The racial literacy curriculum adopted this year for pupils in Princeton’s pre-kindergarten through first grade classes has a strong foundation in pedagogies developed to advance social justice, cultural responsiveness, and multiculturalism.
“All of these are predicated on the belief that any work that you do starts with yourself,” says Keisha Smith-Carrington, supervisor of humanities for grades pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. “The focus begins with understanding our identities, and understanding that each of us has multiple identities through which we experience the world. As part of that, we begin to understand and value others’ identities that are not like ours.
“By developing an appreciation for others, we begin to see the benefits of diversity,” she adds.
The next concept to address is justice. “Especially the little ones, they understand the concept of what's fair,” says Ms. Smith-Carrington. “So we begin to talk about fairness, as it relates to justice, so that young children can understand whether or not a situation is in the best interest of all of the people involved and can begin to identify when things are not just. Finally, we move toward a conversation about, when they see a situation that is unjust, what might be developmentally appropriate action.”
These four overlapping concepts--identity, diversity, justice, and action--form a curricular framework that is extensible from early childhood through adulthood. Articulated by the early childhood educator and theorist Louise Derman-Sparks in the 1990s, they have been promulgated in teaching standards for grades kindergarten through 12th grade via the Teaching Tolerance project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The curriculum in use in Princeton this year was developed over the summer by Ms. Smith-Carrington and the elementary librarians as a revision of the library/media component of the pre-kindergarten through first grade program. The next step is to extend the framework into a full revision reaching pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students via social studies and English language arts/literacy. That program is slated to begin in September 2021.
The larger revision will draw on the work of Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, a teacher and literacy scholar, whose pedagogy builds on culturally relevant and responsive theories toward what she calls “an equity framework for culturally and historically responsive literacy.” Muhammad offers her own four-layered learning framework:
● Identity development—helping youth to make sense of themselves and others
● Skill development— developing proficiencies across the academic disciplines
● Intellectual development—gaining knowledge and becoming smarter
● Criticality—learning and developing the ability to read texts (including print and social contexts) to understand power and equity and disrupt oppression.
“In places like Princeton, we are working to develop our students to be intellectual and to begin to have those higher levels of critical thinking,” observes Ms. Smith-Carrington. “Criticality is the question that goes a bit further, because it's not only talking about whether things are just in the ways that we've looked at them legally and based on our own societal norms, but looking at whether they really are equitable--and whether there are actions that should be taken in order to move us toward true equity, and true justice, beyond the letter of the law.”
The curricular revision requires training, according to Ms. Smith-Carrington. “You can't expect adults to teach something that they haven't been taught or that they don't have understanding about. True diversity and justice work is not from materials that you're given. It's from the ways that you use the materials and the resources that you have.” Training began with elementary-level library media specialists and is continuing with all those who will write or teach the revised curriculum from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Ms. Smith-Carrington also envisions a book study program that would be available to interested staff based on Dr. Muhammad’s Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.
A grant of more than $41,000 from an anonymous donor has supported the curriculum revision to date plus the acquisition of books for the elementary library collections. “We're working to make sure that the texts that we're using for instruction are truly representative of the people that we have in our world and the stories that exist in our world,” says Ms. Smith-Carrington, “so that we are making sure that conversations can begin to happen that reach that level of criticality that Dr. Muhammad talks about. We are really trying to make sure that we're being very intentional about the ways that we're teaching children to be reflective.”--Justin Harmon
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