“Why didn’t you use your flesh color to color in the picture?”
“I did! I used the flesh colored pencil. Did I not do it right?”
“Well, peach isn’t your flesh color. You should use one of the browns.”
“Oh. I never knew my skin color was flesh, too.”
“‘Flesh’ just means ‘skin.’ It’s ok. I’ll give you another picture and you can try again.”
This conversation took place between an African-American fourth grader and her teacher in a North Carolina classroom over fifteen years ago. The student, now in her late 20s, still remembers it. While seemingly minuscule, the short exchange inspired an awakening in that child: she, too, had a place in the school curriculum—and the world.
What effect will equitable curricula have on students of all backgrounds? How can educators and administrators be at the helm of delivering equity in curricula?”
The classroom as a mirror
That child was the only African-American student in her class, one of only three in the fourth grade, and one of fewer than ten in the elementary portion of her K–12 school. Few if any of the books, topics, or characters she encountered reflected her brown skin, curly hair, or family background.
This is commonplace in classrooms across the country even today. As early reports of the 2020 census indicate, the majority of students beginning school that fall will be from minority backgrounds. And though our country’s demographics are rapidly changing, the increase of children of color, with disabilities, and from varied socioeconomic backgrounds has not always been the harbinger of intentional efforts to write curricula with an equity lens.
Teachers do so much in their classrooms and with their students to ensure that the next generation is comprised of curious, compassionate, and informed adults. They bring curricula to life and serve as positive role models in children’s lives. But it can be difficult to teach what you do not know or understand.
Simply put, what happens in the classroom can have a lasting effect on the psyche and well-being of a child.”
The teaching profession has historically been—and still remains—a field dominated by white, middle-class women. Many of these teachers may have the best intentions when it comes to building a classroom that accounts for all their students in an equitable way. But it’s possible that, for some of them, the privilege that’s inherent in being white and middle class could make it difficult for them to know how to reach children who are different from them.
The questions we must ask yourselves now are these: What effect will equitable curricula have on students of all backgrounds? How can educators and administrators be at the helm of delivering equity in curricula? I’ll dig into that first question now and tackle the second one in an upcoming post.
Equity serves everyone
Research has shown that an equity approach to curriculum design benefits all students, not just students or teachers of color. When the teacher workforce is diverse and curricula include stories, history, and characters from various backgrounds, children will thrive. For children of all ages and levels of development, equity in curricula can do three critical things:
- Enrich language, reasoning, writing, discussion, and literacy skills by creating opportunities for conversations on different perspectives and challenging belief systems
- Increase engagement among students by helping them feel connected to a curriculum that honors their story and background
- Improve school climate and safety by giving students a sense of belonging and collective responsibility in the classroom
A curriculum that misrepresents history or does not introduce opportunities for students to engage positively in their own learning can be a disservice to students. However unintended, the consequences may be disengagement, a lack of connection, identity issues, and low self-esteem. That same fourth grader I mentioned might have become deeply self-conscious as she grew, handicapped by a powerful myth that she just wasn’t good enough, had it not been for that conversation with her teacher. Simply put, what happens in the classroom can have a lasting effect on the psyche and well-being of a child.
I’ll explore how both administrators and teachers can go about designing more equitable curricula in an upcoming post.