3 Ways to Center Students in Curriculum

by | 03.28.22

Kennita Ballard is an ELA teacher in Louisville, KY. Follow her on Twitter @iheart6ela.

We see more growth toward learning outcomes when we plan for the child as a whole in our teaching, as opposed to putting learning in one box, culture in another box and family engagement in another. It all has to go together. We have to be in partnership with our students and families, coddesigning curriculum and pedagogy.

In this three-part series, I’ll share codesigning strategies that work well for me, and I hope you’ll find some inspiration, too! – Kennita Ballard, Teacher in Louisville, KY

I’m grateful to teach at a school that was designed to empower and advocate for Black and Brown girls. We’re a STEAM school with an Afrocentric curriculum, and the work is all very exciting, but what’s most thrilling is seeing how our student-centered approach helps our students feel like the brilliant learners and intellectuals they are. 

In our classrooms, we believe our students have a powerful role to play in shaping their own education. By inviting student voice into our decisions as teachers, we codesign classrooms that truly start with our unique learners. 

I want to share 3 ways we can codesign our curriculum and pedagogy with students, so they become active partners in their education:

1. Go further with representation in texts.

Most teachers I know seek to include diverse narratives and viewpoints in our classroom libraries and curriculum, but my students have challenged me to see this as just the starting point. In our effort to ensure we’re not centering white voices, we can sometimes make the mistake of bringing in the same stories about people of color again and again.

When it comes to my students’ identities, being Black or Brown is not the end of it. In our classroom, we are Brown and Black women, we are Black and Brown nonbinary folks, we are Black and Brown Muslims, we are Black and Brown intellectuals. My students have told me they want to see more Black and Brown narratives in the form of graphic novels, sci-fi and fantasy. They want to see more women and girls and nonbinary folks as characters. We need to make sure they’re seeing relevant materials that reflect all they are and all they can be. 

2. Ask students for feedback regularly, and implement their suggestions.

We need to be in the habit of asking our students: What do I need to bring into the classroom space for you? What are you not seeing enough of here? How can we create a more powerful sense of belonging? Historically, these questions haven’t often been asked of Black and Brown students, and inviting their input is an act of empowerment. 

For me, this means asking students for feedback all the time. I offer both anonymous and non-anonymous surveys. The non-anonymous surveys give students an opportunity to communicate with me privately, and anonymous surveys offer me another useful data point.

Students have given me feedback on the types of texts they want to read, the amount of discussion they want in the classroom and the questions they want us to explore together.  

3. Put the individual student at the center of the curriculum design.

As a language arts teacher, centering my students begins with using a reading and writing workshop model, in which learners are using their advocacy skills to shape their learning each day. 

They help select the tasks that will best grow their understanding or allow them to demonstrate mastery. They help select the types of texts we read together.

When we put the student at the center of our curriculum design, we don’t have to fight to bring student culture into classrooms, because the students are bringing themselves. We get further in our planning when we start by getting to know our students, asking them about their needs and then asking ourselves: What do I need to bring in to connect to these unique people in front of me? 

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