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“The lack of racial representation in histories being taught throughout the district” was a call to action for Denver Public Schools (DPS), as stated in a resolution that was passed in October 2020. This Know Justice Know Peace Resolution asserted that culturally sustaining practices would be enacted so that histories, stories, and contributions of diverse communities are taught to all students throughout all courses. This proclamation was the first of many steps to ​​ensure that “curriculum and professional practices include comprehensive historical and contemporary contributions [of] Black, Indigenous, and Latino communities.”

In December of 2023, CommonGood completed a full scale adaptation of a popular ELA curriculum to support changes the district was striving towards the values of the Know Justice Know Peace Resolution. Working closely with the DPS Humanities team, CommonGood employed co-design to shift the OER curriculum towards the district’s vision for text-first instruction and culturally sustaining pedagogy.

The effort began in fall 2022 when CommonGood, district members, and community members came together to form a curriculum adaptation team. This team was brought together to co-develop a rubric to analyze the curriculum and determine the path forward. “We knew that to help the team get traction, they would need a strong and evidence-based definition for culturally sustaining curriculum," said CommonGood co-founder Evan Gutiérrez. “We spent months digging into scholarship, learning about curricular models aligned to asset pedagogies that have been proven to move the needle in our communities.” The team came to a shared understanding of these models to support next steps.

In addition to alignment to the best current learning science, the team also had a number of district policies that curriculum had to meet, such as ensuring that “Black and African American, Indigenous and Latino lives and contributions must be infused in all courses and not exclusive to Social Studies” as stated in the Know Justice Know Peace Resolution. The team used their shared understanding and the district’s and community’s specific needs to develop a rubric to analyze curriculum.

Equipped with an evidence-based tool of their own design in early 2023, the Humanities team involved educators in analyzing their current curriculum. They found both assets and gaps. “We were facing two primary challenges with the original OER curriculum’s design. First, our Tier 1 vision is rooted in a text-first approach to literacy instruction and EL's design is more standards-first. Second, while EL's text list is generally compelling, the design of the modules falls short of our expectations for cultural sustainability.” said Katie Custer, manager for secondary humanities in DPS. 

With an understanding of the gaps and a clear vision of what success would look like, the humanities team and CommonGood proposed potential design shifts to DPS teachers, asking them to weigh in on what would be most useful. “Being able to work with an expert partner to adapt a centralized curriculum has built rapport and trust with school partners. They see us, as a central office team, hearing and applying their feedback to change the centrally offered resources.” said Custer. 

CommonGood co-founder Dr. Carly Muetterties shared that “our analysis and discussions with the community did not point to minor edits. As we dug into the original designs, with consensus on how best to interpret and apply the scholarship and what a culturally sustaining curriculum should do, we found pathways for substantial improvements.” She added, “Our approach included reframing units around themes and questions that were more authentic to the communities centered in the texts, supporting teachers and students with resources to contextualize readings in their academic and sociohistorical contexts, constructed language development supports, and more.” 

While thinking about the plans for the new unit designs, one DPS teacher stated that “more context – historical, intellectual, cultural – are critical for all teachers, especially dominant culture teachers, who don’t have time to curate the right mindset and materials to present a BIPOC text with proper respect and understanding to reduce unconscious biases and microaggressions. Teachers are also likely to build their own curiosity about cultural backgrounds of authors and cultures if the framing language gives intriguing contexts that reframe texts in important, refreshing ways.”

Within the year, new unit designs were being piloted in DPS classrooms. “Reframing the units with new intellectual preparation documents, text summaries, and task adaptations has created the opportunity for more text-first and culturally sustaining implementation of EL. Additionally, the project has been an impetus for conversations that are helping to start to build a shared understanding of culturally and linguistically sustaining curriculum materials that go beyond representation. The translanguaging tools have allowed us to point teachers to resources to support our large population of Spanish-speaking multilingual learners, particularly as we adapt to meet the needs of our newly arrived students from Central and South America.” said Custer.

Teachers who were involved in the process and piloted the new unit designs stated that they loved “the way it supports horizontal alignment and can ground teachers in the essential know's and do's of the curriculum.” Another teacher shared that they “thought that the intellectual prep document was super helpful and will allow teachers to fully understand what is so magical about this book.” Another commented on the translanguaging supports stating, “​​I think that the push to celebrate biliteracy is so important and I feel that this will help push that in more schools. I also appreciate that this is not just English centered but allow[s] students to engage in multiple languages.”

Gutiérrez is thinking about the future implications of this work. “There are two things on my mind. First, that a culturally and linguistically sustaining curriculum is attainable. The decision to center our students' assets does not need to be esoteric—it's a set of design questions that can be answered. The second is that communities can be deeply involved in design. Feedback sessions are not enough—these adaptations have DPS leaders, teachers, and community members fingerprints all over them. That’s what makes them strong.”

Even given the ambitious aims and a brisk timeline, Custer is optimistic for the shifts that community-led co-design will make in DPS classrooms: “Our hope for students is that they feel affirmed, connected, and important in their English Language Arts classrooms. We hope they experience content that is honest and compelling and that they have opportunities to cultivate knowledge and skills that represent their own cultural intellectual traditions. We hope they develop cultural competence and critical lenses to become active, empathetic stewards of our community.” 

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