By Laura gutmann
Thanasi Dilos & Monica Black
Hear about the Design Studio from two of its stars: a young civics leader, and a Math freedom dreamer.
“a lot of us assumed that we still had some sort of box to fit in…and that idea was totally shattered, which was great. It was like a weight was lifted off of the entire group.”
In the world of education, each subject has a set of standards that dictate what gets taught in public schools. Those standards form the foundational knowledge and skills that students are supposed to carry with them into their social, civic, and professional lives. It follows, then, that whoever writes the standards has a pretty big influence on what school looks like. Historically, that influence has been wielded mostly by white academics, like the Committee of Ten administrators who established what high schoolers needed to know in preparation for college back in 1892. But, what if those traditional, white-washed notions of what curriculum should cover were thrown out the window, in favor of centering inclusion and anti-racism? And, what if that vision went beyond narrow conceptions of factual content to integrate critical competencies for students to develop across subject areas?
Reimagining the K-12 content maps that drive instructional decisions to be more equitable, relevant, and inclusive is part of how reDesign aims to disrupt inequities within the school system. To leap towards that goal, reDesign put out a call-to-action for content experts from diverse backgrounds, geographic areas, and educational experiences to convene in teams and rethink the current, standards-based guidelines. These representative teams were given a clear mission. Forget trying to revise the map for your discipline by tinkering around the edges and smoothing over its flaws, they were told. Instead, let’s radically reimagine it through the lens of cross-disciplinary, multicultural, anti-racist concepts and enthusiastically champion a learner-centered, competency-based approach!
The deeply collaborative and bold thinking that this task required was initiated during a week-long virtual Design Studio with 100 multicultural educators and leaders in the field. As they reimagined what’s important to teach (and how), they recognized the urgent need for an updated vision of curricular content, driven by values and goals for student development that put young people, their communities, and their ability to authentically engage with complex ideas as citizens of the world at the forefront. Monica Black, an instructional leader at a middle school in Oakland, described her experience with the Design Studio’s Math Foundations team as reminiscent of the concept of “freedom dreaming” advocated for by the scholar-activist Bettina Love , which frames the potential for education to be a liberatory experience, rather than one that teachers and students merely endure and survive.
That framing perfectly captures reDesign’s provocation to Design Studio participants as they interrogated the current “canon” of K-12 content topics and began to sketch out a fresh take. Thanasi Dilos, a member of the Design Studio’s Civics team and the 18-year old co-founder of Civics Unplugged, a nonprofit enterprise aimed at developing Gen Z leadership, was shocked and thrilled to discover that this project required pushing paradigms, since, “a lot of us assumed that we still had some sort of box to fit in…and that idea was totally shattered, which was great. It was like a weight was lifted off of the entire group.” Thanasi and Monica’s contributions to their team’s efforts embody the future-minded energy and radical, creative thinking that is shaping this work.
 Love, B. L. (2019). We want to do more than survive: abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, Massachusetts: Beacon Press.
Thanasi Dilos: Rethinking What Civics Means
Excerpt: Thanasi on"civics" vs. "politics"
As a leader within the youth empowerment space in New York City, Thanasi sees focusing on human development within the next generation as a critical component of new forms of civics education. Through providing training and tools to a global community of Civics Unplugged Fellows and his work as a National Geographic Young Explorer with a socially-conscious slant, he’s become passionate about creating avenues for students to develop the strengths needed to spark societal change. Coming into the Design Studio, his fundamental question was, “How can we do better?” for those following in his footsteps.
To Thanasi, rethinking what civics means, “beyond knowing what the three branches of government are and voting” could allow it to become a vehicle for building “holistic, empathetic community” connected to a broader sense of humanity. In other words, a reimagined content map for Civics could emphasize for young people, “how you can play your role in doing that, not just through voting, not just through knowing who our Founding Fathers were, but through your actions and your unique strengths and passions”.
Although by far the youngest member of his design team, he was drawn to the chance to “build something that’s better for the learner” that could flexibly center students, their interests, and their cultural contexts, as opposed to a more rigid curriculum. And, he appreciated that he was able to push the group to consider different opportunities, technologies, and ideas, which was a welcome surprise compared to prior experiences in education settings that centered the needs of adults.
Thanasi sees it as imperative to create nested layers of learning and understanding within the field of civics that embed 1) historical literacy, 2) personal development, and a 3) continuum of action in relation to anti-racist principles and beliefs. As his team discussed how anti-racism isn’t “a switch” to be turned on or off, he recognized that, “you can’t just add it to a curriculum”. Instead, he thinks educators should aim to embed “anti-racist principles throughout everything” students learn and create, as part of their engagement with the places where they live and interact with others.
Because the Design Studio took an explicit stance towards reimagining the content map through an anti-racist lens, it was important for their team to connect that lens to how civics learning can provide opportunities for students to grow as active citizens. As he explained, “We expect these kids to be our future leaders, and we expect these kids to be very enlightened citizens. But then we don’t give them the power to understand their own, like, strengths and superpowers, and how to utilize those in community. So I brought that up.” Ideally, building students’ personal skills and competencies while directly relating them to “the skills that are needed to solve community problems” would be the sweet spot.
Monica Black: Disruption Through Math
Excerpt: Monica on multidisciplinary concepts
Monica is an experienced mathematics educator and professional learning leader who draws from inquiry-style professional development approaches like the Japanese lesson study model. In her instructional leadership role supporting teachers in California, anti-racist principles factor heavily into her view towards supporting math learning. At her core, she sees that, “The public school system itself was not made for all students, and so I’ve been in the work of disruption for most of my educational career”. The Design Studio was a chance to “vibe” with like-minded educators who were “ready to do this work”, despite the current limitations of some teaching and learning cultures within the field.
Her Math Foundations sub-group chose to focus on how math can be a vehicle for examining issues of social justice, engaging students in sense-making and inquiry, and growing their social agency through the lens of mathematical concepts. By pushing past the boundaries of how math skills have been historically acquired, their vision for a more radical, concept-based map embeds justice, anti-racism and multiculturalism, and uses math as a tool for students to “explore and investigate” and “examine this world that we’re living in”. Monica explained, “More than just, like, a real world application, it’s like an avenue through which the concepts become clear…it’s not teaching for problem solving, it’s teaching through problem solving.”
At the same time, Monica recognized that for this vision to become a larger reality, the profession must support educators in developing their pedagogical skills and critically examining the status quo. They need opportunities to reflect on their math practice, listen to what authentic student work can tell them, and make sense of the curriculum. She described how, “All the systems in this country were built on…white supremacy culture, and so there’s a lot of things that we’ve internalized and just accepted because it’s built into everything that we do”. As a result, she believes that trying to, “sit back and reflect on the kinds of choices that we make in our instruction”, and considering what we truly want students to learn is key. In her work with students, she’s seen that they want to be viewed as capable of “having to figure something out based on what they see in the world”, rather than being perceived as passive recipients of knowledge.
As part of the “freedom dreaming” she did during the Design Studio, Monica was driven by the idea of bringing wonder and joy into math education, as students learn how to question and make connections to multi-disciplinary concepts along the way. She’d like to see educators move away from an overly narrow, skills-focused approach, and leave room for, “pulling back and seeing, like, a Google Earth view”. This mindset shift would move schools away from the dominant culture that may, “shut down a significant group of students”, and towards a more inclusive, equitable approach that visibly values student thinking across the content areas. To Monica, there is great potential for connections to be made between disciplines, and the Design Studio encouraged her and her team to begin thinking about competency development beyond the traditional silos of subject area standards.
Inviting More Voices to the Table
Although the Design Studio was a powerful starting point for bringing new approaches to the table and creating synergy within multicultural groups of educators, both Monica and Thanasi saw that part of the work ahead includes continuing to bring more voices together, including involving more young people and thinking in cross-disciplinary ways across content teams. In today’s cultural and societal context, how can we help others beyond this like-minded group to engage in this work and begin to interrogate bias and injustice? And, how can we equip teachers to make the curriculum come alive through applied learning, inquiry, and innovation, as they engage students in authentic problem-solving and critical thinking?
Looking ahead, the K-12 Content Map Design Studio is the first part of reDesign’s Big, Hairy, Audacious 5-year plan, which connects to a companion Designers-in-Residence program that is bringing together a group of talented curriculum designers with competency-based education experience. This group is immersed in building on the concepts generated during the Design Studio, and will eventually create related multimedia content for K-12 students to explore at their own pace.
Got your own ideas about how we should reimagine the K-12 Content Map? Feel free to share them by using our Community Input Form!
To read more about our Big, Hairy, Audacious 5-year plan, head over to our website, www.redesignu.org/5-year-plan/ .
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