New Law? New Curriculum? What Do I Do?

New Law? New Curriculum? What Do I Do?

Cathy A.R. Brant

On Monday March 1, 2021 Governor Phil Murphy Signed Assembly Bill No. 4454 of which Section C.18A:35-4.36a which mandates that New Jersey K-12 public school curriculum to include instruction on diversity and inclusion:

Beginning in the 2021-2022 school year, each school district shall incorporate instruction on diversity and inclusion in an appropriate place in the curriculum of students in grades kindergarten through 12 as part of the district’s implementation of the New Jersey Student Learning Standards. b. The instruction shall: (1) highlight and promote diversity, including economic diversity, equity, inclusion, tolerance, and belonging in connection with gender and sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, disabilities, and religious tolerance; (2) examine the impact that unconscious bias and economic disparities have at both an individual level and on society as a whole; and (3) encourage safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for all students regardless of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, and religious beliefs (New Jersey Legislature, 2021)

For many teachers, it is a relief that it is now state law that issues of diversity and equity are mandated parts of the curriculum. In fact, in my work with pre-service teachers one of the most common threads I hear from my students is that they want to address issues of equity, racism, inclusion, homophobia, and other diversity related issues but have concerns about push-back from their colleagues, their administrators, and their students’ parents. For other teachers, it can seem like a daunting task to address these topics in an age-appropriate way, especially in the elementary grades.  In addition to the new diversity and inclusion law on June 3, 2020, the State Board of Education adopted the 2020 New Jersey Student Learning Standards (NJSLS) (State of New Jersey, Department of Education (2020), which go into effect during the 2022-2023 school year. This article lays out how this new curricular law could be covered in age-appropriate elementary grades using the new 2020 social studies standards. Additionally, curricular resources will be provided to help teachers address these topics.

New Jersey Diversity Law

The new NJ Diversity law has three areas of focus. The first area is highlighting and promotion of diversity.  This instruction should help children understand the differences that exist between people due to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, disability, religious differences, etc. The goal of this law, in the elementary school setting, is for young students to understand the ways in which diversity exists in the world and to see the commonalities between their lives and the lives of others.  This idea is not new. Multicultural Education (MCE) has been around for decades (cite).  Multicultural education “an approach to teaching and learning that is based upon the democratic values and beliefs and that affirms cultural pluralism within culturally diverse societies in an interdependent world” with the goal of fostering “the intellectual, social, and personal development of all students to their highest potential” (Bennett, 2003, p. 14). Students who engage in a robust multicultural curriculum learn about aspects of identities, to appreciate and value the diversity of others in the world, and to help students develop cross-cultural competence to prepare them for lifelong interactions with people who are different from themselves.

The second part of the law focuses on understanding unconscious biases. Unconscious biases, or implicit biases:

…are social stereotypes about certain groups of people that individuals form outside their own conscious awareness. Everyone holds unconscious beliefs about various social and identity groups, and these biases stem from one’s tendency to organize social worlds by categorizing.  Unconscious bias is far more prevalent than conscious prejudice and often incompatible with one’s conscious values (University of California-San Francisco, n.d.)

Children need to understand the ways that they may unintentionally engage in biased behavior that impacts others as well as understand the ways that bias, and discrimination exist at an institutional level.

The third section talks about the instruction itself in including encouraging safe, welcoming, and inclusive environments for all students.  In other words, the instruction should include the elements presented in the first two parts of the law but should also “[accept] and [affirm]the pluralisms (ethnic, racial, linguistic, religious, economic, and gender, among others) that students, their communities and teachers reflect” (Nieto and Bode, 2008, p. 44) in a way that all students feel welcomed in the classroom and school community.  The law explicitly articulates that this instruction should include topics of race or ethnicity, sexual and gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, and religious beliefs.

It is clear why this law was enacted. Students need purposeful inclusion of cultural education in the elementary classroom (McCarty, 2010). As the children of New Jersey grow up, they continue to interact with those of different races or ethnicities, sexual or gender identities, mental and physical disabilities, and religious beliefs and will need to be prepared to be aware of the local as well as the global community (Kirkwood, 2001). They will be aware of global issues that go beyond their backyards such as global pandemics, the climate crisis, poverty, and other global inequities and transnational migration. Teachers, both explicitly and implicitly, make daily instructional decisions about “how students perceive their own culture, their nation, the lives of people around the world, and the issues and conflicts facing the planet” (Merryfield, 2002, p. 19), so there needs to be a deliberate shift in making this instruction explicit so that students can become productive citizens of their community and the world.

2020 New Jersey Social Studies Student Learning Standards

One of the major changes to the new NJSLS is the re-banding of the standards from K-4, 5-8, 9-12 to the following bands: K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. The new standards lay out the core ideas which “represent the knowledge and skills that they should be able to apply to new situations outside of the school experience” (State of New Jersey, Department of Education, 2020, p. 22). Curriculum writers and educators can use these core ideas as the basis for formative, summative, and benchmark assessments. Additionally, the standards describe the performance expectations, what students should know and be able to do by the end of the band.  The 2021 NJSLS have 18 key disciplinary concepts from the four main disciplinary domains of social studies: civics, geography, economics and history. See Table 1:

Table 1: 2021 NJSLS key disciplinary concepts:

Civics, Government, and Human Rights Civic and Political InstitutionsParticipation and DeliberationDemocratic PrinciplesProcesses and RulesHuman and Civil RightsCivic MindednessGeography, People and the Environment Spatial Views of the World Human Population Patterns Human Environment InteractionGlobal InterconnectionsEconomics, Innovation and Technology Exchange and Markets National EconomyGlobal EconomyHistory, Culture, and Perspectives Continuity and ChangeUnderstanding Perspectives Historical Sourcing and Evidence Claims and Argumentation  

In addition to the core disciplinary concepts, the new standards also present core ideas under each of these disciplinary concepts which students should be able to achieve by the end of a grade level. It is easy to see how many of these can be connected to highlighting and promoting the diversity of others. For example, under the concept of History, Culture, and Perspectives: Understanding Perspectives, by the end of Grade 2 students should be able understand that 1) Two or more individuals can have a different understanding of the same event, and 2) Respecting and understanding the views of others helps one learn about various perspectives, thoughts, and cultures. By the end of grade 5, students will be able to understand 1) Respecting and understanding the views of others helps one learn about various perspectives, thoughts, and cultures, and 2) Events may be viewed differently based on one’s perspective (State of New Jersey, Department of Education, 2020, p. 18). This is just one example of the explicit connections between the new standards and the diversity law, but what is even more important are the pedagogical practices on how to teach these concepts.

Lesson Ideas

In this section I will highlight four specific indicators, three from the K-2 band and one from the 3-5 band.  These indicators have been selected as they directly relate to the new legislation. This should serve as affirmation for elementary grade teachers that they can and are required to teach this content. One of the best ways to help students see themselves reflected and affirmed in the curriculum, and to provide windows into the lives of others who may differ from them is through high quality children’s literature (Sims Bishop, 1990). In addition to discussing how the standards can be addressed in the curriculum, I will highlight high quality multicultural children’s literature that will help teachers do so. The kindergarten through second grade standards opens up spaces in elementary classrooms to lay the foundation for addressing issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion. The third grade through fifth grade band allows teachers to add layers to what the kindergarten through second grade teachers introduced.  Once students understand that differences exist, how stereotyping and prejudice is problematic, and promoting ideas of tolerance and respect for others, teachers and students adapt a more critical lens, going beyond their own experiences to focusing on the experiences of others and greater system issues of discrimination and marginalization.

6.1.2.CivicsCM.3: Explain how diversity, tolerance, fairness, and respect for others can contribute to individuals feeling accepted.

With young children, we need to scaffold their understanding of the concepts of diversity, tolerance, fairness, and respect. Even in the youngest grades, teachers can have conversations with children about their identities, affirming their identities, and helping them appreciate and value the differences between their identities and the identities of others (Teaching Tolerance, 2018). Setting this groundwork in the early grades can allow for explicit instruction, in later grades, on more complex aspects of these topics such as personal biases and systemic oppression. The Day You Beginwritten by Jacqueline Woodson (Woodson, 2018) is a perfect book to help introduce the concepts of diversity, tolerance, fairness, and respect to young children, and helping students see the commonalities between each other. Angelina comes to school and notices the many ways in which she is different from her peers, including her skin color, hair texture, and is nervous to share the fact that she and her family did not go on any big or exciting trips over the summer vacation. Rigoberto, an immigrant from Venezuela, is embarrassed when his classmates laugh at his accent. Another student is upset when a classmate criticizes her lunch of meat, rice and kimchi. Woodson, then, has Angelina share her story about her summer vacation, and other students begin to make connections. Woodson encourages the reader to not only recognize the difference between people and not to treat people poorly because of them, but for each reader to have a sense of pride in the ways in which they are different and special.

6.1.2.HistoryUP.3: Use examples from the past and present to describe how stereotyping and prejudice can lead to conflict.

In almost every elementary classroom, teachers have heard students say phrases like, “Girls can’t do that” or “That’s a girl’s toy, not a boy’s toy,” or “Pink can’t be your favorite color, you’re a boy!” Pink is for Boys by Robb Perlmann and illustrated by Eda Kaben (Perlmann, 2018) is a book that would serve as a great entry point to talk about how stereotypes and prejudice can lead to conflict. The book goes through the various colors of the rainbow and states that the color is for both boys and girls. The book encourages children to do what they love, regardless of the gender stereotypes associated with that activity.  A teacher can read this book and have explicit discussions with children about the times that they were made fun of or criticized for liking things that were stereotypical for another gender. The teacher could lead the students to engage in critical work to think about why certain colors, toys, clothes, etc. are marketed to a specific gender instead of to all genders.  This text could also lead into conversations about children who do not fit into the gender binary.  After beginning a lesson or a unit on exploring gender stereotypes, the teacher could then introduce a book about a transgender such as When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff.  This text tells the story of Aidan, who when he was born, everyone thought he was a girl, but was really a transgender boy.  The book discusses how Aidan’s self-image changed when he was able to be his authentic self. This book is an excellent resource to introduce the topic of transgender individuals and how they should be treated.

6.1.5.CivicsPD.3: Explain how and why it is important that people from diverse cultures collaborate to find solutions to community, state, national, and global challenges.

The goal of this standard is for students to take the skills that they have started to learn in earlier grades about understanding and valuing cultural differences to begin to understand how people with those cultural differences can work together. This is important for students to understand the problem solving that goes on in their communities, their state, their nation, and in the world.  Students can begin to see how issues like global warming, war and poverty are relevant in the United States but across the globe and that everyone needs to do their part to work together to begin to solve these problems. Harlem Grown by Tony Hillery is a great place for young students to see how people can come together to make a difference in their community. This book is the true story about how the author, with the help of his community, turned an empty lot in Harlem, New York into a community farm (Hillery, 2020).  The book shows the way that This book could be paired with Seedfolks by Paul Fleischman. Seedfolks is a similar story set in Cleveland, Ohio in which a young Vietnamese girl plants seeds in an empty lot near her home. As her plants began to grow, other neighbors from diverse backgrounds began to plant their own fruits and vegetables. The book shares the rich diversity of the neighborhood and how the community garden brought these very different people together.

6.1.5.HistoryCC: Evaluate the impact of ideas, inventions, and other contributions of prominent figures who lived in New Jersey.

In addition to celebrating New Jersey heroes like astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, author Judy Bloom, and inventor Thomas Edison, we need to be explicit in highlighting the contributions and accomplishments of New Jersey who come from diverse backgrounds including jazz artist Count Basie, Joe Black, the first African American to win a World Series Game, suffragist Lucy Stone, and actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. Robeson was born in Princeton, New Jersey, was an All-American football player at Rutgers College (now Rutgers University), and then got his law degree.  Despite having a degree in law, Robeson became a singer, actor and activist. Robeson believed that part of his responsibilities as a celebrity was to fight inequity and injustice. Grandpa Stops a War: A Paul Robeson Story is one example of a book that can be shared with upper elementary students. In the book the author, Susan Robeson (Paul Robeson’s granddaughter), shares the story of her grandfather using his singing talent to help raise funds for those displaced during the Spanish Civil War. What is especially poignant about this book is that fact that Robeson used his natural gifts, of song, to help make a change. A book, such as this, can help students see the ways that they can be who they are and positively impact their communities and the world. This book could also be combined with others about other activists for equality such as Lucy Stone, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Cesar Chavez.

Concluding Thoughts

These are just four examples of the intersections between the new New Jersey Assembly Bill No. 4454 and the 2020 Social Studies NJLS. One of the challenges that teachers face when thinking about enacting these two elements are resources. Teachers want to know where to find information that will provide them with the background knowledge, they need to teach these concepts and the tools needed to effectively do so. There are a few resources I specifically recommend. First, I highly recommend that all teachers review Learning for Justice’s (formerly Teaching Tolerance) website, and more specifically, their Social Justice Standards (https://www.learningforjustice.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/TT-Social-Justice-Standards-Anti-bias-framework-2020.pdf).  The Zinn Education project (https://www.zinnedproject.org) is another valuable resource for teachers with downloadable lessons and materials for teachers to use to promote the experiences, voices and perspectives of those not typically highlighted in textbooks such as people of color, Indigenous people and women. Another place that teachers can find resources is the National Council of the Social Studies Notable Trade Book list (https://www.socialstudies.org/notable-social-studies-trade-books).  This annually released list of books is a phenomenal resource for teachers, as the books are reviewed by both university faculty and classroom teachers and are annotated with a brief summary that includes the appropriate grade levels for the text.

While the new curriculum and the new New Jersey diversity law can seem daunting for New Jersey elementary social studies teachers, it is important to know that these two documents are supportive of each other. The new standards are more explicit in the emphasis on issues of equity, tolerance and difference, and the law mandates that teachers teach this content. The goal is to prepare the youth of New Jersey to work, live and play with others in our ever increasingly diverse state and country.

Picture Books Cited:

Fleischman, P. (2004). Seedfolks. HarperTrophy.

Hillery, T. (2020). Harlem grown: How one big idea transformed a neighborhood.  Simon Schuster/Paula Wiseman Books.

Lukoff, K. (2019). When Aidan became a brother. Lee & Low Books.

Perlman, R. (2018). Pink is for boys. Running Press Kids.

Robeson, S. (2019). Grandpa stops a war: A Paul Robeson story. Triangle Square.

References

Bennett, C. I. (2003).  Comprehensive multicultural education: Theory and practice (5th ed). Allyn and Bacon. 

Kirkwood, T. F. (2001). Our global age requires global education: Clarifying definitional ambiguities. Social Studies, 92(1), 10. https://doi-org.ezproxy.rowan.edu/10.1080/00377990109603969

McCarty, D. M. (2007). Using multicultural National Council for the Social Studies Notable Books in the elementary classroom. Social Studies, 98(2), 49–53. https://doi-org.ezproxy.rowan.edu/10.3200/TSSS.98.2.49-53

Merryfield, M. M. (2002). The Difference a Global Educator Can Make. Educational Leadership, 60(2), 18.

New Jersey Legislature (2021) Chapter 32. Retrieved from https://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2020/Bills/PL21/32_.PDF

Nieto, S., & Bode, P. (2008). Affirming diversity: The sociopolitical context of multicultural education (5th ed.). Longman. 

Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3), ix-xi.

State of New Jersey, Department of Education (2020), New Jersey Learning Standards. Retrieved from https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf

Teaching Tolerance (2018). Social justice standards: The teaching tolerance anti-bias framework, https://www.learningforjustice.org/sites/default/files/2020-09/TT-Social-Justice-Standards-Anti-bias-framework-2020.pdf

University of California-San Francisco (n.d.). Unconscious Bias. https://diversity.ucsf.edu/resources/unconscious-bias


 

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