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February 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 5

Navigating Tough Conversations On Curriculum

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Understanding the reasons behind curriculum challenges can help educators foster more collaborative discussions with families and stakeholders.

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CurriculumInstructional StrategiesLeadership
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Before my first curriculum night as a teacher 22 years ago, I kept hearing the same advice from my veteran colleagues. Talk the whole time, they all said, so you can't take any questions. The message was consistent and unmistakable: Parents ask questions about the curriculum only when they want to challenge it, and that puts teachers in a defensive position. Better to avoid the conversation in the first place.
If that was the prevailing mood back in 2000, it seems even more common now. In many communities, conversations about curriculum devolve into angry debates without much listening, let alone a satisfying resolution. Across the country, school officials have received violent threats for endorsing anti-racist teaching (Borter, Ax, & Tanfani, 2022), and 42 states have introduced bills "to regulate how teachers can discuss racism, sexism, and issues of systemic inequality in the classroom" (Schwartz, 2022).
Educators put extensive thought into the topics and materials students will encounter and the tasks and activities through which students will learn. When those decisions are questioned, it's understandable that we want to defend them. But if we focus too much on proving our points and disproving the other person's—or simply avoiding questions—we miss opportunities to have conversations that are more collaborative.

The Fears Underneath

When parents, caregivers, or other community members want to talk about the curriculum, they're often motivated by fear. For example, when I taught English, one parent asserted that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (Little, Brown and Company, 2007) was inappropriate because it mentioned masturbation. Another parent wanted to know why our students didn't read A Midsummer Night's Dream until 7th grade when other schools read it in 6th. In different ways, both parents were afraid of what might happen if their child did or didn't read a particular book.

If our conversations are to be collaborative, we need to understand the fears underneath parents' and caregivers' concerns.

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If our conversations are to be collaborative, we need to understand the fears underneath parents' and caregivers' concerns. Understanding what's at stake for those who challenge the curriculum can help educators work with them. Typically, fears about the curriculum relate to one of the following three areas.

1. Psychological Safety

In a 2020 article for Learning for Justice, education professor Stephanie P. Jones describes the trauma she experienced when, as a student, she had to pick cotton as part of a unit on enslavement. Her "Mapping Racial Trauma in Schools" database highlights other problematic curriculum choices as well. It includes, for example, links to articles about a Michigan high school biology worksheet comparing Barack Obama to monkeys (Dupnack, 2022), a Massachusetts high school history assignment asking for the positive effects of imperialism (McMenamin, 2022), and a New York middle school Spanish assignment asking students to translate sentences about being "ugly and Mexican" and "pretty and American" (Elassar & Santana, 2022).
These are all examples of what researchers Erhabor Ighodaro and Greg Wiggan (2010) call curriculum violence: "The deliberate manipulation of academic programming in a manner that ignores or compromises the intellectual and psychological well-being of learners" (p. 2).
When students, their parents and caregivers, or other community members question the curriculum's appropriateness or its benefits, we educators should listen to their concerns and ask ourselves if the resources and activities we're using might cause harm. Some of the critical reflection questions we can ask ourselves are:
  • Whose stories are predominant in the curriculum? Whose are present, but not predominant? Whose are absent?
  • What kinds of stories does the curriculum tell? How might these stories reinforce subjugation and stereotypes?
  • Which aspects of themselves will students see depicted in the curriculum? How will those depictions influence a student's sense of self and belonging?
Most educators select resources and activities precisely because we think they'll benefit students. Using these questions as guides can shed light on problematic areas we might not otherwise see. And if the curriculum does cause harm, we can work with colleagues and administrative partners to hold ourselves accountable for healing the harm we caused, preventing future harm, and designing academic units that promote vitality, community, and liberation.

2. Comfort

In my experience, most curriculum complaints come from parents and caregivers who don't want their kids to feel uncomfortable when reading, hearing, or thinking about a particular topic. Usually, the topics that cause discomfort relate to oppression, other forms of violence, sexual activity, or substance use, or they are perceived as a challenge to the family's beliefs.
An adult might say that learning the truth about enslavement will "traumatize" a white child, or that reading a book with a transgender character is "dangerous." But often they are mischaracterizing experiences as unsafe when they're merely uncomfortable. Students are unsafe when something threatens to harm them, such as the "emotional destruction" done to children, especially Black children, when the curriculum "demand[s] that students physically act out aspects of American slavery" (Jones, 2020).
Discomfort is very different. Students are uncomfortable when they have unpleasant emotions such as confusion, surprise, sadness, anger, fear, regret, disgust, embarrassment, guilt, or shame. Discomfort doesn't harm us, and it's a healthy response to learning about the ways people harm themselves and each other. Discomfort is also a normal response to talking about something students don't usually discuss at school. Finally, our emotions signal what's important to us. If a white student learns about enslavement and feels angry, sad, and guilty, those emotions tell her she cares about humanity, agency, collective liberation, and justice. These values can inform the work she does in and beyond her history class.

There's a difference between preserving students' safety and preserving their comfort or the comfort of adults.

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As educators, we need to understand the difference between preserving students' safety (such as by teaching about enslavement in a culturally competent way) and preserving their comfort or the comfort of adults. Some of the critical reflection questions we can ask ourselves are:
  • Is this curriculum making people unsafe or merely uncomfortable? That is, could the curriculum damage someone's sense of self, belonging, or ability to function—or would it just make someone feel worried, angry, disgusted, confused, awkward, or otherwise upset?
  • Who, exactly, is uncomfortable? What might be the source of that discomfort?
  • How have I normalized discomfort in learning, or if I haven't, how can I?
Normalizing discomfort is part of what Jonathan Weinstein and I (2022) describe as a social-emotional learning pedagogy, or an approach to designing instruction that allows academic tasks such as reading, discussing, and creating to become opportunities for students to develop healthy relationships with themselves, each other, and the communities they participate in. A particularly useful protocol is the Emotions and Values Audit from our book Two-for-One Teaching (Solution Tree, 2020), which has students review academic material in terms of the emotions they felt while learning it. The protocol asks students to notice, name, and honor their emotions—including uncomfortable ones such as sadness, embarrassment, guilt, and disgust—and then discover how those emotions reveal their values. After lessons that elicit especially large amounts of discomfort, we can reach out to families to explain how that discomfort reveals students' values and encourage further conversation about those values at home.

3. Access

In addition to the "Why-do-they" conversation, in which families question the curriculum for including certain material, caregivers sometimes want to have the "Why-don't-they" conversation, questioning the curriculum for excluding certain material. Usually the initiator suggests a topic, assignment, or text they think is necessary for students' academic success and future prospects.
As a 7th grade English teacher, I endured many Why-don't-they conversations about grammar worksheets, expository essays, and The Catcher in the Rye. I'd patiently explain why our curriculum did not include whatever they were suggesting, and I was usually able to placate the parent, but being placated isn't the same as being heard. I didn't realize that when parents ask Why-don't-they, they don't actually want to know why. They want to know that their child will be able to access the opportunities they feel are important.
Take grammar worksheets as an example. Researchers Steven Graham and Dolores Perin (2007) found that while different writing interventions have different effect sizes, teaching grammar out of context is the only one that makes student writing worse. I have never diagrammed a sentence, and I managed to get a law degree, write a book, and teach for seven years before I knew what a preposition was. While a traditional grammar curriculum helps some students make sense of language and perhaps use it more skillfully, it's certainly not a precondition for success in writing, let alone in life.
Nevertheless, if a parent did grammar worksheets in school and went on to achieve the kinds of successes they want for their child, they might think the child must receive the same instruction. Conversely, if the parent struggled, they might be convinced their child needs a certain curriculum to avoid those struggles. Although we can spot the logical fallacies— correlation isn't causation, children aren't their parents, and the curriculum that worked in the past will not necessarily work in the present—we should approach anxious parents with empathy. After all, they just want what's best for their kids.
When parents or caregivers offer suggestions for what the curriculum should include, some of the critical reflection questions we can ask ourselves are:
  • What will the suggested topic, assignment, or text give students access to?
  • Do all students need that access to meet related academic standards or course learning objectives?
  • In what other ways do we (or could we) provide that access?
  • What assumptions are we making about the kinds of access that matter?
If a parent's suggestion helps us discover that our curriculum does not give students access to important knowledge, skills, or opportunities, we can consider taking their suggestion—or find a different way to provide that access—and thank the parent for raising our awareness. If the curriculum already provides that access in other ways, we can describe the relevant learning tasks to the parent. Either way, they know we're taking their concerns seriously and that we care about their kids.

Starting Positive Conversations

When families or community members question curriculum decisions, we as educators can feel like we must be reactive, not proactive. But we don't have to wait for other people to start these conversations. We can start them ourselves. If the curriculum reflects the community's values, then a conversation about the curriculum can be a way to tap into those values. We can build relationships and experience a sense of collective vitality in the process of discussing something of mutual importance.

If the curriculum reflects the community's values, then a conversation about the curriculum can be a way to tap into those values.

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Three ways to initiate positive community conversations about the curriculum are to inform the community about the curriculum, involve the community in augmenting the curriculum, and invite the community to contribute ideas for the curriculum.

1. Inform

In my forthcoming book Authentic Engagement (2023), I suggest providing students with a unit summary every time they begin studying a new topic so they can imagine their upcoming experience and understand they'll gain something important from it. The unit summary should include:
  • Outcomes: What they will learn
  • Tasks: What they will do to learn
  • Resources: What they will use to help them learn
  • A major product or performance: What they will create to reinforce and demonstrate their learning
Sharing this information with families can help build their awareness and trust. A unit summary is often enough to show parents and caregivers that the teachers and leaders have put careful thought into delivering the curriculum in an affirming and effective way.

2. Involve

Another way to engage families in more positive conversations about the curriculum is to coach them on how to support their child's learning at home. Casting the parent in a supportive role not only helps students extend their learning, but also defines complementary roles for the parent and teacher and changes the way the parent relates to the curriculum.
Different types of units lend themselves to different ways the caregiver can support the student. During an inquiry-based unit, when students explore a meaningful topic through investigation and analysis, teachers can offer families discussion questions to further the inquiry at home. For example, in an inquiry-based unit about watersheds, the teacher could offer families questions such as:
  • What about watersheds makes you curious? What questions do you have about them?
  • How did you feel when you learned where runoff goes?
  • How will our family benefit from your learning about watersheds?
  • What can we do as a family to protect our watershed?
During a rehearsal-based unit, when students develop meaningful skills through cumulative and repetitive practice, teachers can offer families specific ways to help their child practice those skills. For example, if the student is learning Spanish, a parent who doesn't speak the language might help by:
  • Finding people the student can practice with.
  • Sharing tools and strategies the student might use to practice.
  • Asking the student if they need reminders to practice.
  • Praising the student for practicing.
During a project-based unit, when students explore the topic and develop skills in the process of creating meaningful work products, teachers can offer families ways to give empowering feedback. For example, when my students were writing comics about books they'd found impactful, I suggested families respond in one of the following ways:
  • Tell your child what you notice when you read the comic.
  • Share any memories, ideas, or emotions the comic brings up for you.
  • Reflect on what seems important to your child, based on what they wrote and drew.
  • Ask your child questions about their process. For example, how did they choose the book they wrote about? Which parts did they spend the most time on? What strategies did they use to revise?
When families are equipped to have meaningful conversations about every unit—including those about less controversial topics such as watersheds, Spanish grammar, or comics about literature—the curriculum becomes a context for values-based interactions.

3. Invite

A third way to foster positive conversations about the curriculum is to invite community members to participate in creating it. To be clear: Educators should decide what the curriculum includes and how it's implemented, but curriculum design is a creative process, and engaging with others in that creative process can build relationships and a sense of common purpose.
In Authentic Engagement, I include a protocol for educators to give each other ideas for their curriculum: People students can talk to, places they can go, texts they can read or view, and activities they can do. There is no reason a protocol like this couldn't be used with students, their families, and other community members. You'll tap into hidden veins of community knowledge and make the curriculum a goal everyone can work toward.

A Manifestation of Values

Creating a curriculum is always a matter of deciding what's most important for students to know and do, and what anyone considers "most important" reflects that person's values. As a manifestation of values, the curriculum will often be a source of conflict as people uphold and protect what matters to them. But for the very reason the curriculum is an almost inevitable source of conflict, it can also be a source of community. In the process of having collaborative conversations about the curriculum, you can discover the shared values that make you a community in the first place.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ Have you had any tough conversations about curriculum with families? Do these concerns fall into one of the three areas Porosoff mentions?

➛ Do you feel you navigate such conversations well? If so, what tactics work best? If not, which of Porosoff's recommendations resonate most to try next time?

➛ Do you proactively create conversations about the curriculum with families and community members? If not, why not?

The PD Curator

When navigating tough conversations, it's crucial to have meaningful opportunities to listen to and learn from fellow educators. Lauren Porosoff shares practical tools for creating professional learning experiences that are inclusive and participatory.

The PD Curator

Borter, G., Ax, J., & Tanfani, J. (2022, February 15). School boards get death threats amid rage over race, gender, mask policies. Reuters.

Dupnack, J. (2022, May 18). Birmingham private school assignment compares Barack Obama to monkeys. Fox 2 Detroit.

Elassar, A., & Santana, M. (2022, January 16). A New York school district has apologized for a middle school Spanish assignment that some parents are calling racist. CNN.

Graham, S., & Perin, D. (2007). A meta-analysis of writing instruction for adolescent students. Journal of Educational Psychology99(3), 445–476.

Ighodaro, E., & Wiggan, G. (2010). Curriculum violence: America's new civil rights issue. Nova Science Publishers.

Jones, S. P. (2020). Ending curriculum violence. Learning for Justice64, 47–50.

McMenamin, L. (2022, March 28). A Boston high school history assignment asked students to list "positives" of imperialism. Teen Vogue.

Porosoff, L. (2023). Authentic engagement: Designing instruction so students connect with the content, their work, and each other. ASCD.

Porosoff, L., & Weinstein, J. (2022). EMPOWER moves for social-emotional learning: Tools and strategies to evoke student values. Solution Tree.

Schwartz, S. (2022, July 15). Map: Where critical race theory is under attack. Education Week.

Lauren Porosoff is the founder of EMPOWER Forwards, a collaborative consultancy practice that builds learning communities that truly belong to everyone and where everyone truly belongs. Lauren has taught in New York, Washington, DC, and Maryland. She has also served as a DEI coordinator, grade dean, and leader of curricular initiatives.

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Beyond the Textbook: Content and Curriculum
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