Curricular Counsel: Improving cultural inclusivity in a rapidly diversifying suburban district

There’s no shortage of concerns a chief academic officer has to juggle during the resource procurement and curriculum planning process. As the director of instruction for the quickly diversifying DeForest Area School District, located outside of Madison, Wisconsin, Rebecca Toetz, like many of her peers, grapples with these issues regularly.

Education Dive recently spoke with Toetz, who spent 17 years in the classroom, has a background in special education and also served as a principal, to learn more about ensuring accessibility in resources, providing opportunities for all students to see themselves in curriculum, and avoiding common pitfalls when implementing a resource. 

Editor’s Note: The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

EDUCATION DIVE: When it comes to professional development for effective curriculum implementation, what do you think are some of the most commonly overlooked areas?

REBECCA TOETZ: It’s a constant tension between — and it’s the same thing in a classroom — what do you give as professional development universally versus what do you promote for personalizing professional development? There’s this tension of, when we have a day off for professional development, how much of it is whole group stuff and how much of it do we allow teachers to drive what they want to learn and what they want to do?

I think that’s the biggest dilemma in this kind of role. How do you balance enough of the “we must all do this together so that we all have the same information,” but allow teachers to take their own approach to learning something they want to get better at in their craft?

It might not totally fit with what the whole group is doing, but as long as it aligns to our strategic goals, we try to personalize or allow for personalizing as much as we can. An example of that is we are doing equity work, which means we’re working on the systems and practices on how we include all children and our responses to all students. We’re doing a lot of that [in a] whole-group [approach]. Everybody is getting a really good understanding of what implicit bias means and how we are representing all students in our curriculum.

But then we will have teacher teams take different approaches with book studies, with some of the intentions around their curriculum as it relates to equity. So they might get a whole group piece of information, but then they can personalize how they’re going to put it into practice a little bit or how they’re going to further learn about it. We have several different book studies going on around equity, but it’s based on teacher choice, not us saying you have to do this.

You also have a background in special education. When it comes to curriculum resources and the procurement process for those students — with things like hearing and vision impairment and all these other factors you have to take into consideration — how do you go about accounting for that? If you see a product you think looks really good but doesn’t check off all the boxes, is there a way you go about that?

TOETZThat’s a big part of my role. We have a curriculum review cycle which is laid out that every five to seven years, each curricular area is reviewed. And the review process looks like this:

The teacher leadership team is pulled together to relook at the standards. And then, typically, it brings in several different vendors. [But] before the vendors come, that team develops an instructional resource rubric.

In that rubric — it’s really quite intense — the team helps put together what we’re looking for, and there are subsections around equity and access and, in particular, around special education and English learner needs. We want to make sure every kind of resource we’re using has different entry points for kids.

After the rubric’s built, we typically listen to vendors and score on the rubric. We land on at least two to pilot, which means we actually use them with classrooms for at least a whole unit. Then we score the rubric again. After that, the teacher team looks at the rubric, deciding which one’s the strongest set of materials, especially as it relates to equity and access. Then we land on a resource.

What happened last year to us as we did this with elementary science, we ended up going through that whole process, and the two we ended up piloting, we liked neither at the end.

We actually tabled it. We were like, “We’re not going to spend money right now on this.” So we went back to the drawing table. Our whole review cycle has taken longer, but I feel really confident that we are doing a better job of trying to find the right materials, because if you make a quick decision on a set of materials, something can backfire. Either it doesn’t have enough representation in it or the access isn’t always as strong as sometimes what they sell on the cover.

What would be your biggest piece of advice on the accessibility front when it comes to resource procurement?

TOETZTry it. You have to try materials with kids, and with enough representation. That’s the only way.

When we do a pilot, it’s representative of several grade levels across several different buildings in the district, if it’s elementary. We only have one high school and one middle school, but you’d want to try several different grade levels and have several different teachers’ eyes on it and have it in front of many different children. That’s how we make our decisions.

We’re able to say, “Well, this didn’t have a Spanish version of the video.” That’s important especially as our demographics are changing quickly. Our teachers don’t know Spanish. They need to have those resources at their fingertips. Until you actually teach [with the resource in question], you don’t really know. I think the vendor can tell us a lot of things, but my biggest piece of advice is actually taking the time to try it.

As your demographics become increasingly diverse, how much more of a conscious effort is there to increase cultural inclusivity in curriculum?

TOETZThat is a huge focus right now for us. And we have a lot of work to do there. It’s come to my attention on some things that we don’t have very good representation. And how I know that is because a small team of us interviewed a set of our 11th grade students of color.

We asked them, “When have you seen yourself in the curriculum here in DeForest?” It was not good. One of the students shared that they saw themselves in 5th grade slavery, 8th grade slavery, 10th grade slavery. I thought to myself, “Why are we teaching slavery three times within just five years? And why is it that the only time any of our students are seeing black history, it’s as a persecuted group of people?”

Of course there’s a ton of persecution, but there’s a lot more to black history than persecution​. So asking our students of color was a really big first step, and then bringing that back to the teachers and having them see it through new eyes.

They’re looking at their books differently. Tomorrow, I have a big meeting with a leadership team. We’re bringing a section back into the resource rubric because that has even more of a checklist around what we need to make sure we’re having students of all races seeing themselves in our curriculum. Basically, it’s like an audit of that.

There’s a lot of work to do in that area, and I think that’s true all over. It needs to be a focus.

With historical topics that end up getting repeated at different grade levels, how important is it that, at each grade level where something like that does come up again, it’s approached from a different angle?

TOETZThat’s important, but also there’s an element there of double-checking what the students know about this already. If they know a lot about it, then do something different. Especially as they get older, try to have them see kind of that social justice lens, see how we can learn from the past. I think as students get older, they’re developmentally able to take that on. We’re working on trying to open that up to them.

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