I started my teaching career teaching music. I’d been a professional musician for a decade—performing, touring and recording jazz and Latin music. With some experience as a teaching artist and a bachelor’s degree from Berklee, I thought I knew a thing or two.
What I didn’t know was that my field-based knowledge was not a good match for K-12. My first teaching job was at a middle school close to downtown Los Angeles. Students there were taught Italian terms and traditional music theory—much of which I’d forgotten, because I never used it. Students were also expected to learn this theory applied to western classical music, which was new and largely irrelevant to them.
I decided to write a curriculum based on the five or six skills that I used on a near daily basis as a professional musician. I decided that students would choose music they knew in order to build those skills. This was my first foray into curriculum design, and the results were like rocket fuel. Students took ownership of their learning, read and wrote music and built a personal musicianship that they could take with them wherever they went next.
What I discovered in that process and many engagements since is that the traditional curriculum does not honor the things students already know. Traditional curricula actively discounts students’ assets, home and community-based knowledge. Standards point towards skills more and more, curriculum developers are beginning to acknowledge the importance of diverse representation. But most don’t go far or nearly fast enough.
Years later I oversaw curriculum for Acero Schools Chicago. The network had been started by Latino community organizers nearly 20 years before. These schools were well regarded in the community, both for their “for us, by us” ethos and outstanding performance. At that time the character of the organization was not yet showing up in the academic program. Summer after summer I gathered teachers from across the network to map new social studies standards and develop a vision for culturally relevant curriculum.
We worked towards curricula that would allow our predominantly Latinx students to examine literature by Latinx authors, learn Latinx history and engage with the Latinx intellectual tradition. Like science curriculum is designed for students to do science like scientists, we expected that our students could engage this content like Latinx intellectuals. But no such curriculum existed.
Instead, we built the curriculum we believed should exist. Black, White, Latinx educators came together to research, meet with Latino Studies scholars, dig for sources and design units of study that were rigorous, standards-aligned. Most importantly these units centered students’ identities and experiences, presented them with content we believe they were owed and were designed to build students’ agency.
I now serve a national cohort of schools through the Summit Learning Program. We have continued this work—bringing educators together to design curricula that reflects the students that they serve. We have used the same process of discovery, partnering with elders and experts and designing for agency to produce projects that center East African, Appalachian, LGBTQ+ and African American communities, to name a few.
The stories of the educators and scholars who do this work are important guideposts for future changemakers. Accounts of their collaborations are laid out in an upcoming book. A New Canon (Harvard Education Press, 2021) presents step by step guidance, and real-world examples of ways educators have applied culturally sustaining pedagogy to curriculum design, lessons learned and exemplar units.
Educators cannot open their email without seeing countless messages from education nonprofits and curriculum providers about anti-racist and culturally responsive materials. Not only do those two terms mean dramatically different things, but the evidence our colleagues use to prove that they’re doing the work is also all over the map.
There is tremendous evidence that culturally sustaining curriculum, well-prepared teachers and supportive communities benefit students of color. There are policies in the works across the nation built on that evidence. But we must set the bar high for what must be true of that curriculum. There is a difference between adding Black voices to otherwise traditional materials and building curriculum to root students in their legacy of strength. Developing curricula that acknowledge the existence of Latinos is not the same as cultivating students in the Latinx intellectual tradition. Anti-racist education (reading white folks in on racism) is not the same thing as making education anti-racist.
Communities across the nation are building a head of steam. But we cannot afford a pressure release valve in the form of values statements or new labels on old materials. There’s evidence that when teaching and learning is designed with our students in mind, they thrive. And we should settle for nothing less.