Creating a Culturally Rich Curriculum in the Classroom
“The more exposure we have to diverse peoples, the more chance we have to gain perspective and understanding of life and the world. Knowing people as individuals also tends to break down stereotypes and allows us to see both uniqueness and universality in other people” - Ms. Schutt.
The Edgemont Union Free School District serves 2,033 students from kindergarten through 12th grade. The student population has become increasingly diverse over the last two decades, with over 50 percent of all students in Edgemont being non-white. It is often said that the Edgemont campus is one of the most diverse square miles in Scarsdale. An international community like this presents a complex challenge: In a place with so many distinct values and belief systems, how can educators narrow the cultural gap between students and teachers?
It is critical that we have a cultural awareness of our students’ backgrounds. Before proceeding any further, we should clearly define our terms.
Culture is a term that encompasses social behavior, work ethic, approaches to problem solving, religious rituals, moral values, goals, attitudes, world views, concepts of self and personal discipline, among other elements. To establish a multicultural learning community in a classroom we need to support and respect all cultures. This begins with developing cultural competence and involves a continuous process of self-reflection. Mr. Alter defines cultural competency as “the idea that a person or institution understands how to work with people of different identities and backgrounds, and making sure you’re encompassing their needs and concerns in what you are trying to accomplish.”
Developing cultural competence is a process of inner growth, which comes with practice and commitment. Most significantly, we must examine how our experiences influence us today and how they might have an effect on our ability to teach students. A culturally competent educator must know oneself and evaluate beliefs and implicit biases.
Our ongoing work to create a culturally sensitive campus environment is based on cultural responsiveness and inclusivity of its increasingly diverse student population. Superintendent Dr. Kniewel is working to create a committee of students, faculty, staff, administrators, and community members to locate concrete ways to encourage diversity of both staff and perspectives. She knows the importance of a diverse faculty and staff at Edgemont, and the administration has taken major leaps towards a more inclusive hiring process.
In recent years, the English department has made changes to the curriculum in order to broaden the number voices students encounter. For instance, the 10th grade curriculum was changed from a study of American Literature to a study of American and global literature. For 11th grade and 12th grade courses, such as Gender in Literature and History; Immigration, Identity and “Otherness”; and Race in American Literature, students focus on the issues of marginalized groups. “We (The English Department) also include titles by and about people of color and of various cultures in other classes. In the 7th grade, for instance, selections now come from a wide reading list,” Ms. Schutt, the English Department Chair, said. The 8th grade English curriculum has focused on promoting tolerance and diversity by including a variety of texts both by and about people of different backgrounds and cultures.
However, the 9th grade curriculum focuses on classic books such as To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Odyssey by Homer. “ The 9th grade curriculum is the year that focuses most on classic titles, and every year we debate the idea of forgoing one of the classics to make room for other works. Ultimately, we have managed to bring in Sandra Cisneros’s House on Mango Street, but we have decided to hang onto the classics in 9th grade because we believe that they focus on fairly universal human issues and therefore merit everyone’s study,” Ms. Schutt explained.
Mr. Alter and Mr. Devito worked for many years to create the Global Perspectives Class, a 10th grade class focused on American and Global Literature and history. “The Global Perspectives class is completely about bringing the literature into a cohesive experience with the history that we’re studying, and really trying to bring to life a much deeper cultural understanding of other parts of the world,” explained Mr. Alter. Students read several books and excerpts written by authors from all over the world, and examine international news publications from other countries. “When you get into 10th grade you are learning Global and English, the same way you normally would, but it's in a structure that allows for more depth.”
Dr. Calabro was sponsored by Sejong, an organization that sends educators to visit Korea and learn about their culture. “I had visited many historic sites, stayed in a Buddhist monastery, and lived with a Korean host family. It was one of the most special and valuable experiences I have had as an educator. The amount I have learned during my stay in Korea has added immeasurably to my teaching and has enriched my life on so many levels.” Also, in Dr. Calabro’s social studies classroom, students are exposed to primary source materials, and taught to analyze them from multiple perspectives. His students are taught to analyze these perspectives objectively, and to also place them in historical context. “As one example, for several years now, in 9th grade Global Studies we have held a Christopher Columbus trial where students actively and critically engage with the issues surrounding Columbus’ arrival in the New World, exploring this issue from multiple perspectives. As attorneys, witnesses, and jury members, students represent the views of indigenous peoples of the New World, explorers, settlers, etc. They have come to appreciate the many complexities of this issue and have learned the value of trying to understand important historical questions from multiple perspectives.”
The English Department will continue to incorporate more texts written by authors of different cultures and backgrounds. Gradually, newer book selections will replace outdated texts. Also, developing culturally responsive classrooms not only recognizes students’ cultural backgrounds, but creates a learning environment that is engaging and equitable. Geneva Gay, a researcher, defined culturally responsive teaching as “using cultural knowledge, prior experiences, frames of reference, and performance styles of ethnically diverse students to make learning more appropriate and effective." Consequently, if these concepts are broadly conceptualized and implemented, a culturally responsive curriculum can have a positive impact on the education and academic performance.
Edgemont School District can continue to play a vital role in developing culturally competent leaders who will lead the way in modeling inclusivity. Differences are to be celebrated and are the basis of a stimulating educational environment for all students.