By Maya Pockrose
AHS English teachers piled into the classroom of Matthew Cincotta (a fellow AHS English teacher) after school one unseasonably warm October afternoon for one of their regular meetings to discuss classes and curricula. Chocolate-covered almonds circulated around the table as everybody got settled, talking and laughing, before Deborah Perry, the district English director, began the meeting.
As a goal, the Arlington Public Schools district strives to achieve cultural competency. According to the National Education Association, cultural competence is “the ability to successfully teach students who come from a culture or cultures different than our own” (NEA). Perry says that a goal of the English department at AHS is to “put an increased emphasis on voice and perspective” as well as to “help kids find their own voices, and see other people’s voices.”
At AHS, there is an emphasis on a “living curriculum” that is “always changing and morphing to the times,” in the words of Cincotta. Justin Bourassa feels that “it can always be better,” but the department is “getting much better representation in terms of protagonists [and] much better representation in terms of the authors and their identities, across all spectrums and all factors of identities.” But teachers also want students to feel included and seen even if the books do not feature characters who exactly match their own identities: Megan Miller says focusing on students’ voices provides “an opportunity for students to take their own unique perspective” and think about “what their voice can contribute, just like the character or the authors contributing a voice.”
The English Department is working hard to emphasize perspective. Bourassa clarifies that the department is not embracing different perspectives “simply to check boxes,” but rather they are choosing “good, powerful pieces of literature” that also stem from different origins. One course that particularly emphasizes these choices is the Missing Voices 12th grade course. In the curriculum for that course, teachers have been “broadening” the texts they use and have and “knocked walls down,” according to Bourassa. Perry notes how “in the last four years or so [the department has] consciously changed the senior Missing Voices course” to introduce new and different voices and texts.
Accessibility is also key to diversity in an English curriculum. Perry says that “even adding a graphic novel is another way to add diversity” and telling a story through visuals “is a whole other way of seeing.” And approach plays a key role, as well. “Even if it is an older piece of literature, the lens might be different dependent on the times,” explains Lauren Geiger. She adds that “your parents didn’t read Fahrenheit 451 the same way we are reading it now,” which is why older texts still hold value and have merit even today.
Though the English department is making great strides in adding different types of diversity, it is certainly a group effort that takes time and thought. Erin Bradley, emphasizes that she and other English teachers “all need to and … want to put in that effort to keep [the] curriculum fresh and keep it reflecting the society we see around us.” Bourassa brings up “the idea of ‘updating,’” and notes that “there are a lot of very contemporary texts that are also very good, teachable, powerful, meaningful texts.”
The AHS English curriculum is constantly evolving, and the department has not stopped examining their curriculum and making changes as everyone sees fit. This aligns with the National Education Association’s assertion that “educators become culturally competent over time” and not “as a result of a single day of training, or reading a book, or taking a course.” And the teachers at AHS are certainly putting in that time and effort. The district as a whole is very supportive of this initiative as well; Geiger feels that “the great thing about Arlington is that we’re, as professionals, really afforded the creative space and time to focus on what we teach and how we approach it.” And none of these changes are made arbitrarily or artificially; as Bourassa says, the department is not “doing anything for the sake of doing it.”