Newsela’s Evan Gutierrez on his new book, A New Canon, culturally sustaining curriculum, and curriculum from the ground up.
Evan Gutierrez, Vice President for Curriculum & Instruction at Newsela recently sat down with us to discuss his new book, A New Canon, which is the first book to provide a framework for designing and utilizing rigorous, standards-aligned curriculum to address the lack of representation for marginalized communities in formal education (Harvard Education Press, 2021).
There’s a lot of conversation about culturally responsive education, but A New Canon focuses on learning that is culturally sustaining. Is the distinction important?
Yes, the distinction is important, but they are two parts of the same equation.
The word ‘responsive’ should always be tied to ‘teaching’ or ‘instruction’ not curriculum. Teachers respond to the needs of their students. They know who is in the classroom and can adjust their instruction to connect with students’ interests.
A curriculum is a noun, a thing that one person can design and share with another. A curriculum cannot be responsive, but it can sustain students’ connection to the history of the communities they come from, and writers and thinkers with similar backgrounds. Historically traditional curriculum has left many students out, but thoughtful design can bring those important themes and ideas front and center.
At the end of the day, what you want is a curriculum that is sustaining, so teachers can be responsive.
Some people say when educators prioritize culturally responsive and sustaining education, they do so at the expense of rigorous instruction. Do you agree with that statement?
I hear this all the time, and what it suggests is that traditional education is rigorous by default and any adjustments to it impacts the rigor. You can likely guess, I don’t agree.
In the book, I make intentionally provocative statements like ‘no one needs Shakespeare,’ which always makes listeners’ and readers’ hair stand on end. The reason I make that statement is that we’ve all internalized an association between traditional, canonical and largely white voices with academic value. This is a false conflation. Texts from Black and Latinx authors (from classics like Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe to contemporary works like I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sánchez) can be used to teach literature just as well - or even better - than Shakespeare.
Is Culturally Sustaining Curriculum mostly useful for educators serving Black and Brown communities?
It’s very common, in my experience, for educators to interpret the word ‘culture’ as implying race, specifically Black and Latinx identity. That would suggest that ‘culture’ is something only certain people have or need, but culture is part of how we’re built and that’s true for everyone. In the book, there are examples of teachers designing curriculum to center LGBTQIA experiences, Appalachian history, and other communities in curriculum. There are rich histories to be discovered here, many of which aren’t addressed authentically by traditional curriculum. The design process in the book draws a wide circle around ‘culture’ and suggests that a lot of students benefit from connection to that.
Culturally sustaining curriculum design seeks to engage histories and narratives the way thinkers and scholars from those communities do. If you’re a member of that community, this curriculum is sustaining your connection to an intellectual tradition. If you’re not, you’re still engaging better and more interesting learning. For example, if students, regardless of their own identities, are going to read Zora Neal-Hurston, shouldn’t the essential question that guides their study be essential according to Black literary experts? Anything less really misses the mark of being an essential question.
You use the word ‘authentic’ frequently - what does that mean in this context?
Good question - that word used casually can mean absolutely nothing, but used with intention it suggests a lot! When we use that word in context, it’s shorthand for something being ‘authentic to the discipline.’ Questions in the curriculum then have to reflect how experts and scholars ask questions. The sources have to be from within the discipline, and the tasks or demonstrations of knowledge need to relate to the discipline as well.
Let me offer an example. Science curriculum is designed so that students can ‘do science, like scientists’ rather than learn scientific facts. The standards are organized towards that goal. Imagine a scientific inquiry about climate change. Could that inquiry start with the question ‘is climate change real?’ Probably not - scientists don’t really ask that question. Would such an inquiry include an article that amounted to climate change denial? Probably not, scientists don’t really entertain climate change denial. Could an inquiry about climate change start with the question ‘How should we address climate change?’ and include varying opinions on the best course of action? Absolutely - there’s a lot of room for debate on this idea within the scientific community.
One of the core tenets of a culturally sustaining curriculum is that Black history is a discipline, Latinx literature is a discipline, and that there are writings, thinkers and debate within these disciplines. For curriculum to be ‘authentic to those disciplines,’ the curriculum has to align to thinking and practices in those disciplines, or they fall short of the bar that all curriculum should be held to.
A New Canon suggests that for a lot of students, existing published curriculum is insufficient, and that communities need to address this through grassroots efforts. Isn’t that daunting?
Designing curriculum in this way is a lot of work, there’s no question about that. But it’s also enormously fun and hopeful!
For years I’ve gathered groups of educators to reimagine, research and design curriculum that will center their students’ experiences and connect them to an intellectual tradition. It’s hard intellectual work, and most participants get stretched by that. But they also say that they are able to flex creative muscles, gather and sort new information and even see their communities in a new light. A lot of folks struggle with the complexity, but I’ve seldom had anyone quit, and often people come back for more!
This work is also inspiring, and connects educators to like-minded and like-motivated colleagues. Using the process to design one unit is like being onboarded to the pedagogy. Once that’s in place, educators can access and use units that others have created much more easily. You quickly come to know that there are a lot of educators working towards similar ends, who are eager and willing to share their work, and learn from yours too! It’s daunting if you feel like you’re on your own, but hopeful as you come to know you’re not.
What is a piece of advice you would give an educator who is looking to start building a culturally sustaining curriculum?
I always encourage educators to come to the design process with conviction and love for their students, and a lot of openness to learn. Sometimes educators begin the design process with a clear picture of what they would like to produce. Those products don’t deviate much from the designer's original idea.
There’s a big emphasis in A New Canon on discovery - we all have a lot to learn about the histories of communities we’re serving, even if we’re members of that community. Love for our students and conviction to do the hard work will see us through that time intensive process of discovery. But the themes and ideas that are surfaced through discovery are extremely compelling! Teachers are great learners, so for most the discovery and design process is a joy. I encourage designers to come to that process with a lot of heart and an open mind - what they discover is often more wonderful and fascinating than could be imagined at the outset.
Evan Gutierrez is the Vice President for Curriculum & Instruction at Newsela. Evan oversaw the academic program for Acero School in Chicago, Illinois, a high-performing charter network serving the Latino community. He has engaged in course, program, and school model design with districts and CMOs in Los Angeles, Chicago, New York City and New Orleans. He fosters innovation in curriculum and program design through collaborative partnerships with a focus on advancing asset pedagogy. Evan has a master's of business administration and studied curriculum and instruction at Loyola Marymount University.