Breaking Glass: Curriculum “Diversity” and Its Discontents

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Breaking Glass: Curriculum “Diversity” and Its Discontents

Between the first time I read Tennessee Williams’s play The Glass Menagerie and my current round of teaching it in Hungary, some 40 years and scores of readings have gone by, but I still look forward to its language and atmosphere. This dreamlike memory-play has no heroes or villains; its four characters weave through bravery and folly, through obsession and practicality.

Set during the Great Depression in St. Louis, it shows a private side of an era of mass destitution, uncertainty, and despair. It can be read for its poetry, its indeterminate genre, its directorial challenges, its subtle characters, its context, and more. Yet if evaluated according to a “culturally responsive curriculum checklist”—an increasingly common item in teachers’ toolkits—Williams’s play would be flagged as problematic (at best).

In recent years, the call for greater curricular diversity has grown louder and more urgent. Schools and districts around the United States have been rewriting their English curricula to reflect students’ backgrounds—partly to increase student motivation and, with it, achievement. From the California Department of Education’s Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum to the Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard, a tool created by the NYU Metro Center “to help parents, teachers, students, and community members determine the extent to which their schools’ English Language Arts curricula are (or are not) culturally responsive,” teachers face a barrage of calls for a curriculum that reflects the students’ diverse demographic characteristics. The idea can make sense if implemented thoughtfully—that is, with good judgment rather than a prescriptive checklist, which will only encourage mediocre literature and discussion.

For example, the NYU Metro Center’s Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecard invites the user to evaluate K–8 curricula strictly on the basis of demographic representation, social justice messages, and inclusive classroom practices. On the first page of the scorecard, the user is instructed to take a “diversity of characters tally”—that is, to count the numbers of characters described as Middle Eastern, Asian/Pacific Islander, Black/African, Latinx, Native American, white, racially ambiguous, multiracial, people with disabilities, or animals, and then to tally authors similarly. On the following pages, users are asked to evaluate the truth of statements like “The curriculum features visually diverse characters, and the characters of color do not all look alike”; “Characters with disabilities are represented”; “Social situations and problems are not seen as individual problems but are situated within a societal context”; “Gender is not central to the storyline. Female characters are in a variety of roles that could also be filled by a male character”; and “The curriculum communicates an asset-based perspective by representing people of diverse races, classes, genders, abilities and sexual orientations through their strengths, talents and knowledge rather than their perceived flaws or deficiencies.” While the checklist is intended primarily for K–8 English curricula, its authors recommend trying it with other grades or subjects as well. They make no disclaimers; for instance, they do not suggest that the scorecard’s criteria should be weighed alongside other considerations. The scorecard has the last word.

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Source: Breaking Glass: Curriculum “Diversity” and Its Discontents

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