Rethinking the "diverse" curriculum

Fall 2012

By David Allyn

To address questions of diversity in the curriculum, educators have been seeking texts that more broadly reflect the experiences of women, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, Native Americans, and others.

Unfortunately, no curriculum can ever hope to reflect all backgrounds. Every child is different and brings to the classroom a unique combination of socioeconomic, cultural, and sexual perspectives.

At New Jersey SEEDS (, an independent school access program for high-achieving, low-income students, we have taken a somewhat different approach to creating a relevant and relatable curriculum. In our most recently accepted class, we have students whose parents were born in 44 different countries. At home, they speak languages ranging from Albanian to Papiamento. Instead of trying to broaden our curriculum ad infinitum, we asked ourselves: What topics address universal concerns that are common to all students?

It turns out this question is not as hard to answer as you might think. Students, regardless of their backgrounds, want to know how to talk so that others will listen to them and understand them. They want to know how to deal with difficult situations. And they want to know why people act the way they do — and what can be done about it.

In response, we developed a 10-session course for our eighth graders that tackles these themes through the study of literature, philosophy, psychology, history, and sociology. We call it "Human Behavior," and the issues it raises cut across cultural, ethnic, socioeconomic, and sexual lines.

The subtitle of the course is "What is leadership?" Rather than trying to describe the course in detail, allow me to share what the students reported in response to the question, "What was one of the most valuable things you learned?" They answered:

• "How to recognize and understand different emotions"

• "How to work with others even if they are not my friends"

• "How the brain functions"

• "How to express my ideas"

• "How to accept myself even though I am not perfect."

One student wrote, "This was my favorite class, I really enjoyed every single discussion we had."

In designing the course, we focused on two critical aspects of the human condition: self-consciousness and self-righteousness. We chose selections from a wide range of texts: best-selling books on cognitive science to Plato's Republic, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, and Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddha Mind, Buddha Body: Walking Toward Enlightenment. Perhaps the most important piece of the course was the weekly assignment. Each assignment involved some form of risk-taking. For instance, the first assignment was, "Interview someone in your life. Find out at least one of their major successes, major failures, major goals, and major fears." The second assignment was, "Teach someone the difference between being proactive and being reactive." Part of every class was devoted to a discussion of the experience of risk-taking, so that the students could reflect on their own assumptions, fears, and accomplishments.

For their final projects, students worked in teams and researched the ideas of a major philosopher. They also prepared and delivered short personal statements about what they learned from the course. Here is what one student, a boy whose family hails from rural China, wrote and presented to his class:

When Socrates, said "Know Thyself," he meant for a person to know and acknowledge everything about him or herself, including mistakes and flaws. During my time in Human Behavior, I learned a lot about the human mind....Now, I have ways to be aware of my blind spots. For example, when I make a mistake in class, I do not try to prove that my point was right or dwell on the mistake for too long. Instead, I try to find out what I did wrong, let it pass, and try to improve it later. Contrary to what my parents taught me, I have realized that it is okay to make mistakes and that it only makes us human.
Could any teacher ask for more?

The more diverse our classrooms become, the more we will need to find common ground among all students. The more we encourage students to explore these commonalities, the more we will equip them for the challenges of living in a dynamic and pluralistic society.
David Allyn

David Allyn is a former NAIS trustee and an expert in fundraising and nonprofit management.