The Student News Site of the Latin School of Chicago

Curriculum: A Quest for Accuracy, Equity and Continuity

April 5, 2022


Elro Starr

Illustration by Elro Starr: Though DEI conversations have often taken place during gatherings or special programing, Latin is making an effort to bring them into classrooms now, too.

Curriculum is the fifth and final thrust of Latin’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Action Plan. Under this focus, Latin’s DEI team arranged to begin a two-year curricular review using the Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards. These “anchor standards” include Identity, Diversity, Action and Justice, and have been used as a complement to the school’s structured plan for the academic year.

In efforts to assess where the school stands relative to Learning for Justice standards, the DEI team created a four-phase model: 1) review DEI assets and challenges, 2) develop a plan of action, 3) develop a plan to highlight successes, and 4) develop and implement a DEI improvement plan. Via the school’s DEI Institutional Goals, specific action steps with regard to curricular improvement include “develop[ing] a process for DEI coordinators and Academic Council to collaborate on curricular review and goal setting/scope and sequence, evaluat[ing] curriculum through the lens of protecting and incorporating the perspectives and contributions of underrepresented identities, and provid[ing] professional development opportunities related to the Learning for Justice Social Justice Standards.”

A presentation to all faculty at the beginning of the academic year outlined this plan and how the DEI team sought its implementation in the curriculum at Latin. The finer details, however, were mostly left to the discretion of each teacher. “As a new teacher, I haven’t really been told what I can or cannot do in terms of DEI work,” Upper School history teacher Deborah Linder said. “It’s just assumed—I think when I was hired, I met with Ms. [Eleannor] Maajid and—to be clear, I applied to this school with a cover letter explaining how important DEI work is to me—I don’t think they would consider anybody for this job who doesn’t find that important.”

“Multiple inputs informed these goals including results from the 2019-20 climate assessment, annual survey results, LEAD (our strategic design), the Survivors of Latin Instagram page, and Demanding Accountability group demands,” said Ms. Maajid, Latin’s Director of DEI. Each of these calls to action, as well as the Incidents of Bias Protocol that followed, allowed departments—the humanities in particular—to look inward at whether their respective curricula integrated the aforementioned anchor standards. This reflection period engaged all three divisions of Latin, as well as various sub-groups of faculty with specific roles pertaining to DEI and curricular planning.

“More faculty up and down the grade levels are thinking about how they adjust their curriculum to be more reflective of the issues that pertain to DEI,” Head of School Randall Dunn said. “One of the things that we just did was hold a meeting with the Academic Programming Committee to share some examples of how we have integrated DEI at the various grade levels throughout the school.”

While DEI issues are those that can be recognized across subjects, the History Department has taken the new plan as an opportunity to improve their teaching approach on all fronts. Ms. Linder said, “The beautiful thing about our United States History team is that [DEI] is all we think about. It is central to how we teach, it’s intentional, but it’s also who we are as historians—it’s instinctual.”

Specifically, curriculum-wise, Upper School history teacher Stephanie Stephens said, “We think carefully about Socratic seminar questions, as well as sources, perspectives, and direction.” These are some of the primary components of lesson planning that teachers have had to purposefully adopt to ensure the equity of their delivery.

Senior Sofia Presser said, “Over my four years in high school and my many years at Latin, I have noticed subtle changes in how certain topics are framed in class, and particularly in a subject like history. More and more, we are taught to approach it as something multifaceted rather than something with one ‘correct’ perspective.”

Echoing Sofia, senior Kelvin Kissi said, “I think DEI in curricula is something that can always be developed and improved—perfection doesn’t really exist. But Latin has definitely made progress in this area, even in small ways like bringing in speakers to talk to us about different aspects of DEI, and I am hopeful that it will continue to do so after my grade leaves.”

Recently, the DEI team brought interfaith educator Eboo Patel in as the Upper School’s designated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day of Commemoration speaker. In keeping with Latin’s current theme of “Nourishing Our Sense of Belonging: Embracing Our Identities as Individuals and as a Community,” Mr. Patel shared his own religious journey as well as his current mission as founder of Interfaith Youth Core (IFYC) to “work towards ‘an America where people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions can bridge differences and find common values to build a shared life together.’”

Religion has historically been of the lesser-broached brackets of DEI at Latin, so many found Mr. Patel’s presentation to be both refreshing and informative. “His talk really resonated with me, especially the part about whether our identity is based on opposing something or embracing something,” senior Clark Patton said. “I’d never thought about diversity that way.”

Becoming a more forward-thinking community—with the help of speakers like Mr. Patel, course readings or otherwise—has been the goal of the DEI team since the implementation of its action plan; whether the progress is immediately observed is a lesser concern. “It’s been very much a concerted effort, but it’s nuanced,” Mr. Dunn said. “I think what we’ve done is taken the books that we are already using and found ways to integrate the issues and the topics and the relevant material within those particular subjects.”

Ultimately, tangible changes to curriculum are left to the discretion of those with collective oversight of a certain subject. “Decisions are made at the division level, usually beginning with the teacher, the department chair, or the relevant person who has oversight of the area of study and the division director,” Mr. Dunn continued. “Those are the most significant folks involved in that process. If there is a change in regard to a major all-school process, I get involved with that as well.”

Said decision-making is largely informed by what is shared among faculty—a large percentage of whom are frequently reading about new ways to think and educate. Over the summer, the book Grading For Equity by Joe Feldman was circulated widely, as was a professional development lecture series that several teachers—including Ms. Linder, Middle and Upper School language teacher Elissabeth Legendre, Upper School history teacher Lucie Wright and Upper School history teacher Matthew June—dedicated their Monday nights to attending. Ms. Linder said, “We talk about being active anti-racists and how we do that in the classroom, and it made me rethink the world.”

“Active antiracism” has become somewhat of a buzzterm recently, generating both support and backlash nationwide. Frankly, efforts to improve any community bring with them inevitable disdain from some. And given that many of the current conversations at Latin revolve around race and how it affects an individual’s day-to-day life, teachers have attempted to mitigate adverse responses by considering how lessons on race might affect every identity on the receiving end.

“If I as a white person know that we are talking about race, I know that historically white folks have been the cause for tons of harm,” Ms. LC said. “So if whiteness is a part of my identity, then I might feel threatened about having a conversation if I think that the only thing of value is that this is going to be an entire conversation about how I’m terrible. So if I thought about how that was going to go, I probably wouldn’t want to have that conversation, either.”

Keeping this in mind, Ms. Maajid offered perspective on how Latin’s DEI team has taken backlash and unease in stride. “I think that nothing is ever void of backlash,” she said. “You are going to always have some kind of backlash regardless of what you do and how you do it. There is always going to be somebody or someone, some people, who may not like what you do. But if we are consistent in our message and the work that we do, we can stand behind the fact that we know who we are, why we are doing what we are doing, and I think that’s the biggest thing.”

Echoing Ms. Maajid, Mr. Dunn said, “Certain people see things with certain clarity. I think people are much more inclined to not push back if they feel as if people sort of get where they are coming from or understand their lived experiences. I don’t know if it’s too much to ask of the school to think they can do all that. It’s a heavy lift to change people’s hearts and minds, so people are going to push back, not everybody is going to agree, but I think it is really, from a human perspective, good for people to feel like they’ve been heard.”

Curriculum is a totality of student experiences, and Latin continues to work diligently to shape its own as such. DEI is becoming a requisite component of modern education, and a combined effort on behalf of teachers and administration is necessary to emphasize its relevance across subjects. As it stands today, Ms. Linder concluded, “[The system] is not perfect—nobody’s perfect, but we’re constantly working towards being better.”

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