Building Relationships Linguistically: Using code switching to meet students on their cultural turf


Julia Torres



Denver Center for International Studies - Montbello

To use code switching to:

  • build relationships between teachers and students by cultivating a classroom environment that values students' backgrounds and cultures.

  • support students' academic language acquisition by drawing upon their informal language use.

  • increase students' confidence in their identities and styles of expression to support academic growth.


Relationships and Culture, Evolving Learner and Teacher Roles



Julia Torres is an English teacher at the Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello (DCIS-M). She has been teaching at DCIS-M since 2014.

Julia began her career in education as a para-educator in a school in Utah. One of Julia's friends at the school asked her if she would like to take over in teaching for the day. Julia stepped into the classroom on a whim, but soon realized that she had discovered a passion for teaching. She went on to get a Master's in curriculum and instruction and another Master's in English Literature. She now teaches AP English Language, AP Literature, and Concurrent Enrollment English.

The school leader at DCIS-M approached Julia about participating in Growth Through Connections, a program that helps teachers bridge the cultural divide to better connect with and teach their students.  

After participating, Julia noted:

"Because I am a Black, female educator, a lot of [Emdin's] practices are things I already have done for a long time. [...] But I think I’m more intentional as a result of reading the book and really trying to always make sure that my beliefs line up with my practices."

The Growth Through Connections Program was designed to help teachers reflect on their beliefs and biases so that they may build strong connections with students and provide learning experiences that are joyful, rigorous, and personalized. Research has proven that in order for students to realize their full potential, two factors must be present. First, students must have strong relationships with their teachers that are based on respect, trust and an understanding of what makes each person -- the student and teacher -- tick. Second, students must see their learning as relevant and meaningful; students must authentically relate to their experiences throughout a school day.

Each Growth Through Connections participant chose a practice from Dr. Emdin’s book, For White Folks that Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y'all Too, to implement in their classroom. Julia has been implementing many of these strategies since she began teaching, but thinks that learning more about them through Growth Through Connections has caused her to be more intentional.

What is code switching?

One of the strategies that Julia is implementing is code switching. Code switching is defined as alternating or mixed use of two or more languages, especially within the same discourse. In his book For White Folks who Teach in the Hood...and the Rest of Y’all Too, Dr. Christopher Emdin asserts that code switching is a complex skill in which someone “reads the codes or rules of engagement in a particular social field, identify which ones have value, adopt them, enact them, and then through this process form powerful connections to new people.” (Emdin, 2016, p. 175)

Dr. Emdin argues for “an authentic code switching that involves valuing oneself and one’s culture while appreciating and understanding the codes of other cultures. It involves fluidly navigating multiple spaces and, in the process, creating new codes that embrace a more hybridized identity.” (Emdin, 2016, p. 178)

Hear Dr. Emdin talk about the importance of connecting with students’ cultures to better understand them:

One of the ways that Dr. Emdin uses code switching is through his use of hip hop while teaching. By using hip hop to convey content, he is able to engage his students in a way that acknowledges their backgrounds and cultures and makes the content relevant to their lives and futures

"Teaching is essentially about meeting the person that you want to share information with on their own cultural turf. Where is it that they're embedded? What are the examples that mean something to them? The educator has to be able to enter the learner's mind and be aware of how they view the world." 

“How can we disrupt the systems at play to best serve our kids? If that’s your essential question, you will do whatever it takes to find the answer [...] and you’re gonna listen. It’s not about being the expert, which we’re used to being as teachers, and you can’t be coming at it from that place.” 

-Julia Torres

Video Interviews

How are you using code switching?

Julia's students understand that there is academic language that they have to use when discussing content, but they can also use their more "informal" mix of English and Spanish during class. Students learn to switch between these languages, but also understand that within Julia's class, they can speak freely in the style of speech that is most comfortable to them. Julia also ties code switching in to the content she teaches, which helps student connect more with what they're learning. One example of this is that she teaches How to Tame a Wild Tongue, a story about language suppression. This story conveys the importance of the connection between language and identity and helps students who have felt similar language suppression connect with the content. 

How has code-switching impacted your classroom?

Because of her implementation of these practices, Julia's students feel safe and welcome in her classroom. Her students know that they can express criticisms and concerns about her teaching practices and that she is a figure they can trust in the school. Safety and trust are important in creating a community in the classroom. Julia creates this environment by cultivating a family within her classroom and being intentional about always accepting students for who they are. She has heard from her students that she is an important figure in their lives and that they don't have this connection with other teachers. 

What advice do you have for other teachers?

Julia's advice for other teachers doing this work is to be humble and curious and to create an honest environment in the classroom. She owns up when she makes mistakes and always reflects on her processes by talking to students and analyzing her practices. For white teachers, she advises listening to students about their experiences and reading more about race relations in order to better understand how their race and privilege impact their teaching practices and relationships with students of color. 

Student Reflections

Daniel, an 11th grader in Julia's class, talks about the environment she creates in her classroom. He feels like she values her students' opinions and perspectives and teaches her students to do the same.


Jailin, an 11th grader in Julia's class, discusses the connection she has with Julia and the skills she feels like she is learning in her class.


Deon, another 11th grader in Julia's class, talks about how Julia's class has helped to change his mindset. He likes how Julia always tries to understand her students on a deeper level.


Jailin and Daniel discuss how code switching is used in Julia's class to create a more comfortable environment. They discuss how they change their language to fit certain situations.


Ways to Incorporate Code Switching into Class Content


How to Tame a Wild Tongue

A short story by Gloria Anzaldua, How to Tame a Wild Tongue mixes English with different dialects of Spanish to demonstrate how identity is tied to language. This story exhibits how one woman's use of Spanish was policed and censored and how the suppression of her language was a suppression of her identity and culture. This story works well for all students to read, but works particualrly well for students who speak Spanish and are taught that English is the only language that can be used at school. 


The Poet X  

A novel by Elizabeth Avecedo, The Poet X is written in verse to use slam poetry to convey the main character's thoughts and feelings. It also mixes English and Spanish, making this another story well-suited for bilingual students. 


The Discourse Wall

Another way to use code switching in a classroom is to create a discourse wall. This involves demonstrating how complex terms and vocabulary from the content can be translated into more informal language or slang. This deepens students' understanding of class content while making connections to their cultures. Students then relate to the information more and feel like their backgrounds have been recognized and validated within the classroom. 

Dr. Emdin describes this as "an opportunity for conventional language to be valued while introducing youth to new words that may be outside of their lexicon but have the same meaning. This process involves creating a classroom chart that includes words used in both informal and formal settings. Youth then learn how to navigate between the two.”


How to Create and Use a Discourse Wall

1. Create a chart within the classroom with three columns labeled: "English," "Science," and "Slang." 

2. Have a conversation with your students about each of these three categories and what they entail. Ask students what the connotations are of each category, which words are accepted in what contexts, and how students navigate their shifting language use in these different contexts.

3. Populate new entries within the chart that demonstrate the different ways that the same word or phrase can be conveyed across the three categories. This will help students develop a richer vocabulary and make personal connections to the content.

4. Engage in whole class "imagination exercises" where students must imagine certain situations and contexts and speak in the language they would use, such as how they'd speak at an academic conference versus how they'd speak to a friend. 

This is an example of a discourse wall from Dr. Emdin's book. This one uses three types of language to show students how language they are familiar with in their everyday life has context in academics.

Here is another example of a discourse wall in a US History classroom. Vocabulary words are translated into Spanish and given an academic definition and a less formal association.

Coach's Reflections


Zach Serrano is the Dean of Culture at DCIS-M. He used to co-teach with Julia and notes that she emphasizes building relationships with her students and developing their academic mindset. He notes that the classrooms that are incorporating Growth Through Connections feel different from other classrooms.

Lynn Hawthorne, an Innovation Partner with the Imaginarium, has worked with Julia throughout her participation in the Growth Through Connections work. She reflected on her practices and stated:

"You know you are in the presence of a master teacher grounded in culturally responsive pedagogy when you enter Julia's classroom. She attends to every aspect of nurturing and empowering her students from the lighting, to the way she greets students, to the type of work students engage in. Code-switching is just one strategy she uses to bridge students' home culture and language to the literature they read in the classroom."


Special thanks to...

Julia Torres, Zach Serrano, DCIS Montbello, and the Janus Henderson Foundation for engaging in this challenging work to close our persistent achievement gap and to help every student succeed.

Report by Molly Baird, Danna Ortiz, and Sophie Gullett.

Emdin, C. (2016). For white folks that teach in the hood ...and the rest of y'all too. Boston: Beacon Press.