How to be an anti-racist teacher: Reduce bias in your curriculum

In my previous post, I explained how I’m redesigning my curriculum this year to give more equitable access to all my students. This big shift—Shift #1 in my year-long effort to rethink my practice—calls for me to go 100% online, ensure the curriculum is user-friendly and clear, increase transparency in my grading, and make use of multiple modalities.

The natural next step is to explore exactly what I’m teaching. Does it reinforce white supremacist beliefs? Are there things I can do to root out bias? That’s my focus for my second shift.

Shift #2: Review my curriculum for evidence of white supremacy culture

When I’ve talked to other teachers about revising curriculum for bias, I often encounter one of two ways that people think about this: 1. Revising for bias just means having diverse texts. 2. Revising for bias is only possible in the humanities.

While I am a strong proponent of having diverse texts (more on that below), only viewing diversity of texts as a means toward reducing bias can do more harm than good. Why? Because it can perpetuate stereotypes you’re eager to avoid. (Ever notice how Hollywood’s approach to increasing diversity usually means just adding a lone Black friend to the white lead’s crew, like a prop? Or, worse yet, making another movie about slavery, as though slavery were the only thing Black Americans had ever experienced?)

And if you teach a class like chemistry or algebra or computer science, you are not exempt from thinking about diversity in texts or removing bias in your curriculum. Where did the textbook come from, for example? And how does your curriculum reflect your beliefs and biases? Do you believe multiple-choice tests are a better way to assess students than essays? All curriculum is subjective, biased, and influenced by the author’s society.

No matter how much revision I do of my curriculum, it will always need more. Here are some methodologies I am using to help me revise my curriculum this year. You can try all of them or only some; there are so many moving pieces to curriculum design that even a small step is better than none.

Ask myself: What are my students reading, and how are they responding?

Ok, I know I just said having diverse texts isn’t everything and that it could even be harmful. But it is still important! I used to work at a school where the English department was proud of their diverse curriculum, yet a quick audit of the texts revealed all of the texts not written by white people were written by Black authors and focused on the damaging impacts of white supremacy (e.g., slavery, class inequalities, the Civil Rights era). There were no other races represented by the curriculum, and most of the books were written by men.

If any part of your curriculum requires reading text, it’s important to think about who wrote it, what’s happening in the text, and what both those things mean for students. In my class, I work extremely hard to represent a range of types of texts written by different people: We read things written by older people and younger people. We read things written by queer or trans authors as well as straight, cis authors. We read work by Black and Indigenous poets, and we read literary criticism from today and literary criticism from last century. We look at memes and social media, and we watch documentaries and TV shows.

Do your own audit of your curriculum. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Who are students reading?
  • When are they reading? (Gentle reminder that the Black authors shouldn’t be assigned only in February.)
  • How do students respond to the work?
  • Is it time to replace that novel you’ve been teaching for 10 years?
  • Do you routinely assign a book about a group of people who experience oppression that’s written by a person who belongs to the oppressor group? (If the answer is yes, please cut it from your curriculum.)

Do a white supremacy culture audit

White supremacist culture is all around us. It is impossible to escape. To this end, do an audit of your teaching practice. I use a handout by Tema Okun and Dismantling Racism to guide this work. You can look at the categories generally or choose a focus, and then do some critical thinking work to unpack. Bonus points if you do this in affinity with a colleague you trust.

I chose to focus on a goal I have for this year of teaching: I want all my students to pass my class. Sounds great, right? Well, when I went through Okun’s descriptions, I found a ton of ways that this goal could reinforce white supremacy, rather than undo it. I’ll name just one for the sake of brevity: Either/Or Thinking. The binary inherent in passing versus failing tries to (and I’m paraphrasing here) oversimplify a complex thing. Passing and failing are nuanced, shifting categories. Reasons for passing and failing can’t even always be quantified or qualified or understood. Plus, my methods of passing or failing a student are inherently biased no matter what. It’s important for me, then, to revise both the language of the goal as well as my approach toward it. That’s what I’m working on with a group of white-identified colleagues this fall who can support me in my revision work.

Choose at least one specific aspect of my curriculum annually to revise with the aim of reducing bias

This year, I’m working on my first unit, “Self,” which culminates in students writing their college application essays. Although I really love this unit and have had great success with it in previous years, two things were really bothering me this summer: 1. Almost all of the essays we read (including “Now I Become Myself” by Parker Palmer and “River Teeth” by David James Duncan) were by white men and built on the most common psychological theories of development by dead white men (like Lev Vygotsky, Urie Bronfenbrenner, and Erik Erikson), and 2. The unit focuses heavily on reading and writing as the only modalities for successfully participating in or demonstrating learning.

To address concern #1, I’m working on diversifying the texts offered as well as thinking more about how to include newer ways of thinking about psychological development (Bettina Love and Zaretta Hammond, for example). We’ll also read more personal essays in addition to the two tried-and-true ones, which are still worthwhile and loved by students.

To address concern #2, I’m working on including a range of types of activities and moving the unit to be more of a project-based experience where students are creatively engaging in multiple modalities until they draft the essay. For example, in week two of the unit we’ll engage in a multi-day analysis of relationships using an adapted version of a model from the Plan Institute. Each week, students will also do some kind of creative processing in a medium they choose. Though I had some of these elements previously, I’m using some trauma-informed, therapeutic strategies to change the ways I offer these to students and adapting to their needs as a result of coronavirus. This includes sometimes putting students in individual breakout rooms to do one-on-one check-ins; creating semi-regular whole class check-in strategies; giving surveys on what students want to see in the curriculum and activities for the week; and providing multiple ways for students to demonstrate their understanding.

Up next: Humanizing my students—and myself

In my next post, I’ll talk about humanity, the reason we all got into this teaching game in the first place. Creating space for humanity can be especially challenging during distance learning, so I’ll be sure to dig into some of how I’m striving to make that happen for my students this year.

This is the third in a five-part series on anti-racist teaching. Read the introductory post, part 2, part 4, and part 5


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