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Empowered Teachers Take the Lead in Revamping Curriculum

As the U.S. becomes more ethnically and racially diverse, how do teachers re-examine traditional curriculum that no longer seems relevant? How can they create a new curriculum that gives students skills that, in the past, were not considered necessary?

Teachers across the U.S. are experimenting with new ways to introduce students to issues involving racism, social justice, inequality, and discrimination. They are newly empowered to break traditional paradigms within a decades-old curriculum to come up with new concepts that speak to the current day.

One such teacher is Chris Emdin, a science teacher in 10 New York City public schools. Emdin recently published “For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood … And the Rest of Y’all Too, a book that serves as an introduction to HipHopEd, a new curriculum that incorporates hip-hop culture with learning. One of the methods, for example, is using rhymes to teach science. He encourages other educators to use unorthodox methods like raps as “a way of giving students’ voice,” he said.

Brooklyn teenager Louis Tavares, a student at Brooklyn Prep, said the curriculum helps motivate him to learn in ways he couldn’t in the past. “Before hip-hop, I would go to school and not really look forward to learning,” he said. Hip-hop “brings a certain type of vibe to the classroom.”

Teachers engaged in this kind of disrupting are setting the stage for future public school classrooms that are expected to become more diverse.

They’re also outliers. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, while students of color will make up over half (56 percent) of the nation’s public schools by 2024, almost all (82 percent) of public school teachers are white. About 7 percent of public school teachers are black.

Teaching Social Justice

Traditionally, history, humanities, and social science curriculum have been written from the perspective of the majority white population. That is also changing thanks to empowered teachers who are now actively taking steps to reach students who come from households of color, especially those of first and second-generation immigrants.

The Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English has created recommendations to the National Council of Teachers of English to counteract racism and racial bias in teaching materials, methods, and programs for language arts, English, and humanities. Lorena German, who teaches at Headwaters School in Austin, Texas, said the recommendations are “not about politics.” Her ninth-grade students study graffiti and have conversations about its relevancy and messages. They also read texts like “American Born Chinese,” a graphic novel that explores issues of identity around race.

“This is about working toward social justice. I am constantly asking myself how I can model that thoughtfully in my classroom.”

Disrupting Texts

Another way teachers challenging the traditional canon is by talking with one another in an effort to learn more about anti-bias teaching pedagogy and practices.

That’s the idea behind Disrupt Texts (#disrupttexts), a movement where teachers all over the U.S. work together to offer critical insights to the curriculum they grew up with. Each week they participate in a Twitter chat to suggest alternative titles and approaches, and a website posts teacher stories from throughout the country.

Tricia Ebarvia, a co-founder of Disrupt Texts and an AP English Language and Literature high school teacher outside Philadelphia, said that her students “want to be able to have an informed conversation” about they are reading. “School is a place where we can have these conversations and establish a habit of seeking multiple perspectives.”