In June, as the internet was flooded with anti-racist reading lists, a variation on the form became popular with teachers: the list of anti-racist curriculum resources.
These focused on lessons and materials that teachers could use with students: lists of children’s books by Black authors to add to English class. Lists of historical events to cover in social studies. Lists (including one written by me, in this publication) of resources to use to teach about protest and resistance.
Teachers, many of them white, many of them new to conversations about police brutality and police killings of Black people, passed these lists around on social media, searching for a way to commemorate and contextualize a moment so big that even some of them who had avoided politics in the past felt it couldn’t not be acknowledged in the classroom.
I understand the appeal of the resource list. Teachers can read into it a reassuring clarity: Include some of this content in your lessons, and you’ll be working against racism in your classroom.
But the educators and scholars who have long advocated a broader, more representative, more accurate curriculum say that resources are just one piece of the equation. A list alone obscures the fact that just bringing in new resources—diversifying your bookshelves, teaching hard histories—isn’t enough. Instead of thinking about how to include the stories of people of color into a curriculum with the white, Western canon at the core, teachers need to ask whose perspectives are at the core, who put them there, and why—what are the politics within their subject?
This isn’t a new idea. It’s one that, as all of the experts in this field I spoke with emphasized, has been around in academia for decades. It’s not even a new way of teaching. There’s a long line of teachers and teacher educators, many of them teachers of color, who have studied the theory and history they need to design a different curriculum for their students. There are organizations that support teachers who want to do this. But as high school teacher Keziah Ridgeway writes in another piece in this special report, most have had to seek out that knowledge on their own.
An EdWeek Research Center nationally representative survey found that 83 percent of teachers said they were somewhat or very willing to teach an anti-racist curriculum. But only 22 percent of nonwhite teachers and 9 percent of white teachers felt they had both the training and the resources to do so. (The nonwhite teacher population in the survey was too small to provide further race and ethnicity breakdowns.)
“There’s not a real space within many teacher education programs to delve into what is that historical and ongoing relationship between your discipline and power dynamics in society?” said Rochelle Gutiérrez, a professor of mathematics instruction at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who studies identity and power in math education.
Without space to explore that relationship—in preparation programs or in schools—it can be hard for teachers to know what to do when students ask about race.
“In this moment, there is such a deep hunger and a shift in generational expectation,” said Yohuru Williams, the founding director of the Racial Justice Initiative at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., who studies the Civil Rights and Black-Power Movements. “These young people want to know about systemic racism and oppression and how to dismantle it.”
Not asking teachers to think about power amounts to sending them into the field unprepared. If history teachers can’t put the Black Lives Matter protests in historical context, for example, they’re missing key subject knowledge. A structured program, too, can give teachers the framework to define and defend what may be seen as controversial pedagogical choices, said Gutiérrez. She provides such a framework in her courses, but on the whole, she said, “we’re losing people who weren’t prepared for some of the fights that it’s going to take to change this system.”
Teacher education is also a system, a notoriously entrenched one, and changing that brings its own challenges. LaGarrett King, an associate professor of social studies at the University of Missouri’s College of Education, is very familiar with them. He studies how Black history is interpreted and taught in schools, including how preservice teachers develop, or don’t develop, understandings in this area.
He argues that curriculum in K-12 schools and teacher preparation should avoid a progressive view of history—the idea that social conditions get steadily better over time. He’s also not interested in “quantitative change.”
“In quantitative change, we simply add Black faces, Asian faces, Latino faces in the curriculum,” he said. “But there’s not a change in the historical story. The story does not divert from that Eurocentric perspective.”
For this article, Education Week also spoke with Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education; Deborah Menkart, the co-director of the Zinn Education Project; and Grace Leatherman, the executive director of the National Council for History Education.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2020 edition of Education Week as Anti-Racist Teachers Ask, Whose Perspective?