In Jerard Walker’s essay, Dragon Slayers (The Iowa Review, 2006), Walker reflects on his journey as a black professor who realizes that black literature is too often approached as a record of oppression. After deep introspection, he designed his classes to challenge that narrative with a focus on the flip side: black courage and heroism. The dragon slayers, not the dragons, he notes. Much like Professor Walker, Uncommon has had to ask whether our curriculum focuses too heavily on a narrative of oppression rather than on the spirit and perseverance of those who have overcome.
In a recent Uncommon Sense post, Shana Pyatt, Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Uncommon Schools, explained how the DEI Lens Tool has been “embraced, revised, and codified” by the broader Uncommon community as we work to deepen our commitment to anti-racism. As the director of our high school literacy program, I immediately embraced the tool. I was inspired to share it with our team of curriculum writers, who design the units and lessons that we teach in our English classes across all ten high schools.
Initially, I thought our course content would earn high ratings for diversity, equity and inclusion. However, as we dug in, it became clear that we had unintentionally been centering the dragons by teaching a record of oppression. While our book list is diverse and engaging—featuring authors like Toni Morrison, August Wilson, Esmerelda Santiago, Arundhati Roy, and Elie Wiesel—having a book list written by a diverse group of authors is not enough. We knew we had to broaden our lens and begin the important work of empowering our students and teachers through a thorough and thoughtful audit and revision of our High School English curriculum using the DEI Lens Tool as our framework.
Preparing for the Work
Before we could begin the important work of making changes to the curriculum, we had to prepare for the work with the following four steps:
- Broadening Our Lens: We sought out to learn as much as we could from experts. Some of the most impactful resources are below:
- Jerard Walker’s essay, Dragon Slayers
- Gholdy Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally Responsive Literacy (2020)
- National Equity Project (NEP) course on equity leadership
- Hired an external DEI consultant with expertise in HS English Content
- Building the Council: Deciding that it made sense to start small, we chose two High School English courses to focus on: 9th and 10th grade English, specifically the first two literature units from each course. We then invited 15 teachers from across Uncommon who taught these courses to join the council, intentionally building a group with wide racial and ethnic diversity. This council of teachers would ultimately be the drivers of our discussions and decision-making.
- Determining Priorities: Using the DEI Lens Tool, the council selected three priority areas to focus on for the year including:
- Removing an over-focus on oppression and trauma for characters of color—revising to focus on uplift
- Making more authentic space for students to make personal connections to texts
- Ensuring our texts are culturally relevant and aligned to student interests and communities
- Creating a Meeting Structure: We designed every meeting to include time to build relational trust. Each meeting agenda started with small group reflections in racial/ethnic affinity groups to help our teachers strengthen relationships with those from other schools with similar identity markers, and perhaps some shared perspectives. The bulk of our meeting time was then spent in course groups, with teachers discussing their ideas and finalizing plans for curriculum revisions based on the group’s consensus.
Doing the Work
Below is the process of collaborative lesson revisions that the council leveraged using The Bluest Eye unit as an example.
- Identify Priority Lessons for Revision: Within a given unit, council members would highlight a lesson on the scope and sequence if they wanted to discuss revisions for it. As you can see to the right, the council prioritized nine lessons within The Bluest Eye unit to focus on.
- Propose the Revisions: Prior to council meetings, teachers reflected on the revisions they would like to implement within these nine lessons, especially within our top three goals. Shared Google documents allowed teachers to build on one another’s ideas easily even when working in-between meetings.
- Discuss and Decide on the Revisions: During council meetings, discussion focused on revisions highlighted in the Google Docs, with the goal being to build consensus around the top revisions to implement.
Impact of the Work
As a result of the council’s work, the group brought in updated videos, images, and prompts that increased the cultural relevance of lessons and made them more engaging. Additionally, the group wrote new lessons as needed, making space for creative writing and personal reflections. We are excited to share a sample of a lesson from The Bluest Eye unit that was revised through this process, here.
One especially powerful outcome of the work though was the group’s line-level revisions to unit and lesson plans, examples of which are captured below:
|From The Bluest Eye unit, by Toni Morrison|
Impact of Change
From the Unit Plan: One of the major themes of this novel is how racism permeates society and families. Pecola’s story is significantly affected by her parents’ upbringing and the experiences that shaped their racial identities and their perceptions of themselves. Their feelings of self-hatred were passed on through their abuse/neglect of Pecola.
Revised Unit Plan: Characters within the novel are greatly impacted by the messages and beliefs of their families, communities, and society at large. At each level of society, the impact of white supremacy, racism, and internalized oppression play an important role in the development of individual identity.
The original Unit Plan places harsher blame on Pecola’s parents. The revision increases the focus on structural systemic racism and how it influences individual lives.
From the Unit Plan: Many people in the novel, due to their own experiences of racial injustice and violence, are unable to care for others and look beyond themselves to help anyone else. Cholly, for example, seems so traumatized by his sexual assault and his familial abandonment that he cannot care for anyone else in his life. Pauline’s self-loathing, especially as it relates to physical appearance, is passed down to Pecola from the moment Pecola is born, when Pauline first perceives her as “ugly.”
Revised Unit Plan: While many characters such as Pecola, Pauline, and Cholly struggle to navigate oppression and develop positive self-conceptions, others such as Claudia and Frieda work to resist the racism and white supremacy ingrained in their society and the internalized racism of their communities.
The original Unit Plan focuses entirely on the oppression and trauma within the novel. The revision adds a focus on characters who defy the odds. Focusing also on the positive (characters who resist) and acknowledging the greater forces behind individual struggles (systemic racism is bigger than Cholly’s decisions) is more uplifting and motivating for teachers and students.
Our teachers’ small but powerful revisions to the language of our unit and lesson plans addressed blind spots and implicit biases that long existed within our curriculum, and were negatively affecting students and teachers’ experiences in their English classes. These key changes de-centered oppression and trauma, shifted analysis from individual to systemic oppression, and made more space for personal connections and analysis of more uplifting content.
Through the diversity of perspectives and experiences within the council we were able to create our strongest shared units yet, and we plan to replicate the council’s structure across courses, departments, and grade levels using the DEI Lens Tool. The revision process shows us that these shifts can have a profound impact on how questions are interpreted, how unit goals are presented, and how it might feel to be a teacher or a student of these revised lessons. A slayer of dragons, perhaps.
Click below for PDFs of all the resources referenced above:
- DEI Lens Tool Reference Sheet
- Sample revised lesson of The Bluest Eye
- Walker, J., (2006) “Dragon Slayers”, The Iowa Review 36(2), p.51-57. doi: https://doi.org/10.17077/0021-065X.6124