Although the United States has always had a diverse population, public school curricula are overwhelmingly built around a white, male perspective. Students are learning a whitewashed version of history, literature, science, and more. For far too many American students, the curriculum they’re taught doesn’t represent their lives, identities or experiences. They can’t see themselves in it.
When students—of any identity—are taught to see non-white identities as invisible or irrelevant from a young age, that has ripple effects throughout society. At the school level, children struggle to relate to the content being taught, or feel like they have to reject a core part of themselves in order to succeed. On a societal level, we continue to produce graduates who aren't able to break through the systemic barriers that keep global majority communities in the U.S. from accessing economic and social power in the same manner as their white counterparts.
At Impact Public Schools (IPS), our north star is a fully inclusive curriculum that affirms all identities.
Our community is made up of people with a rich and diverse set of identities and experiences—including race, sexuality, gender, religion, immigration status, and more. We are deeply committed to ensuring that all identities are celebrated in what/how we teach and embraced throughout our schools.
Why Inclusive Curriculum Matters
Research has shown that the typical public school curriculum overwhelmingly centers white voices and experiences. For example, researchers at NYU found that the vast majority of authors on school book lists are white; the educators who write public school reading curricula are largely white; and most of the books students are assigned to read have white main characters.
Research also shows that Black and Latinx students leave the field of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) at higher rates than their white peers, due to bias, discrimination, lack of resources, and feeling like they can’t identify with their peers and mentors in these fields.
This is all part of larger systems of racism and oppression. According to national surveys, the typical white family has eight times as much financial wealth as the typical Black family, and five times as much as the typical Hispanic family. Unemployment rates are twice as high for Black Americans as for their white peers. Our immigration laws are based on racist principles, and racist anti-immigrant sentiment has been increasingly normalized in recent years. When students learn a white-dominated vision of the world, they go on to both experience and perpetuate the same racist assumptions they’re taught in schools.
At Impact, we’re working to change that reality. We consistently select books and develop lesson plans that ensure a diverse range of identities and perspectives are represented. We engage families in reviewing our curricula and providing feedback. For example, as we designed the unit “My Voice Matters: All About Elections,” our Community Curriculum Team made up of families reviewed the project and provided valuable input to deepen the student experience. They encouraged us to teach voting as both a responsibility and a right, but not to shy away from the unfair laws and restrictions that keep members of our society from voting.
We also explicitly teach scholars to celebrate their differences. One example is a Brave Solidarity unit called “Don’t Yuck My Yum.” Scholars reflected on the foods from their home that are special to their family. Then, we invited families to come and share traditional foods from their cultures with each class. Children can have a difficult time with foods that look or smell different than they’re accustomed to, so we encouraged them to be curious about others’ foods and to share their favorite foods with each other. We talked about how comments can hurt, even if it’s not intentional. Through sharing food and stories, they learned that just because a food is different than what you’re used to, doesn’t mean it’s bad. In fact, it can be a source of joy and connection!
Black History Month, and Beyond
Which brings us to Black History Month (which we actually kicked off in mid-January). Unfortunately, most American schools still teach a limited version of history, where Black Americans are depicted solely through a lens of shame, pain and oppression. Many teachers stick to the over-simplified narrative that Black people were brought to the U.S. from Africa, enslaved and eventually fought for civil rights. Otherwise, Black people are largely absent from lessons about history and literature, and almost entirely missing from the study of STEM. We’ve had Black students tell us that they leave their classes feeling depressed about their own heritage.
Black history in the US isn’t just about slavery and civil rights. It’s also a story of excellence, accomplishment, and joy. Carter G. Woodson, who began the movement in the early 1900s that turned into Black History Month, always intended his work to be about honoring and celebrating the contributions of Black Americans, while dispelling the erroneous negative assumptions that society has about African Americans. At the core of racism is the idea that those who are not white are less-than. By shining a light on Black excellence, we expose the falseness of that belief and show that African Americans have always contributed to American history in indispensable ways. We must also expose students to the greatness of the African American story, because Black History is American history.
At IPS, our four-week Black Leader Spotlight unit and our curriculum woven throughout the year aim to do just that. For example, our Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) curriculum celebrates Black innovators in a field that is still largely dominated by white faces and white stories. Our youngest scholars will will take a virtual night sky tour, learn about inventions created by Black scientists, and then mock up their own inventions, like these rockets:
From listening to music by Black musicians while they create inspired art, to writing sensory poems in the style of Maya Angelou, to studying modern civil rights pioneers like Stacey Abrams and learning how to take leadership in advocating for their own rights, our students will spend the month of February immersed in a joyous version of Black history.
Of course, celebrating Black history shouldn’t be confined to just one month. Dismantling systemic racism in our curricula is a year-round project. And Black heritage is far from the only heritage that needs to be uplifted in our schools; we are also planning a Hispanic Heritage Month curriculum, and others. Meanwhile, our general curriculum will continue to embrace and affirm all the heritages and identities that our students bring to school, and more. We are still working towards our north star of a curriculum where all identities are celebrated and centered, all throughout the year. And we invite you to join us in making this a reality for all students, at IPS and in all our public schools.
Here’s the full list of the topics and leaders we’ll study over the course of the unit:
Rosebell Komugisha is a 6-12 social studies teacher with experience within school districts across the country. She hopes to illuminate how we each contribute to systems of oppression and inspire each individual to actively work to dismantle them.