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Culturally Responsive Teaching

Taking Small Steps Toward Equity

It can be difficult to know how to keep going with equity work, but starting with culturally responsive teaching is helpful.

September 24, 2021
Elementary students raising their hands in class
skynesher / iStock

In my equity journey as a White educator, I have often found myself asking (and heard my colleagues ask) “OK, I get it... what do I do?” The amount of resources on equity in education can be overwhelming, and it can be easy to feel stuck and not sure where to go next. Here are some concrete ideas that have helped me get unstuck and move from ideas to action.

A productive question I have asked myself when I feel stuck and unsure about what to do next is: “What do I need in order to deepen engagement in equity work?” This can be a great question for those at the beginning of equity work and also for those who are having trouble sorting through the vast number of resources that are out there. My answer to that question has changed as I have moved along in my equity journey, and that’s the point. Really, what do I need? More information? Statistics? Stories? Allies? Organizations to work with? Accountability? This question can help you narrow your focus and also guide your conversations with colleagues and administration.

Diversifying Explicit Curriculum

Your curriculum is a good place to start. A staple of equity work is diversifying our teaching so that it doesn’t overemphasize the White, male, heterosexual, cisgender perspective. We can do that by critically examining both our explicit and implicit curricula. Explicit curriculum is “what” we teach. It’s the subjects and source material that we cover and what we submit for administrative and school board approval.

There have been major efforts at diversifying explicit curriculum by expanding the canon of books that students read in English class to include non-White, non-Western sources; ensuring that world history class truly focuses on world history and not just European history; and bringing Indigenous and non-Western understandings of the world into science, psychology, and even mathematics (see the field of ethnomathematics).

One important aspect of diversifying explicit curriculum is to consider the role that people from marginalized groups play and how their experience is depicted. I found that after I initially replaced some of my sources that emphasized the White, male, heterosexual, cisgender experience with more diverse sources, a pattern emerged that troubled me. Even when the characters and stories in my class reflected “diversity,” they still followed stereotypical paths. Stories of slavery painted the enslaved only as victims. Modern-day Black characters always dealt with gangs and drugs. Brown characters were always immigrants and spoke Spanish. Gay male characters loved fashion. Characters with disabilities were defined by their disabilities. I made (and will continue to make) a concerted effort to break this pattern. The best resource for doing this was my students.

It started with a conversation about movies—Black Panther and Moana, particularly. My students helped me understand why the character of Black Panther was so empowering for them—that character’s culture was a central part of his identity, but not in stereotypical ways. They noted something similar about the Disney movie Moana—not only did it center Indigenous culture, but also it had a female lead that had no romantic interest.

I am still in the process of finding stories that avoid stereotypical depictions of already marginalized folks, but as the search continues, I have found tremendous value in discussing this with students. Even if we can’t find a better resource or story, our conversations about why a particular story’s depiction of a “minority” character is problematic have always been profound. Author Nic Stone has addressed this issue with regard to Black characters in this article.

Diversifying Implicit Curriculum

I use the term implicit curriculum to refer to other aspects of what we teach, either within or outside of the explicit curriculum. This could refer to images, music, and quotations. An approachable, concrete step in equity work is to conduct an audit of these aspects of your curriculum. Consider the images, music, and quotations you use, not so much in the explicit curriculum (like sources in a document-based question), but for general encouragement and inspiration. Do these reflect the diversity of your student body and school community, and do they draw attention to underrepresented groups? 

When I conducted this kind of audit on myself, I found that most of the pictures and memes I used as inspiration or bell ringers featured pictures of founding fathers (I am a history teacher, after all), with a few images and quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. and memes featuring male voices. Since then, I have tried to add more balance by including more memes and quotes from non-White, non-male people.

I invited my students into that process, asking them to find pictures, quotes, and memes that they found inspiring. This accomplished two purposes that are fundamental to equity work: diversifying class material and incorporating student voice.

I did the same for the music I play in class while students enter and during games or study time. My music reflected my background—classic rock with a few modern hits sprinkled in. The only non-English song in my playlist was “Macarena,” and I’m not sure that should count! My students helped to diversify my playlist with music that they enjoyed that was school appropriate.

The Power of Small Changes

These efforts will bear fruit in making a more equitable curriculum and classroom experience. One resource that has been particularly helpful is Cornelius Minor’s book We Got This. He champions the idea of bending the curriculum to the students, rather than bending the students to the curriculum, and offers small, concrete steps we can take in our curriculum and classroom that can help to chip away at systems that often stymie this work. 

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  • Diversity
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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