Have you ever wondered what goes into developing a culturally-inclusive curriculum?

The audience that Reading Horizons serves is diverse, and our footprint has grown significantly in the last decade as K–3 teachers and students from all over the country use our product for emerging readers and remediation. Our curriculum has generally met the needs of educators and learners, but a few years ago we learned that we had not spent enough time ensuring that we weren’t unintentionally excluding people or perpetuating stereotypes and biases. If a reader can’t identify with any piece of our material or software, we are doing them a disservice. That’s when we made a company-wide resolution to focus on cultural inclusivity at every step of the writing and publishing process.

Our goal is to make sure that, no matter where a student is from, their age, their ethnicity or religion, they feel like the program was written for them as much as anybody else. Guided by cultural inclusivity, we not only rewrote our existing material, but we set up systems to make us more intentional in how we developed new curriculum. Here are the lessons and steps we took.

Change with the times

We were always aware of diversity in representation, but we were more concerned about having themes that would appeal to kids and about using terms that would tie back to the sequence we use in introducing various skills. There was a lot less concern about potentially hurting someone with a word or an image.

A good example of how quickly attitudes toward cultural inclusivity have shifted—and one that applies to many publishers—is how to represent Christopher Columbus. A few years ago, nearly every educational publishing company referenced Christopher Columbus in their curriculum. Today, in many areas of the country, Columbus’ role in U.S. history is taught in a completely different way, a way that makes even recently published books seem out of date and out of touch.

Start with cultural competency

For me, cultural competency is understanding various cultures and where you need to meet them, and inclusivity is putting that knowledge into action. Once we reached the level of cultural competency we needed, we looked at ways to build inclusivity into our daily processes. Our goal is still teaching people to read, but we make sure that other components of our curriculum don’t interfere with the learning process. To do that, we needed more input.

Seek outside perspectives

We did a national search to gather as diverse a group of educators as we could possibly assemble. We spanned the whole country so that the group included voices from many cultures. We formed a committee and spent a year reviewing curriculum. We provided the committee with a list of things to look for as they reviewed the curriculum. During this review, we uncovered additional concerns as well as new opportunities to improve the curriculum.

Now, when we develop curriculum, we have it reviewed by individuals who can give us perspective. Having gone through this process, our curriculum team now writes with inclusivity in mind, so that when they send work to the review committee, the list of suggested changes is usually limited.

Confront implicit bias

To bring a culture of inclusivity to the entire company, we contracted with Intercom Strategies and used our human resources provider to a greater degree. They come in to the office regularly and make everyone at the company have a bunch of uncomfortable conversations. It has been kind of fun, actually.

One of the most powerful trainings they did last year was on implicit bias. It’s so eye-opening for people to realize that everyone thinks differently and that we can’t impose our thought processes and the way we perceive the world on others. The sessions are company-wide, so whether you are loading books on a pallet in a warehouse, writing curriculum, or coding a web page, everybody’s in the same room learning about their implicit biases. This training is so essential to our mission that we’ve made it part of our new employee orientation.

Remember that inclusivity is a journey

When implicit bias is exposed for what it is, it changes the way we work and live. Currently, we’re in the process of creating an official set of inclusivity standards that will inform all of our current and future products. We plan to ask for public input on those standards.

Our focus will always be on helping students learn to read, but we look at it this way: We only get a certain number of bricks in helping build a child’s education. We need every brick to build a road. Anywhere we use that brick to build a wall means less road, so we must do everything we can to protect student learning from unnecessary impediments.

About the Author:

Tyson J. Smith is the president and chief executive officer of Reading Horizons. He is also a founder of R.I.S.E. Institute for Literacy, a nonprofit devoted to researching literacy, instructing struggling readers, supporting parents, and empowering teachers and tutors.