4 steps to evaluate or create inclusive curriculum

Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor

Growing up as a Cuban-American in Miami, FL (a city made up primarily of Latinos—the largest majority of them Cuban immigrants) I was always surrounded by those who spoke like me and whose ancestors were borne of a culture similar to mine. Many of my teachers in grade school and professors in college were Latinos familiar with the immigrant experience. Storytelling is highly valued in my culture, and my learning was seasoned with a myriad of stories which told of the experiences that shaped our collective identity.

While most my teachers were Latinas who looked like me and shared much of my experience, the textbooks from which I learned offered a narrative very different from my own. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized the content I was learning—including the history that was taught to me and the images that decorated each lesson—rarely included my people.

This notion was reinforced years later after I became a special education teacher and realized how few heroes and heroines of color were represented in the textbooks I was teaching from. Not only was the history curriculum Eurocentric, but the images of able-bodied, blonde-haired, blue-eyed children that accompanied each lesson did not represent the brown and black-skinned children with disabilities who I was teaching. I often wondered what messages my students were implicitly receiving about young people their age. Where did they see themselves or their cultures represented in a way that honored and empowered them? It certainly wasn’t through our curriculum.

These questions hit home for me when I left my Cuban haven in Miami to become a student again at a seminary in the deep South. Not only was it the first time that I wouldn’t hear Spanglish (a hybrid language combining words and idioms from both Spanish and English) in the classroom or be taught by women or persons of color, but everything I would learn in regard to theology and about God was offered specifically from the perspective of white men from the rural South. While that perspective is valuable, oftentimes when only one perspective is offered, students are led to believe that it is the right, true, or only one.

Because the person who taught me the most about my faith growing up was my brown-skinned, immigrant grandmother, it was hard for me to connect with the point of view my professors were teaching from. None of the books I was assigned to read for my classes reflected the outlook of those who experienced a reality similar to mine. During those first few years, I didn’t know any women or people of color were constructing or writing about theology. I also noticed that any time a non-majority group was spoken about, their content was added as “contextual” rather than a legitimate source of mainstream theology. The frame of reference always centered around the dominant culture, while other perspectives were viewed as exceptional or even deficient.

I often wondered, if we as Christians believe that all are made in the image of God, then shouldn’t all of our experiences be represented when considering theology? Wouldn’t this help us gain a fuller and richer notion of who God is? If the body of Christ is made up of persons from every nation, tribe and tongue, then our learning about God—particularly in the textbooks from which we read and teach—should reflect this reality.

Tweet this: If the body of Christ is made up of persons from every nation, tribe and tongue, then our learning about God—particularly in the textbooks from which we read and teach—should reflect this reality.


Why diversity matters when choosing curriculum

For those of us serving in ministry with young people, these questions around perspectives and experiences must also play a role in our curriculum choices, whether we use outside sources or create our own. For many of us, our tradition’s approach to teaching Bible stories has been through an inherently Eurocentric lens, leaving a majority of students unaware of much how of their own culture and history resonates or grapples with them. This is why a diversity of perspectives represented in a curriculum is important: it gives students a full view of history, which has proven to positively affect them in nearly every aspect of their development.

Marian Wright, a children’s rights activist within the Civil Rights Movement, is attributed for the famous saying, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” For me, it was difficult to see myself as a theologian because there weren’t people like me in my textbooks. Wright also explains that all children need to be exposed to a wide range of books that reflect the true diversity of our nation and world as they really are. “We need that sense of connection,” she says, “we need to live in a global sense.”[1]

An inclusive and diverse curriculum can empower underrepresented students, allowing them to experience higher self-confidence, which inevitably leads to more opportunities in the future. Evidence also shows that students who are exposed to diversity in the classroom are known to exhibit less racial prejudice. Reducing racial stereotypes and fostering cross-racial understanding is an important aspect in preparing students to be effective members in a global society.[2] In other words, the stories and faces we see and are exposed to have a lifelong impact.

Within the last decade, The Faculty Survey of Student Engagement administered survey items focused on diversity inclusivity to US faculty at over one hundred institutions. Nearly 60 percent of all faculty respondents indicated that students exposed to diversity and inclusion in their courses gained a significant understanding of how to connect their learning to societal problems or issues.[3] Including diversity also affects more than just students; this same study found that faculty members who include diversity in their courses are much more likely to encourage peer interactions across difference, emphasize deep approaches to learning, use active classroom practices, interact with their students, and promote learning outcomes like intellectual and practical skills or personal and social responsibility.[4]

Diversity within curriculum is not just important for individuals; diversity in the classroom shapes society as a whole, deepening our awareness to live out God’s commands of loving our neighbor holistically and effectively.

One example of an educator attempting to make a shift in her society is Mexican advocator and editor-in-chief of Libros Aguila Mexico, Stefany Bremer. Stefany sought to empower Mexican students after realizing that the curriculum used in the schools in her area was US-based, translated from English to Spanish. She realized that not only were Mexican children not being taught their own history, but they weren’t being represented in their own textbooks. Because lessons were centered around Eurocentric, American “heroes” and because images accompanying the lessons showed light-skinned and blonde-haired children, Stefany’s publishing company sought to re-write much of the curriculum and re-illustrate many of the pictures to include children from a variety of ethnicities, skin tones, and physical abilities. They also included Latin American heroes and heroines in the curriculum, so that Mexican children can learn about their own people. Since working on this curriculum, Stefany has received countless messages from parents and teachers, offering their sincerest gratitude for what it’s meant to their children and students that they’re seeing themselves for the first time in their daily lessons.

In the church, we too can help students “see themselves for the first time” in Bible stories if we are thoughtful and intentional in our planning.
 

4 steps you can take when evaluating or creating curriculum

1. Name the value and honor layers of diversity

The first step to take in the process of including diversity in curriculum is to name the value that it gives to students, particularly in a Christian environment. We cannot make change in our society without first naming the importance of the change we’re trying to make. Naming our why makes our what possible.

Similarly, it is important to remember that diversity is multilayered. At FYI, we strive to not just be diverse when it comes to ethnicity and race, but also to be inclusive in all areas, including gender, socioeconomic status, and denomination.

Not only does inclusion and diversity create more equitable opportunities for marginalized students, but it promotes complex thinking skills, the ability to work across difference, increased civic participation, and decreased prejudice[5]—all important qualities in bringing about a just society.

Questions to consider:
  • Why is diversity important in my context?
  • Looking at the current curriculum I am using, what perspective is the most prevalent?
  • What does it say about the image of God when all students are included and represented in our classrooms and lesson plans?
  • How does it contribute to the health of the body of Christ when marginalized students are empowered? What value does this have on the future of our society?

2. Identify your goals

When creating or evaluating curriculum, it’s important to identify your goals. Inclusive goals aim for students to gain the knowledge, attitudes, and skills necessary for participation in a diverse society. This does not diminish or look down upon the culture of other students, but values all equally.

Questions to consider:
  • When teaching students about a culture different from theirs, are we seeking to engage in holistic education by uplifting other cultures?
  • Where are we allowing prejudice to seep into our message?
  • When talking about cultural elements like language, dress, and styles of celebration, are we honoring the beauty and richness of the customs?
  • Are we (perhaps unintentionally) teaching from a lens that keeps “whiteness” as “normal” and everything else as silly or deficient?

3. Evaluate who’s teaching

Inclusive instructors are aware of and seek to learn about their own biases—as well as about identities and values that are different from their own—so that they can better educate and empower the students they are teaching.

An ideal is to grow a ministry team of people who come from a diverse range of cultures and backgrounds. And when seeking to choose what content to use, an important question to ask is: Were leaders of color included in the writing and planning of this curriculum?

FYI strives to include leaders of color from the very beginning of our projects and resources. We know this is hard work that requires many hands, hearts, and hours. Including a variety of leaders and prioritizing those on the margins from the very beginning helps ensure a holistic perspective that will benefit students engaging in the material. This can also be done through building a relational network of people with diverse experiences (by reaching out to members of your congregation, or connecting with a network of ministry leaders in your denomination or region) which leaders can look to for guidance.

Questions to consider:
  • Are the individuals charged with teaching my group aware of their own identities, biases, and values?
  • Is the person who’s teaching the material aware of how these factors may influence the way they operate in the classroom, youth group gathering, or small group meeting?
  • What are the kinds of training you need to offer your current teachers and leaders to ensure they are engaging in this process?

4. Adapt when necessary

We are all on our own journeys of learning and growth, both individually and communally. Because of this, it’s important to evaluate a curricula's biblical interpretation or messaging to young people in order to ensure it aligns with what leaders or churches want their young people to understand and experience.

The truth is, no curriculum is perfect, and no lesson plan will be able to include all the nuances we want it to address. Anything we take on has to be tailored to a certain extent to work in our group or to meet the individual needs of our students. This is why using a “copy and paste” approach to curriculum is not helpful. We know “feeding the sheep” requires us to know our sheep personally. Let’s be sure to look at our curriculum based on what we know.

Questions to consider:
  • Is there an aspect of a given curriculum that seems to be problematic or insensitive?
  • What process will you take to adapt, change, or even omit anything that might not align with your theological beliefs?
  • What process will you take to adapt, change, or even omit anything that might not align with your commitment to elevate and honor diversity?
  • When there is a stereotype that gets highlighted in a curriculum, how will you go about addressing it?
     


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