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C2C Digital Magazine (Fall 2021 / Winter 2022)

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Responsive teaching through open-mindedness

By Robb Scott, Multilingual Adaptive Systems Newsletter

In an online interview, Zaretta Hammond suggested that instead of mouthing the mantra "culturally responsive teaching" teachers would do well to narrow our focus to "responsive teaching," which ends up fulfilling the purpose of culturally responsive teaching anyway (Hammond, Z. & Scruggs-Hussein, T., 2020).

Figure 1.  Responsive Teaching (by harishs on Pixabay)

Universal Design for Learning -- which draws our attention to three essential aspects of responsive teaching -- may seem to offer a cookie-cutter schematic for a sophisticated approach to instruction that very nearly guarantees equity, accessibility, and achievement. Yet it is likely that UDL, while necessary, is not sufficient without at least one further key ingredient.

Don't get boxed in by your professionalism

In 2013, a new department chair took over teacher education at Fort Hays State University, where I was working at that time. His name was Adam Holden, and he started his first department meeting by reporting that in conversations with principals and superintendents in western Kansas, he had learned that our graduates were knowledgeable, meticulous, and organized, but in general lacked abilities for dealing with novel, unforeseen circumstances.

Sometimes we become so regimented, predictable, and "professional" in our work habits that we do not notice opportunities for expanding our consciousness and raising our sensitivity to implications from new data. It was like a breath of fresh air that day in August, 2013, when Adam Holden announced that he wanted our teacher education faculty to "think outside the box" and become leaders of innovative instructional practices for the whole university. What an exciting atmosphere to work in, and the momentum generated is still felt at Fort Hays.

One student's journey to a college degree

In the summer of 2018, a twenty-something young adult arrived at Rarick Hall in FHSU with mother and father for new student orientation, with the declared intention of studying in the teacher education program for a Kansas teaching license. This student had completed an associate of arts degree at a community college and had accumulated more than 70 additional credit hours during several frustrating years at two other Kansas institutions of higher education.

At one school, the student had been advised out of a teacher preparation program, and reported less than inclusive attitudes from some of the instructors. The student was determined nonetheless to continue with the effort to become a teacher, and had the support of parents, immigrants who spoke only Spanish.

Figure 2.  Winding Road (by 7089643 on Pixabay)

Fort Hays is gaining a name for itself as a university dedicated to enabling and empowering learners who may require special assistance to achieve equitable access to college-level curricula. The current president is Tisa Mason, who inspires prospective students and their parents when she recounts her own story of how a high school guidance counselor told her she was "not college material" and advised her and her parents not to even apply to colleges.

The immigrant student who appeared at orientation in the instructional resource center (IRC) at Rarick Hall that day in 2018 had thick glasses and needed to be very close to tablet and computer screens in order to read and type. It later was known that the student had experienced a stroke caused by a brain tumor at age 12, and had needed to learn to walk and to talk again after that traumatic event. English was the student's second language and there also may have been a cognitive effect from the tumor and/or stroke.

Those two semesters at FHSU were challenging for the student, instructors, and service-providers. It is possible that because of the visual impairment, the student was unable to "read" facial expressions, impacting interpersonal relationships and basic day to day communication. An unpleasant dynamic between the student and the roommate in the residence hall led to the roommate moving out and the potential that the student's parents would be charged at a higher rate for a private room. This matter was resolved by intervention of higher administration in student affairs.

There were two semesters of prerequisites before the student could apply to the teacher preparation program directly, and, while some of these courses went well, others were especially challenging for the student. What seemed to make the difference was whether professors followed a syllabus and teaching routines and expectations were dependable and predictable; in cases where an instructor operated in a more ad hoc style, the student appeared to become disoriented. One instructor complained about the student being "too needy."

Because the student had more than 150 college credit hours accumulated by the end of that fall 2018 semester, and would be facing rigorous entry requirements to be allowed to start two further years of undergraduate studies in the teacher licensure program, an adviser suggested transferring to the special B.G.S. program at FHSU, where the basic requirement is to have completed 30 credit hours at FHSU, combined with adequate coursework completed at previous institutions. Also, weekly academic counseling sessions were scheduled for the spring semester to help the student stay on track with all aspects of personal and academic success.

The student's parents almost got to see their child walk across a stage to receive a diploma at commencement in May, but there was a hiccup in the process, as alluded to in the following quote in an e-mail from the student's adviser.

I want to thank especially YYYYY, in the Registrar’s Office, who not only evaluated Xochi’s transcript to determine eligibility for the BGS degree, but also recently held [the student's] hand as tears flowed while they were discussing the new reality in light of Xochi’s not passing that one class. I also am grateful to ZZZZZ and WWWWW for working so hard to support Xochi in schoolwork during this past year. It was a wonderful glimpse into the potential success of Xochi during the first four weeks of the spring semester when [the student] was meeting weekly with a counselor from the Kelly Center to discuss academic and personal life; there was such an improvement in [the student's] organization, self-concept, and sense of having it together for those several weeks before [the student] missed a meeting and the schedule never got arranged again.

                      (R.B. Scott, personal communication, May 24,  2019)

Providing reasonable accommodations

It has got to be disorienting for a student when their requests for reasonable accommodations are embraced by one instructor and then ignored or rejected by another. As one example, in that spring semester the student had projects to present in two classes on the same day, and prepared an Adobe Spark presentation for each one. In the first class, upon discovering that the smart-room technology was not compatible with that program, the student was allowed by the instructor to show  work directly from a personal computer; on the same day, a different instructor refused to allow the student to use that computer—even though the audience was just one other student and the instructor—and then penalized the student on the grade for that assignment because the presentation was too short. In another class, with another teacher the previous semester, the instructor kept interrupting the student and refusing to let the student give a speech, because the student had brought into the topic information and ideas that had not been covered in the textbook.

This culturally and linguistically diverse young adult with a significant disability did manage to complete an online course from the family home during the summer of 2019 and received by mail a Bachelor of General Studies diploma from Fort Hays State University. Today the student is in a third year of working in a school as a para-educator and also is on track to complete a master's degree at another university. The following is a recent text message exchange between the student and the former adviser.

On Sat, Nov 27, 2021 at 8:30 PM Xochi wrote:

Grad school is going well. I got 2 As in my first two graduate courses. I am also getting OT from [CARF-accredited comprehensive educational, vocational and therapeutic service provider]  so that I can try to get into the drivers ed course for low vision people. I am also working with Saturday academy. My advisor at YYY said that I can look forward to graduating in may of 23. I am so determined to make that happen.

Sun, Nov 28, 8:43 AM
to Xochi:

You and your parents have so much to be happy and proud of.
God bless you, Xochi, and all of your positive efforts towards your goals!


(R.B. Scott, personal communication, November 27-28, 2021)

When a person spends time with an individual and is able to see that he or she struggles even to visualize an entire line of text or the shape of a paragraph, or that editing means getting down close to the screen in order to reposition an apostrophe or a comma, or fix a spelling error, we can start to appreciate the motivation and persistence that drives a person to aspire and achieve in the face of physical, health-related, emotional, and attitudinal obstacles.

Non-judgmental teaching

I studied a course on teacher observation with John Fanselow, who promoted an approach he called “non-judgmental teaching,” popularized in the textbook we used for that class (Fanselow, J.F., 1992). The basic idea is to raise our awareness of the extent to which many of our utterances are value judgments, such as “good work,” and as instructors it is easy to slip into routines that set up and maintain a hierarchy in which we are all-knowing authority figures telling students whether they have met our expectations and given the “right answer.” By striving to remove this aspect from our communication with learners, suggested Fanselow, our exchanges would be focused more directly on teaching and learning.

What caused tears and disappointment for Xochi and the reason the parents came to campus to pick their child up just for the trip home instead of experiencing commencement festivities was a failing grade given to the student by the instructor who had refused to allow an alternate presentation format on the last day of class and then informed the student that that zero meant not passing the course.


Certainly trials and challenges like this can serve to strengthen a student’s resolve and in this case it is obvious that this is a student whose life trajectory already demonstrates incredible self-determination skills. But just imagine the potential effects of more thoughtful, more responsive approaches to teaching and learning. In the hands of a reflective, sensitive teacher, educational technology can become a tool for removing barriers and facilitating progress.


I studied courses with Ann Knackendoffel on collaboration and on interventions for students with learning disabilities.  In explaining UDL to me, she said that it makes learning easier for all students and there are some students for whom it makes learning possible. Key UDL principles -- multiple formats of  presentation, multiple formats of assessment, and multiple formats of engagement -- have made every difference in Xochi's academic successes. I would go so far as to say that those same principles have been key to my own results as a learner also.


Fanselow, J.F. (1992). Contrasting conversations: Activities for exploring our beliefs and teaching practices. Prentice Hall.

Hammond, Z. & Scruggs-Hussein, T. (2020, July 13).  Equity-based conversation. Coalition of Schools Educating Mindfully.

About the Author

Robb Scott is an educational consultant and the founding editor of the Multilingual Adaptive Systems Newsletter. As a member of the Consortium of Low-Incidence Teacher Preparation Programs (CLIPP) he was instrumental in the development of the new K-6 Unified Elementary Education licensure standards for the State of Kansas. He served two terms for a total of six years on the KSDE Special Education Advisory Council (SEAC) and numerous times on accreditation teams for special education and ESOL programs. Dr. Scott has taught in Ecuador, Japan, and Saudi Arabia, and is a registered English Language Specialist with the U.S. Department of State English Language Programs. He served as webmaster and as president at both Kansas TESOL and Kansas CEC. He taught five years at Kansas State University and 12 years at Fort Hays State University, from which he retired in 2021.

A Note about Permissions:  The author acquired permission from the student to use the first name, as is represented here.  The co-editors would like to extend their thanks to the student. 

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