Building Diversity into the Common Core

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I’m a Teaching Tolerance Fellow, and I’m working to develop classroom resources that balance the requirements of the Common Core State Standards with culturally responsive instruction. I’m hoping to draw upon our readers’ expertise to meet this challenge. What readings or texts do you recommend that answer the call of the Common Core and culturally responsive pedagogy?

We see the Common Core as a powerful opportunity to build diversity into instruction and encourage powerful dialogue. Paulo Friere, the Brazilian educator, talked about “reading the word and reading the world.” The words we read, write and speak carry perspective, context and origin. No text is neutral. There is always voice. When planning literacy instruction, we place our students into a dialogue with the authors and texts we assign. The more text-to-self and text-to-world connections a student can make, the more equitable and powerful the dialogue will be.

Why Texts Matter
As culturally responsive educators navigate the new Common Core State Standards for Literacy, we’re challenged to accommodate the instructional “shifts” called for in the standards. If we get it right, the result will be a transformative literacy experience for our students.

At the core of culturally responsive pedagogy is the idea that education must account for the lived experiences and cultural reference points of students. Culturally responsive teachers craft the education their particular students deserve—one that acknowledges their voice, validates their concerns and connects to their experiences. In the literacy context, this can mean giving students things to read that are by or about people with whom they can relate and allowing students to write on topics they care about.

We must also challenge our students and not patronize them by merely reenacting what they already know. We want to become what Jacqueline Jordan Irvine calls “cultural bridge builders.” Our job is to search for ways to relate the less familiar with the more familiar, increasing our students’ vocabulary and knowledge base.

As literacy expert Alfred W. Tatum writes, young readers should be exposed to texts that connect with multiple identities, have personal and cultural relevance and are as diverse as the students we teach. These are enabling texts. Tatum distinguishes them from disabling texts, which ignore the student’s context. 

An enabling text, he explains, “moves beyond a sole cognitive focus—such as skill and strategy development—to include an academic, cultural, emotional, and social focus that moves students closer to examining issues they find relevant to their lives.”

Enter the Common Core
Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects, now adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia, are reframing discussions about academic literacy. They invite us to apply culturally responsive practices in new ways.

The CCSS require several “shifts” in the way we teach and learn literacy. Key among these are a shared responsibility for teaching literacy across subject areas, an emphasis on informational and nonfiction texts (50 percent of what’s read in K-5 and 70 percent in 6-12), and grade-by-grade specifications for increasing text complexity over successive years of schooling.

If this is the shift in what students are reading, equally significant is the Core’s approach to how students read. The standards propose using shorter passages that call for slow and close reading. Students are expected to discern more from and make fuller use of texts. They will connect ideas between texts, consider a range of textual evidence and be able to identify inconsistencies and poor reasoning.

Radical Potential for Learning
When we examine literacy as a social practice, the Common Core’s pedagogical influence has radical potential. Imagine the impact on anti-bias education if, on a daily basis, in multiple classes, students have the opportunity to question, unwrap, expose and interrogate the words they read and hear? With students engaging in close critical reading of shorter complex informational texts, the dialogue between authors and students becomes better matched. 

The Common Core is not a curriculum. If anything, teachers now have more freedom and responsibility for planning literacy experiences and making them meaningful. Herein lie the challenge and the opportunity: How do we select texts for our students that are “enabling,” identity-centered and relevant, while also meeting the Common Core State Standards? 

The goals of rigor and relevance are by no means at odds. Appendix B of the CCSS recommends some texts that reflect a departure from the canon that has marginalized so many learners for so many years. Still, for the creative and conscious educator, this list will not be enough. 

Which brings us back to our readers. What texts would you recommend?

We’re looking for texts by or about people and communities whose stories tend to be excluded from traditional educational resources. The genre or style should be informational and nonfiction texts—for example, historical accounts, speeches, laws, court decisions, essays, journals, diary entries, sermons, editorials and opinion pieces, biographies, autobiographies, lyrics, transcripts, etc. The length should be short, with full texts or excerpts not exceeding three pages.

Email your responses to with “Texts” in the subject line.

Chiariello is a fellow with Teaching Tolerance.