Culturally Responsive Teaching

Creating ELA Curriculum That’s Meaningful to Students

A look at how high school English teachers can mix classic and contemporary texts to reflect the varied backgrounds and experiences of their students.

December 2, 2022
Chris Gash/The iSpot

Secondary English curriculum is designed around themes that are universal to “the human experience”—love, good versus evil, revenge, perseverance, coming of age, identity, justice, power and corruption. But people experience these in life differently. It’s important to consider the individuals within the human experience and acknowledge the diversity in how students may face these themes in their lives.

Curriculum should mirror their experiences. Shifting focus to student-centered curriculum can help learners identify with common themes in literature and recognize that the human experience is not so universal when you dig deep into the lives of individuals. Themes transcend; experiences may not.

Traditional texts used within the secondary English classroom become less of a necessity when student identities are prioritized in the curriculum. There is debate on whether classic canonical texts should still be the main event of English classes in 2022 and beyond. If classrooms house only “class sets” of books written before this century, what realities do students learn about? Whose world are they exposed to?

It’s logical to integrate contemporary stories written from various perspectives by authors who may share commonalities with populations of students since they’re living in the same era. This presents more room for shared discourse and common references to culture and societal events.

Below are areas to take into account and strategies to initiate a process of reviewing English curriculum so that it’s student centered and includes a balance of classic and contemporary texts. Every context—classroom, school, community—is unique and requires its own process.


Agree upon the language to use when talking about the work: Think about the terms and ideas that need to be clarified, defined, and shared by the team designing the curriculum. When working with teams on this, the words change and diversity become important prior to discussing the details of the curriculum. Change isn’t easy. Teaching is personal, and for some, so is curriculum. When initiating a process of change, it doesn’t necessarily mean that anything is “wrong”; making changes to curriculum is an act of responsibility to the students we teach so that school is relevant.

It benefits the work if there’s also a shared understanding of the word diversity.  When selecting diverse texts, we consider themes, topics, identities of characters and authors (race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, interests, family structure, abilities), genre, language, format, date of publication, and structure. If all members of a curriculum team share language and similar definitions, it creates a safe space for conversation and helps develop a commitment to new ideas together.

The students

Create a student profile: Generate questions to think about the social, emotional, and academic attributes and habits of the students you teach. Here are some examples of reflection questions for grade-level teams to consider:

  • What do students think about?
  • How do students make personal connections to their learning?
  • What are the learning styles of our students?
  • What do students need in order to prepare for future grade-level work?
  • What are the potential pathways for students in the future?
  • What academic skills do students need to develop?
  • How do students learn to empathize with others?
  • How do students learn to explore multiple perspectives?

You can use the responses to these questions to evaluate the current curriculum and instructional methodologies to discover where revisions are needed.


Engage in reflections about the identities of stakeholders. Ask: Who are our students? and Who are the decision makers about curriculum? Using an identity lens reflection protocol helps educators to weigh the perspectives of those who design and those who experience the curriculum.

Aspects of identity to consider are language, race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender identification, sexual orientation, cultural practices, community participation, family structures, abilities, interests and hobbies, and events that may have impacted populations. Think about how the identities of groups are similar and how they are different. What impact does the comparison have on decision-making about curriculum?

As the identities of students surface, explore designing curriculum around those identities and including text selections that serve as both mirrors and windows. Reading structures like independent reading and book clubs offer the opportunity for a variety of text options for students to choose from.


Ask students about what they want to read in school: When students are involved in decision-making, it empowers them to share their voices and may lead to deeper engagement with relevant texts to analyze and think about critically.

Ideas for soliciting feedback:

  •  Engage students in a Socratic seminar.
  •  Share a Google Form or a paper survey.
  •  Post a reflection question on your learning management system.
  • Develop a reflection protocol after each unit of study where students share what was meaningful to them and what they would like to see revised, etc.

My colleagues and I have used these strategies in our process of reviewing curriculum and texts that students can access. Because each context is different, not all strategies may be needed in every process.

I typically begin new projects with defining terms to norm understandings and projections for the work and then match the review strategies to the goals of the project. For example, developing a student profile was a helpful pathway to high school curriculum review as my colleagues and I considered students’ trajectories beyond high school.

Engaging in an identity reflection propelled a project with a committee of elementary educators to diversify read-aloud experiences with new picture books. Soliciting feedback from students is a regular practice that my colleagues and I embrace in an effort to make reading and learning relevant.

It’s important for us, as educators, to know what students are thinking and what’s resonating so that we can be responsive designers of curriculum. When we consider who we teach, the why and the how of what we teach becomes clear.

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  • Culturally Responsive Teaching
  • Curriculum Planning
  • English Language Arts
  • 9-12 High School

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