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4 keys to improving representation in classroom content

Jenni Torres
May 19, 2021

Insights is a SmartBrief Education Originals column that features perspectives from noted experts and leaders in education on hot-button issues affecting schools and districts. All contributors are selected by the SmartBrief Education editorial team.

Children, families and communities have stories unique to their journey, and all of those experiences exist within the broader context of the history we share. For too long, curriculum has presented children with an incomplete view of this shared past by failing to include all of our voices and perspectives. The youngest learners must understand their place in the world, develop an understanding of the events that created current circumstances, and recognize the consequences of past choices that led to failures and successes.

Learning only one point of view does not provide students with the context they need. Curriculum reform is necessary if we hope to provide our children with an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and solve future problems. Here are a few suggestions to begin working toward a more inclusive curriculum today.

Auditing your existing curriculum

The process of auditing curriculum content helps educators understand gaps in representation, voices missing, and content that needs to be reviewed. Before an audit can begin, teams must establish their own expectations and the guidelines for the curriculum that they hope to build. Once a team has the end goal in mind, they can begin to create a rubric or tool to support the review with a standardized lens. The rubric should highlight guiding principles such as broad, asset-based representation; factual details for historical events; authentic cultural context; variety of perspectives offered in literature and historical details; and more. 

It is also essential to prioritize including a diverse team to complete the audit process. Any audit that is completed by a team with only one perspective will not result in a holistic view of the curriculum.

Choosing a more universal curriculum

Just as we are always learning best practices for effectively instructing students, curriculum designers are always finding new resources and voices to include in their design. School and district leaders should spend time outlining their own principles in relation to the population of students they serve and then reviewing curriculum based upon those priority guidelines.

It’s also a good idea to ensure that all voices, such as parents, students, and teachers, are represented on the request-for-proposal team along with leaders within a school or district. Setting aside time to learn about a curriculum designer team’s guiding principles for development and the ways in which they audit their own content is also important.

Identifying a curriculum developed with a specific commitment towards including a diverse array of experiences and a wide range of representation is the first step. This is only the beginning though. A universal curriculum must include a continuous commitment to ongoing learning and development in collaboration with communities being served by the content.

Even with reviews and alignments to standards, an organization’s commitment to their ongoing learning and continuous improvement is essential. If school and district leaders can work in partnership with curriculum teams, they’re more likely to be investing in organizations that are committed to building diverse learning experiences for children.

Teaching a more universal curriculum

Educators need support when learning how to implement, create, and modify curriculum to meet the needs of the students they serve. Learning specifics about the populations of students within their community is often a missing piece for teachers. Seeking out perspectives that have historically been missing from conversations about past events, and giving teachers access to these experiences, can help build their own understanding about how we must be intentional as we present content to children. 

Giving teachers specific support to guide classroom conversations and time to role-play and practice is also important, as is creating opportunities for adults to explore their own biases and blindspots. If we hope to change the ways in which our children learn about diversity and how to include everyone in conversations, then we must model this by supporting the ongoing learning for the adults who interact with them each day.

Teachers themselves can model perspective-taking and supplement curriculum with the experiences of those who may not already be represented. For example, if a class is learning about their own community, they may not think to interview those who live near them. Incorporating real-life examples into the curriculum creates a greater chance that the ideas will be culturally relevant to students and families. 

After interviewing members of the community, the teacher could model the practice of checking to verify that all voices are heard. The children might remember that they did not include the voice of their local mail person or librarian. They could then make the effort to interview those community members and learn how important each person is when researching and investigating a topic.

Welcoming families into a more universal curriculum

Families are essential members of a school community, and throughout the pandemic, we have learned just how important caregivers are to a child’s success. They also have lived experiences, cultural collateral, and knowledge that should be incorporated into learning experiences within the school. Often, schools invite families for international day or career night, which is a great beginning; however, asking them to be a part of all school choices and initiatives is a more intentional way of bringing community voices into decisions that impact children and learning. We simply do not know what we do not know. We must seek out support from others who might illuminate our perspective and shine a light on the ways we could more effectively impact children.

There are even plenty of examples where children and families create books or resources together that become part of the curriculum of the school. This is definitely a two-way support system that must be built on strong, trusting, authentic relationships. Communities and school leaders bear the responsibility of creating an environment where those relationships can flourish. The best way to begin to instill trust is to ensure families see themselves represented in and respected by the content their children are learning. 

Jenni Torres, the senior vice president of curriculum and instruction at Waterford.org, is a passionate curriculum designer and educator who manages the development of research-based content, correlations to standards, and creation of teacher and family resources. During fifteen years in the classroom, Jenni was selected by the U.S. State Department as a Fulbright Exchange Teacher for Uruguay and was awarded Teacher of the Year honors at the school, county and district levels. You can connect with her on LinkedIn or follow her on Twitter.

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