Having a diverse curriculum with an emphasis on social justice has always been a draw for me as a teacher. These are topics that I remember being so interested in when I was in high school, because it’s about school being relevant, and when it’s relevant and interesting, students are going to pay more attention, and they’re going to learn more. That’s always been a part of my thought process choosing books for my classes. And as long as I’ve been at Moreau, there are innumerable examples of many of our teachers intentionally implementing a Culturally Responsive Curriculum (CRC) within their classrooms. It’s always been here, but from my view, sort of in pockets here and there, not promoted very publicly, or focused in subjects where it seems “easier” to bring in diverse voices (humanities/social studies mostly).
In the last few years, I think more teachers (at least I know I have) have been opening their eyes more and trying to empathize with the experiences of students of color in our classrooms, and understand how it must feel to not see yourself represented in the curriculum, and to know that a lot of what you’re being taught is leaving out SO much about non White people and their histories, achievements, etc. So, for example, we’ve seen more math and science teachers working to present diverse examples of professionals and “heroes” within their respective fields and to apply their problem solving and experiments to modern day problems. And English curriculum has continued to shift more and more toward CRC-based literature choices.
When the protests erupted this summer, I immediately started thinking about how our role as teachers is so significant in the big picture of what’s happening with so much blatant, deadly racism and bias plain to see in our newsfeeds and televisions. We teachers are a huge part of the “system” we talk about when we say “systemic racism.”
I scheduled a rare June English department meeting partly because of planning ahead for the fall’s pandemic reopening plans, but also to discuss how what was going on in the news with the Black Lives Matter movement was impacting our curriculum planning for the fall, particularly our choice of novels and other texts for students to read. I think every single English teacher has made at least some changes to their curriculum in response to the movement. One example in my own class, English 11, is that I have decided to eliminate a nonfiction text called Into the Wild, about a young White man’s journey to live outside society’s rules only to wind up dying in the Alaskan wilderness alone – a great story with important lessons to learn, but carries with it a very privileged perspective about personal freedom in America that not many of our students can relate to. I am replacing that book with another nonfiction text, Claudette Colvin: Twice Toward Justice, about a young black teenager who refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in the Jim Crow South, before Rosa Parks did the same, though Colvin’s story is much less well known. Students will learn about a different kind of risk taking than the man in Into the Wild, one that might seem much more relevant to the current times.
In our department meetings and discussions, we all agree that as much as teachers are part of the “system” that keeps White supremacy going in this country, we also have an incredible opportunity as English teachers, specifically, to be active participants in this movement for a better society. We are the bearers of stories to our students! We get to choose which stories we share with our students, to expand their perspectives, and ensure that they see themselves represented, and that they get to discuss topics that they care about and that directly affect their lives. We also get to teach them how to hone their communication skills such as writing and speaking, which are so essential for them to be able to use their voices to make this world a better place. We want to see all of our students feeling comfortable and ready to get up and do a TED Talk in their senior year, or become an activist for their own cause, or speak up when they or someone they know has been treated unfairly and know that they’ll be heard. Most importantly, we want all of our students, especially our African American students who may be especially struggling right now, to know that they matter, that they are loved, and that we are preparing them for the great things they will do with their lives and for our world.
English Department Chair