Great Minds® asked Kyair Butts, the 2019 Teacher of the Year for Baltimore City Public Schools, why diversity in English language arts curricula, such as Wit & Wisdom®, is important.
Diversity in curricula, including in Wit & Wisdom, is a topic that came up often in my travels in 2019 and on social media platforms with various educators. We all feel strongly that it’s crucial to have diverse words, themes, characters, and more in front of our students. What do you see when you look in a mirror? I see strength, resilience, humility, and passion. I see myself. What do you see when you look out of a window while in a car? The busy world passing you by. Folks who might look like you outwardly but, inwardly, could be different in their belief systems and backgrounds.
I believe that students should see the ever-evolving integration and diversity that is the mirror and the window that we call our world. Students need to be able to see themselves and what they’re reading as the mirror, but they also need to be prepared to look out the window and see a world that values them, and also a world that looks different from them.
That’s Wit & Wisdom, a curriculum founded on the driving belief that every child is capable of greatness.
In sixth grade, most of the students I teach are Black. We start off the year reading Bud, Not Buddy. The main character is Black. We talk a lot about how the Depression affected Black people.
Then we read Out of the Dust. There did come a point in my first year of Wit & Wisdom implementation where I asked myself, What are my kids going to find in common with a 14-year-old White girl from Oklahoma in Depression-era America? It’s funny because my kids seem to focus more on the experiences of the character than on how the character looks. We talk a lot about the following questions: How does Billie Jo respond to hardship? How did Billie Jo make a plan to intentionally change her relationship with her father? How did Billie Jo respond to the symbolism of dust or rain? And what about despair, right?
Billie Jo is a window for my students, into another time and place. Her hardship and resilience are a mirror for my sixth graders, as they make connections to emotions and tests of character and integrity that are universal. These are the experiences that connect us all as citizens of the world. The powerful, poignant lesson is the recognition that those who don’t share our skin color do share our humanity. Students consider how they would react in challenging situations. They consider other stories they’ve read with similar themes and compare and contrast characters’ motivations and responses. They’re proud to develop this understanding and their ability to talk about it, and they should be, as they’re honing their capacity to absorb ever-more complex, multi-thematic texts.
A good curriculum uses a mix of texts that build knowledge and perspective across the human experience, from authors of various races, backgrounds, and more. The curriculum, in addition to the core texts, might use film, music, photographs, journalism, and more to deepen knowledge. The curriculum presents a wealth of opportunities for the teacher to present windows and mirrors to and build context for students.
In Wit & Wisdom Grade 6 Module 2: A Hero’s Journey, what I really want students to take away from the reading is not to become experts on The Ramayana, but to have an appreciation of another culture and how it tells stories. I also want them to appreciate the narrative writing process and to value storytelling and story writing as well. Those are the big takeaways: value your voice, value sharing your voice, be proud of your voice.
Blood on the River (a book about the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607) is not my favorite, and there is a little bit of whitewashing with regard to the treatment of indentured servants and in the descriptions of Native Americans. I use the whitewashing as a teachable moment to share more about the term whitewashing. I bring in other accounts and media to continue the knowledge building.
To my students: What do you see when you look in the mirror? I hope you see how powerful you are with the knowledge you’ve acquired because of the diversity of your interests and skills. What do you see when you look out of the window? I hope you can describe a beautifully kinetic world whose very diversity amplifies how special you are because your very being enhances the differences others see out of their window.
Kyair Butts is the 2019 Teacher of the Year for Baltimore City Public Schools. He teaches Grade 7 English language arts at Henderson Hopkins Partnership School.