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4 Steps Toward a More Inclusive Curriculum

Today's guest post is written by Sarah J. Donovan, Ph.D., is the author of Genocide Literature in Middle and Secondary Classrooms: Rhetoric, Witnessing, and Social Action in a time of Standards and Accountability (2017. Routledge).

Most of America's public schools are wrapping up another school.  Teachers are settling into summer vacation. But instead of lounging poolside (or while lounging poolside), many teachers are on Facebook and Twitter in virtual book groups posting questions about how best to help readers who are "below" grade level or how to communicate better with parents. Many teachers are spending their own money to join workshops and attend conferences desperate to be better and do better for the students with whom we are entrusted.

But in between posts and Tweets about standards, teachers are also reading updates of a mass shooting, Congressional sit-in, and failed comprehensive immigration reform, and we can't help but think of our students and the world they are growing up in. Our social media chatter shifts towards lessons on diversity and empathy.

Tragedy has a way of doing that, right? Bringing people together to talk about that which is typically hidden or marginalized or too unpleasant or unfamiliar to discuss. But our curriculum needs to always include a multitude of voices and lived experiences--not just in times of tragedy.

An inclusive curriculum promotes an understanding that within any group - racial, ethnic, religious, class, ability, gender, sexual orientation --there are variations, and that among groups, there are similarities. However, an inclusive curriculum is not just a checklist of texts, films, and articles about difference. An inclusive curriculum considers who produced the content, the accessibility of the content's form, how students make sense of the content, and the freedom for students to read about themselves and stretch into discovering a world beyond their own.

Here are four steps you can take to make your classroom more inclusive next school year:

Inventory Your Current Curriculum
You have to start with an inventory of what you have in your classroom and in your current curriculum. With each text, film, poem, and article, ask yourself which race, ethnicity, religion, class, ability, gender, sexuality and even region (e.g., urban, suburban) is represented and who is doing the representing?

For example, in my middle school English class, we read Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen, a first person historical novel about a fifteen year old Maya girl in Guatemala who survived a campaign of deliberate genocide against the Maya peoples. Reading was a way of bearing witness to a life so distant from our own.

Mikaelsen, a white author, based this story on an interview with a genocide survivor, but the question remains as to why the survivor was not able to tell her own story. And from this question emerged deep discussions of the credibility of the story but also literacy among indigenous people, specifically women. We noticed "intersectionality," the intersection of gender and ethnicity, in the main character who was Maya and female, which put her in a less privileged position in her society.

Our discussion of representation in Tree Girl extended to reading novels featuring characters with ability difference (e.g., One-Handed Catch, Anything But Typical, A Time to Dance, Mockingbird).Students not only compared their own research with the book's representation, but they researched whether the author had personal experiences with disability and shared experiences from their own families.

So when you are looking at the content of your curriculum, consider these questions:

  • Whose experience is central to the narrative?
  • Whose experiences are marginalized, hidden, absent?
  • Who is telling the experience?
  • What primary sources can fill the gaps in the story?
  • What intersections can students uncover? 

Be Inclusive in Form
I teach English language arts, but I do not restrict content to text. We analyze art, film, spoken word, and graphs.  The medium can privilege certain ways of knowing or understanding, which can exploit victims or perpetuate stereotypes. As you are considering content, be inclusive in the form.

For example, a textbook may seem neutral, but it is likely conflating alternate perspectives of "what happened."A poem may seem too short to do justice to being bicultural, but Pat Mora's "Legal Alien" is thoughtfully layered with meaning. And film brings images to a screen play but comes with the choices of the cinematographer and set and costume designers who construct a representation of race, ethnicity, religion, class, ability, gender, and sexual orientation. A film can start a conversation about how social identities are perpetuated.

Teach how the form contributes to the message, and again whose lives and experiences are privileged. Students will learn to be conscious of this rhetorical approach to thinking in your classroom but ideally in their reading and viewing beyond the classroom.

Inclusive Assessment
You don't want to undo all your inclusive efforts with oppressive methods of assessment, privileging certain ways of knowing (e.g., verbal over written, identification over analysis). Narrow forms of measurement such as multiple choice or fill-in the blank restrict thinking and silence students' reasoning and emotional responses. More qualitative forms of assessment such as journaling, annotating, discussion, and audio or film production are a more inclusive. For example, my students researched global activists (e.g., Wangari Maathai and Isatou Ceesay). While some wanted to give a speech about their research, others wanted to do a screencast or create a mural.

An Inclusive Classroom Includes Choice
Now that you've made available a range of content in various forms, make this content available for students to explore. I understand that a great deal of middle and secondary course follow a sequence, but find space in your class period for students to do inquiry on their own.

Students may start with what they know or are interested in, but as they talk to peers about their work, students will begin to stretch their interests into unfamiliar topics, lives, and places in the world.  As a member of the class, you should give short talks on people, places, books, poems, speeches, and articles. Talk about what you are reading or watching and why. Be deliberate about naming the identifiers as a way of normalizing discussions of race, ethnicity, religion, class, gender, and sexual orientation.

For instance, I talked about my first experience reading a book with a transgender character, Parrotfish, and noted how the author, Ellen Wittlinger, is not, herself transgender but did extensive research to write the novel. I talked about how the book was both a mirror and window for me: a mirror because like Grady, I did not always like doing girly things, and a window because I now had one story to help me understand how a family responds. A sibling of one of my students was transitioning at the time I talked about this book, but it was three months later when my student was ready to read Parrotfish.  

Because talking about identifiers like race and gender had become common language for our class in discussions and blogs and because the inclusive content was accessible to all students, this student was able to name what she wanted to read next and why.

For Your Summer Professional Development
Make the time to review and revise your curriculum to be more inclusive. To be clear, the standards are not your curriculum. Even if you have a strict department or required texts, you can advocate for change by taking deliberate steps to include more voices in your curriculum.

You may have to do some work here if you don't know diverse peoples in your field. That's okay. While professional development can be strategies-based and data digs, it can also be a time for expanding your content knowledge, for exploration. Check out all those diverse book lists going around social media. Do some of your own research. Make it a priority to be more inclusive in your own reading and viewing.  You'll return to your department with a wealth of ideas to share with your school, and our world will thank you for nurturing in our citizens awareness, compassion, and empathy for one another.

Sarah J. Donovan has taught  middle school English language arts for the past thirteen years and is an adjunct professor at DePaul University in adolescent development. For book recommendations or to  follow her research, go to Ethical ELA, or contact her via Twitter.

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