Whose Stories Should We Tell?
Education in America is an ongoing struggle between our ideals and the less than optimal reality we inhabit. But where we can empower students is broadening what we teach to include more perspectives, events, and issues to build connections and engagement.
Either/Or Curricular Standards
The United States has never had national standards. The closest we came was the Common Core, with its focus on skills and process, and even the Common Core became mired in partisan conflict.
The debate over what students should learn is often presented as a pro/con perspective: Get rid of everything we don’t like (or fight to preserve it) and replace it with what we deem is appropriate and correct. As if learning is only about taking a position and defending it. Yes, making a claim and supporting it with credible evidence are vital information literacy skills, but to comprehend a topic/issue/perspective in-depth, students have to dive into messy ambiguity. The two-perspective approach to learning shuts down critical thinking, reflection, and growth.
“The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
So to me, true inclusivity is about adding to our stories to open our minds to opposing ideas and multiple perspectives. When students study the Civil Rights movement, they know Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X. What about Pauli Murray? Medgar Evers? They know Madam C. J. Walker, but do they know Madame Stephanie St. Clair, the only woman to hold a top position in Harlem’s numbers racket? Our students know Cesar Chavez but not Luisa Moreno. Luisa Capetillo? Langston Hughes but Jessie Fauset? Oskar Schindler but Chiune Sugihara?
So, as we hone our skills on Zoom and e-books, we owe it to our students to hone our expertise by scouring cultural institutions, universities, libraries, and one another to find the stories that are unknown and why.
Adding Other Voices to Curricular Projects and Assignments
So, how do you work with educators and the administrators to expand or adjust the curriculum? Delicately! Research the curriculum online (reach out to teachers to ask if they would be willing to share their units/lessons with you) and send an email saying you would love to collaborate on the unit/assignment. Mention you have some new resources to broaden student understanding and connection to the material. Suggest current events call for multiple perspectives to be added into existing units.
Offer to do the work of enhancing an assignment/project so overwhelmed teachers are receptive. At the same time, they know another educator is delving into their curriculum to offer support and additional pedagogical ideas. Some ideas include:
- a life studies/biography/personal narrative focus as a project or lens to present content,
- how significant events/themes affected different groups,
- digital forms of gallery walks (padlet, annotating Zoom/Google Docs, wakelet, lino) so students can research and share the voices and perspectives of diverse individuals.
History/social studies is a natural subject to add voices to, but it could be suggesting viable texts that fit curricular themes in English. And in science, life studies of notable achievers in different fields are a natural fit.
Diversify Your Collection and Programming
Make sure to insert these stories into your digital and print collection, promote the resources online, suggest the titles for book clubs and author visits, after-school clubs (or start new clubs!). Below are some resources for where to get started.
Woman and the American Story: https://wams.nyhistory.org/.
Library of Congress: https://loc.gov/.
Smithsonian Learning Lab: https://learninglab.si.edu/#sll-learn.
Fitzgerald, F. Scott. 1936. “The Crack Up.” Esquire. https://www.esquire.com/lifestyle/a4310/the-crack-up/ (accessed July 14, 2020).
Woman and the American Story. n.d. https://wams.nyhistory.org/.
Library of Congress. n.d. https://loc.gov/.
Smithsonian Learning Lab. n.d. https://learninglab.si.edu/#sll-learn.
Author: Leanne Ellis
I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.