A Small Step Towards More Inclusive Instruction

In my experience as a high school English teacher, I have found that having my students create their own TED talks has been one of the most successful passion-driven, project-based learning assignments that my students work on during their sophomore year. Students are able to do a meaningful assignment that requires them to use important skills while focusing on a topic they are really passionate about. But I failed to see some of the most eye-opening information this project has highlighted — how little we talk about race, culture, and equity in education. This was made crystal clear by the number of students who made social issues the focus of their TED talks. And it’s become evident with our nation’s focus on social justice and injustice that multicultural instruction is necessary to increase our students’ understanding of equity inclusivity.

This year, we managed to squeeze in our  TED talks in early February, before the pandemic shut us down. I’m always amazed at the work that students put into these projects, but each year I notice an increasing number of our students focusing their TED talks on social justice issues and the value of diversity within our school. This year we had several students addressing the very issues that our nation is grappling with right now, including systemic racism and bias in our justice system and issues of equity and diversity in curriculum.

One of my students expressed frustration about the lack of inclusion of influential African American role models in the history instruction she’d received: “We’ve been learning about Martin Luther King Jr. since elementary school! Where’s Nat Turner, John Brown or Malcolm X? It’s like they’re afraid of teaching us the truth.” I did my best to provide a rationale for why there were apparent holes in the history lessons she had received, but I have to honestly admit, I didn’t have one.

To me, this highlights a lack of representation and diversity in our common curriculum. This erases contributions of people of color to history, as well as impacts the academic achievement of students of color. When students lack a connection with the instructional material, it is more likely that they will become disengaged in the learning process, and failure to fully engage students can have disastrous consequences. The Prichard Committees’ latest report, Failing to Deliver, found that in Kentucky, “We allow our Black students to lose ground starting in kindergarten. In 2015, 45 percent of our entering African American students were reported fully ready for kindergarten, but by 2019, we had equipped only 30 percent of them to score proficient or above in K-PREP reading.” Ensuring the content we are instructing is relatable, relevant, and respectful is one way that disheartening statistic could be improved.

We cannot deny that part of the systemic failures that our nation is facing stem from education. As an English teacher, one of my main goals is to help students become critical thinkers who engage thoughtfully with the world around them. I do that by ensuring that I provide high-quality, standards-based instruction to all students. I make intentional and selective choices about the texts that my students engage with, with the goal of exposing them to diverse perspectives and experiences. This is not a personal crusade but an explicit understanding of the English standards as they call for an analysis of multiple perspectives and points of view to develop an understanding of world literature.

I’ve found that when provided with the freedom and opportunity to explore a topic, issue, or event they feel passionate about and that makes them feel represented, my students thrive. They come to class ready to conduct research, schedule interviews, and speak to a large group of people because their work mattered to them. Now, in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns and the instructional gaps that may stem from it, it is imperative that all teachers revisit their curriculum for ways to provide more equitable instruction that is relevant and engaging for all students. I strongly encourage all educators to examine their curriculum and provide ways to incorporate diverse perspectives and oft-neglected important figures.

This is not a silver bullet. The pandemic and resulting school closures have illuminated and unfortunately exacerbated the equity issues that plague our education system. There is much work that needs to be done to ensure that the needs of all students are truly met, and that all students, regardless of, race, ethnicity or zip code, receive a high-quality education and have equal access to opportunities. But this is one small way that we, as teachers, can improve our instruction to be better fit our students.

While many questions still remain about the upcoming school year, equity needs to be one of the first issues we tackle. Whether in-person or virtually, we must be committed to providing high-quality instruction that meets the needs of all students now and always.

Vilma Godoy is a coffee-loving high school English teacher in Shelbyville, KY. Born in Guatemala, raised in California, and transplanted to Kentucky, Vilma has a wide range of experiences that inform her teaching style and philosophy. She is passionate about providing rigorous opportunities for students to learn and grow, not only as English students, but as well-informed members of society. Her desire is that all students leave her classroom better prepared to face the world.