The Great Gatsby. Romeo and Juliet. The Scarlet Letter. Every year, students are assigned books written by the same demographic: straight white men. The pages are rich with images of golden grandeur and a world that mostly white people had the privilege of accessing. Descriptions of wine-soaked lips, crystal chandeliers that drip from the ceilings, and lush parties crowd these books, leaving for only small or nonexistent mentions to any minorities . It’s a past that only some students’ ancestors could have known. It’s a life that students of color may not be able to see themselves in.
Is there a crack in the structure?
With a population as diverse as East’s, representation at its core gives students the ability to see themselves in what they’re learning about, but it may also allow students of color to exceed in a system that may have previously excluded them. According to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a course given to high school students that focused on themes of “social justice, discrimination, stereotypes, and social movements from U.S. history,” helped students’ GPAs jump 1.4 points up from what they previously were and their attendance increased by 21 percent.
Science teacher Salina Naser explained that while she was unsure of whether or not inclusivity was an issue here at East, it should be prioritized and recognized as something beneficial to students.
“Exposing students to different cultures shows commonality…By educating and bringing culture into the classroom, whether that be the teacher’s own culture or another culture, it breeds commonality. You realize we’re all struggling against the same things. We’re all struggling to make the same connections in life. We’re all struggling to find our place in the world. It allows other students to see each other as friends rather than foes,” Naser added.
As a Science teacher, Naser said that she enjoys incorporating diversity through her everyday lessons like mentioning scientists from the Asian culture that are not typically given credit.
“I don’t think changes have to be made by the district. I think it could step up from the teachers. It becomes difficult when it’s a district-based ideology and is easier when the teachers has an interest in applying it within their own classrooms. This community is an amazing community of teachers who ask questions and actively take an interest in cultural organizations. We’re already keyed into this idea of wanting to be culturally diverse, but I feel like if it comes too much from the district, then it’s going to lose the natural progression and growth into the classroom,” Naser added.
More than allowing students to see themselves in what they’re learning, cultural inclusivity and exposure may also allow students to expand their horizons and observe differing perspectives.
“We, as teachers, are able to bring [travelling] to [students] in the classroom from these novels and, when we do that, it allows for an understanding. The reason we try to promote authors from different cultures and women is because it’s a really good insight into how other people live, their thoughts, and their beliefs. But the best thing about it is that you realize how close we really are. Even though someone is from a different culture, there is a lot of common ground,” English teacher Sarah Thuneman said.
For Thuneman, she explained that the district should maintain their current stance of wanting to provide an equal education across the board for all students, but leave it up to the teachers to make changes in their classrooms, as teachers know what the needs of their students are.
“If you look at Springboard, the curriculum is very ethnic-based for the class that I teach, but I know for a fact that the cultures included don’t hit a lot of my students. However, as a teacher, I recognize who my students are and bring in a lot of supplemental resources that can help, but there are so many classes that we should offer to be better able to do this like Women’s Studies and African American Literature. But I love the freedom that we have as educators in the English department and we can bring in materials by Native Americans authors and female writers,” Thuneman added.
With that, some teachers have taken it upon themselves to introduce different authors. For example, AP English Literature and Composition teachers at East assigned an independent reading project featuring a list of books for students to pick from, books all written by female authors. Zaehler explained that, while the curriculum has a role in what educators do in class, it is primarily the role of the teachers to be facilitating discussions about diversity and culture.
“[All the AP English Literature teachers] reflected and realized that a lot of the main novels we were reading were written by men and we wanted to give the opportunity to our students to be exposed to authors from a wide variety of backgrounds and cultures,” Zaehler said.
In fact, making an active effort to include varying cultures may affect the way students learn and absorb material.
“Exposure to different cultures deepens the way a student learns. Anytime that you’re exposed to an author from a different culture or a different time period, you’re going to look at that writing style and learn more about the culture that the text is focused on so you gain a deeper understanding of the writing and the world you live in,” English teacher Heather Zaehler said.
In History classrooms, though, there may be an inclination to teach things from a Western perspective.
“Teaching history, you get a couple of perspectives, but we still stick so much to the European aspects of things, but it still feels like we don’t talk enough about the other countries,” Social Studies teacher Esmeralda Foster said.
Foster described her own process of weaving cultural inclusivity into the classroom as something that she does to make a class more interesting to students.
“I like to take the topic of discussion and make it relevant to them. So if we’re talking about slavery, I’ll pick and choose articles from around the world and from countries I know some of my students are from and see them learn through these perspectives. It just clicks with them,” Foster said.
It may not just be other countries that are getting left out of the conversation as different cultures within the U.S. may be getting the short end of the stick. Social Studies teacher James Vera explained that the way History classrooms tend to portray certain groups is often one-sided while other groups are put on pedestals.
“I think that amount of time discussing groups like Native Americans should be more extensive. It’s hard because things are looked at from a certain perspective where Native Americans are cast as brutal, but now the way we look at it is changing,” Vera said.
The problem could also take root in the seemingly uncomfortable nature of discussions concerning race.
“The other day, I asked my class why people were so uncomfortable talking about slavery and, through that, the class kind of came to the conclusion that we’re just uncomfortable talking about race in general…The tendency about it, though, is that you don’t want to upset people and make them feel uncomfortable, but history is uncomfortable,” Vera added.
Foreign Language classrooms, on the other hand, already allows there to be a natural integration of relevant cultures into the classroom.
“I think there could be more representation, at East there has been an effort make all students feel included and there is an effort being made for that, but it’s still needs more attention in some areas. In a Foreign Language classroom, the curriculum sets us up to be able to include the other cultures of a language,” Foreign Language teacher Kristin Rude said.
Rude explained that the district recognizes how representation increases empathy and this is something they are working towards, but cultural exposure can often take shape outside the classroom.
“I think representation could be worked into the classroom by the teachers by taking a look at the materials that they choose and they have to cover certain content, but there is still flexibility. But it’s something that I’m seeing more and more of in extracurriculars and it’s nice to see students taking the initiative to start organizations that they feel they can connect to and that teachers are willing to sponsor,” Rude added.
The construction plans
The strides the district has been making in inclusivity and diversity throughout the schools may be attributed to their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Plan that recommends administration “aggressively recruit and retain certified teachers and staff who reflect the diversity of the district’s student enrollment” and “select a cultural diversity committee that will serve as building cultural diversity liaisons”.
“I think that, as a building, whenever we do interviews and that sort of thing, we look to bring in a person who is going to meet the needs of the students. We always keep in mind that we have a very diverse population, so whenever we see a candidate who would be able to connect with students in a cultural manner, then we always want to give them a closer look” Bankowski said.
Lam, a member of a cultural diversity committee the district recommended making their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Plan, said that these opportunities allow change to happen.
“I am on a Culturally Relevant Teaching Committee and I met with teachers and one of those teachers had created a couple of Google Slides using the AVID program and, through this, ideas were shared on how to implement different cultures in the classroom. Right now, we’re in the beginning stages of something that is very concrete, so it will vary from classroom to classroom, but I see the growth,” Lam added.
Still, Vera claimed the primary change needs to stem and sprout from the classroom and that the way classes are taught need to adapt to the times.
“I think the district has done a good job of creating an awareness for being more inclusive. We’ve gotten so used to the typical history heroes like Washington, but we need to listen to the kids and not limit the kids. Let kids find their own heroes and open their eyes to heroes who don’t look like them,” Vera added.