Montana teacher Anna Baldwin has received extensive recognition for her culturally responsive teaching. She is the recipient of the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year award, the 2012 Teaching Tolerance Award and 2011 Distinguished Educator Award from the Montana Association of Teachers of English Language Arts. Additionally, the documentary “Inside Anna’s Classroom” showcases her instruction and the way she engages students to think critically about the intersection of history, culture and literature.

Anna’s awards are impressive. What is equally impressive is how candid Anna is about how much she didn’t know when she was offered her first teaching job at the Flathead Reservation in Montana in 1999.

“I’m from the East Coast, I’m white and I had to learn a lot to do this job well,” Anna explains. “My first teaching job was at Two Eagle River School and it really was a formative experience. I had to learn really quickly about how to be sensitive and responsive to students in their background and their needs. I am forever so thankful that I got that job.”

Around the same time as Anna’s first teaching job, Montana passed a K-12 curricular mandate called Indian Education for All, requiring students to learn about the state’s first people in culturally responsive ways. As Anna puts it, “As a teacher, I grew up with this law.” She took advantage of the extensive professional development on culturally responsive teaching and continued her learning as she earned a doctorate in curriculum and instruction focusing on professional development and Indian Education for All.

What is one of Anna’s most important takeaways from her past 17 years as a teacher? “Being culturally responsive is not just about students’ ethnic backgrounds,” Anna says. “Everything I try to do is about honoring students where they are. It’s about creating relationships. That’s a big piece of culturally responsive teaching. It’s having an open mind for what kids are instead of what we think they should be.”

To start, it means building from students’ strengths and expertise. For example, one of Anna’s strategies is to tap into the local cultural experts: her students.

Anna now teaches English and History at Arlee High School also on the Flathead Reservation. Seventy percent of her students are Native American and come from different tribes across Montana, other states, and even Canada. A few years ago, Anna’s colleague from another district reached out to her about a story written about life on a reservation. According to Anna, “The story is very negative and her students didn’t understand why somebody would want to live on a reservation. My friend was looking for suggestions about ways her students could gain different perspectives. So I offered to bring my students down to her school so that her students could ask them questions.”

From there, Arlee’s Reservation Ambassadors Club was born.

The club now includes approximately 25% of the school’s student population. The Ambassadors meet with other schools from all over Montana and beyond, including Chicago, to build relationships and engage in discussions about Native American cultures, histories and experiences. This April, the club won a Program of Excellence award at the Montana Native Youth Conference.

“People have extensive stereotypes about people on reservations—my kids know it, the teachers know it, people here know it. Students are followed in stores or hear rude comments at sporting events or worse,” Anna highlights their experiences. “I tell students, ‘If you want to be part of the solution, be part of the club.’”

Through the club, students learn to lead difficult discussions with students they don’t know. They learn to pose questions, elicit responses, filter their own thoughts and frustrations during the conversations, and explain their own experiences. “They are learning leadership skills, which wasn’t necessarily expected,” says Anna. “I also didn’t expect the level of commitment students have to the club or the way they can articulate their passion for the club. Every time they get asked the question ‘why did you join the club,’ they can articulate very mature and nuanced explanations.”

In addition to building upon student strengths, Anna is relentless about meeting student learning needs. For Anna, “culturally responsive” teaching does just that.

“I teach an English Methods course at the University of Montana,” Anna explains. “And when the pre-service teachers enter my course, they have no idea that they will be teaching reading in high school. Fifty percent of their students will be struggling with reading and probably 75 percent will not like reading that much.”

Through district professional development, Anna spent about eight years learning to incorporate literacy strategies. In her school, struggling readers stay in grade-level courses with their peers and they read the same books but with additional scaffolded supports to develop their literacy skills over time. To meet students’ needs, “it takes a lot of practice and maturity as a teacher,” as Anna says.

Here’s a terrific example of Anna’s approach: Recently, in her 9th grade Montana history class, students were reading Lewis and Clark journals. Although the journals are short, the diction and syntax are difficult. Anna first tried to have students select the most important details of the journals, but students weren’t clear on what they were selecting. The next day Anna had students work in pairs to summarize the text. This time it wasn’t clear which students understood the language in the journals and which ones didn’t. On the third day, Anna had each student translate just one journal word for word directly underneath the original copy. The students then used the translation to summarize the journals.

The third day was the charm.

“After 10 minutes of my modeling the activity, students started their own translations. It was a painstaking process, but students did not complain at all. And it was a perfect indicator of their thought process and reading,” Anna explains. “For example, one student came up with ‘ruthless’ for the word ‘calculating’ in the journal. It allowed us to have a conversation about whether his translation made sense or not based on the sentence.”

“We are trying to teach all students to read difficult texts,” Anna continues. “You can’t fail 90 percent of your kids; they can’t just fail—that means I’ve failed. And I don’t believe in dumbing down the text. So even if students are in 10th grade and reading at a 5th grade level, I’m going to support them so they learn to read it.”

To put it simply, Anna says it best: “It’s about honoring students where they are.”