It has become common place to see companies and colleges show off their inclusivity, pictures of their diverse body is plastered on their websites for all to see. Somehow, along the way, representation in schools got cut from the agenda. Still, year after year, and it’s the same story. English teachers hand out lists of acclaimed authors, a common string of traits running through all of them: Caucasian, male, and heterosexual. This particular demographic can be seen popularly displayed in other classes as well, a demographic that a growing number of students may not be able to see themselves in.
Over the years, East has grown increasingly diverse. While the population is still predominantly made up of Caucasian students, 16.4% of the student body are Hispanic, 12.8% is African American, and 9.2% is Asian, according to the Illinois Report Card. The demographic of the school raises the issue of whether or not the curriculum needs to change to accommodate to it.
Is cultural inclusivity needed?
At East, many teachers have implemented new ways of intended to make students feel included and connected to what they are learning about. For instance, the AP English Literature teachers compiled a list of all-female authors (two of which were women of color) to give students for an independent reading project. However, there is still argument on whether or not more diversity should be included and brought into the curriculum.
“Having representation means that I would be more connected to what is being taught, and it would make someone of a different background feel that way too. I feel like it makes a person work harder and understand the piece much better like this one time we read a poem by Langston Hughes in English and I could really see and understand myself through the poem,” junior Kennedy Keaton said.
The representation that many may look for in a curriculum can include things beyond immediate surface issues like skin color and gender.
“There’s not enough representation at the moment. I mean, there are little pieces and I’m not asking for a magnitude, but they are getting better at introducing women authors, but I don’t see a lot of people of color being represented or people with disabilities, mental illness, or different sexualities,” freshman Cian Perez said.
Junior Anya Zarembski explained that, as a mixed race person, she never really felt herself represented in what she learned about in school, as her experiences with those things are different from what others have gone through. Still, it’s not much of a topic of issue with her.
“Personally, I just like to learn about what I find interesting, it doesn’t matter what I’m learning about or the culture I’m dealing with as long as I find it interesting,” Zarembski added.
As East is comparatively diverse, it has classrooms filled with people from various walks of life which can naturally make what is being taught seem more representative of the people in the classroom.
“I think there’s enough representation in the curriculum and we’re pretty diversified in the school. However, I guess I wouldn’t be opposed to more because it would be beneficial for my race since it would give us visibility,” sophomore Nathan Sein said.
If inclusion is an issue at East, the goal of representation is not only limited to the classroom. Clubs like Black Student Association, Asian Student Association, and Indian Student Association can be of aid.
“We have a lot of clubs and everything that are diverse…I think representation-wise, we have a lot, but we don’t push it out there enough,” junior Payton Pennel said.
Sophomore Pauly Johnson explained that students being able to see themselves in what they learn about would foster a positive learning environment.
“Representation would make me happy just to even be appreciated and recognized. It would actually let me participate in what I’m learning,” Johnson added.
To what extent does East’s curriculum represent the diverse culture of the school?
Bringing cultural diversity into the classroom
Steps like the previously mentioned independent reading project for AP Literature have been taken to go towards a more inclusive classroom. However, if needed, various methods can be employed to ensure an inclusive school.
Sophomore Kylie Eggert explained that steps towards inclusivity need to be taken in to account in all classes and prioritized even though she said it didn’t directly affect her.
“I think a lot of classes talk about diversity and incorporate it into their lessons, but some classes could do a better job. Some of the books we read in classes aren’t really where they should be in terms of diversity,” Eggert added.
Giving students more options and providing incentives for taking more classes not based on Western society, may be a viable option as well.
“I think [the school district], like there’s the whole World Cultures class, but if they had more funding for those types of classes … to go on field trips to Chinatown or Little Italy in Chicago … It would encourage more students to take that class,” Zarembski said.
It may also be worth inspecting the way teachers and students communicate about topics such as race and inclusion in the classroom.
“This school has got some snarky people that make remarks about me being African-American. The other day, I heard a teacher, when talking about a field trip, say something about not liking monkeys because there’s already too many of them at the school. I could tell he regretted as soon as he said it, though,” Pennel said.
Zarembski said that the comments may not always be intentional or have malicious thoughts behind them, but are hurtful nonetheless.
“A teacher I had once said that a melting pot is a bad way to describe America but for me, as a mixed person, I find it describes myself. I just didn’t really like that,” Zarembski added.
At times, it can be the way the uncomfortable nature certain subjects are approached with, rather than direct comments that may cause a student to be disincluded. Johnson, who is a member of the LGBT community, said that particular topics not even being addressed can cause students to feel a part of their identity is not of importance.
“The other day, a teacher was doing an activity where he asked all the men in the room how do they feel about a woman not having a job. He then asked all the women in the room how they feel about men not having a job. But then he just kind of looked at me straight in the eyes and didn’t let me answer the question even though every other person in class got to respond,” Johnson added.
Students who gave accounts of experiences relating to discrimination in the classroom said they weren’t comfortable giving the name of the teacher or class in which the experience took place.
Inclusion may not just take the form of classes, curriculum, and comments. Things can come down to aspects as basic as who’s teaching the class.
“I kind of wish I had someone as a role-model and at least somebody who understands the kind of situation I’m in because I never really saw anyone to relate to who understood what it felt like to be a minority,” junior Rebecca Listiawan said.
In fact, the first time Pennel had a teacher of her own background, she said she was able to better tolerate a subject that she treated with irritance before.
“I felt like I could come up to her more because she understood the struggle and she’s not going to judge me, where as if I asked someone else who wasn’t like me I feel like they might,” Pennel added.
According to the National Education Association, Caucasian teachers make up over 80% of the educators in the U.S., while African American, Asian, and Hispanic teachers make up a bit more than 10% of teachers.
“I’ve been raised with mostly blonde, white, and female teachers for most of my adolescence. We just failed to have that kind of relationship where I could’ve connected on a deeper level with them,” Perez said.
Teachers of different backgrounds may even act as role models for students and could give them an image of someone similar to them who doing well for themselves in adulthood.
“It’s really important because you can actually to see people of your background succeed and in a career they enjoy being in. It’s nice to be able to see myself in other African Americans who are successful,” Keaton said .
On the other hand, Sein said that he doesn’t really notice or pay attention to those kinds of things when he’s in school.
“I don’t really see a difference in whether a teacher is a person of color or not, as long as their ability to teach is on point with learning in the classroom,” Sein added.
As seen at East, some teachers are taking actions to a gradual and larger change in awareness of other cultures. The fact that progress is being made at all, Perez said, is reason for appreciation.
“Representation makes more of an impact because even if it’s small, it matters. It helps you understand that there are people like you who do the same things as you. It makes the learning easier, too, because you can see yourself in who you’re learning about,” Perez added.