any, exists on your staff? Do students of color occupy positions that make decisions?

Trust Generators (79)

Which of the Trust Generators come easily to you? Which are more difficult? In what ways can we build trust with our culturally diverse students so they know their opinions and participation on staff matter? How do your student editors do these things? What do we have on the walls of our newsroom that reflect back student culture to them? How does the seating arrangement foster communication and equity? 

Student Agency and Voice: (148-150)

Do our implicit biases shape who succeeds on our staff? What cultural expectations do we have of our staffers? Is there a way that we are silencing the voices of portions of the student population by not having a diverse staff? If you do have a diverse staff, how do you foster community and agency for all learners? What specific practices do you use (like helping trios, etc.) to encourage more participation and engagement from all students in your classroom?

Final Thoughts?

Kristin Taylor, SPRC Director,
Sarah Verpooten, Director-at-Large,

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