By Brandon Martin
A Bassett High School history teacher was tapped to serve on the newly formed Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Education Practices Advisory Committee, which will make recommendations to Gov. Ralph Northam and other state-wide governing bodies on best education practices for Virginia’s public schools.
Kathryn Adkins, who has been teaching history for seven years, said her passion for the subject and her students led her to apply for the committee assignment.
“I feel passionately that all students should see themselves as an integral part of our country’s history,” she said. “In the last few years, I committed to being an anti-racist and inclusive educator, which means that I have been seeking opportunities such as this one to disrupt institutions that perpetuate racism, bigotry, and purposely leave out groups of people. I see this as an opportunity to act on the love that I have for all of my students.”
In her new role, the Henry County teacher will focus on creating a more inclusive history curriculum.
“For too long we have ignored these narratives as ‘their’ history and it is important to come to an understanding that it really is ‘our’ history━American history,” she said.
Adkins said the first step in accomplishing this is arming teachers across the state with knowledge about marginalized groups.
“Maya Angelou said ‘when you know better you do better.’ The next step would be to ensure that the narratives of marginalized communities are present in our classrooms. This can be as small for elementary teachers as teaching Juneteenth in addition to July 4th,” she said. “Teachers can take those steps to be more inclusive right now.”
So far, the biggest impediment to having a culturally inclusive curriculum simply has been a lack of available resources, according to Adkins.
“For many teachers, this will be an opportunity to learn more about how to effectively reach students with which they may have had trouble engaging before,” she said. “The difficulty will lie in ensuring that all teachers have the information necessary to become culturally relevant teachers that have background knowledge of the history of marginalized communities.”
Adkins added that the changes should be conveyed to the community since “this will be a departure from the way that many of our parents, guardians, and community members were taught.”
During the committee’s first meeting on Jan. 6, much of the discussion centered around the importance of having a culturally relevant approach or pedagogy.
“Culturally relevant pedagogy is teaching that recognizes the diverse cultural backgrounds of students and actively seeks to engage with those cultures in the classroom,” Adkins said. “A culturally relevant teacher is using student centered instruction that actively holds high standards for all students, engaging positively with all parents and community members, being inclusive of the narratives, ways of knowing, and cultural practices of all students.”
She added that concept is particularly relevant in history class.
“It is important especially in history because that subject area has been dominated by a predominantly white narrative” before changes “proposed by the African American History commission and the Culturally Relevant and Inclusive Practices committee,” she said. “History tells students where we have been and unless they have a full understanding of everyone’s history, they can’t critically think about where we are going because they are missing information.”
Adkins said a culturally relevant approach also should strive to go beyond history class.
“Culturally relevant pedagogy should be implemented in” pre-K through 12th grade “in all subject areas,” she said.
Adkins has been teaching a class throughout the current school year to include more perspectives under a pilot program authorized by the Commission on African American History in Virginia.
“We began teaching the African American history course under the pilot program this semester. However, the work that the pilot is doing will be in an effort to help teachers around the state to implement the curriculum in their own classrooms,” she said.
The class has been popular, according to Adkins.
“When asked ‘why did you take this class,’ all of the students responded that they wanted to learn about their own culture and history. One hundred percent of my students in the class are attending zoom sessions and participating in the course so far,” Adkins said.
She said the course focuses on the question “What is freedom?”
“One of the most profound replies from one of my students was that ‘freedom to me would be not being judged by the color of my skin,’” Adkins said. “Another student replied, ‘growing up as an African American teen in today’s society, I often feel like I don’t have the freedom to present myself as others do just because of the color of my skin.’”
Adkins said students have formed a “sense of community” in the class that is solely students of color.
“There is a lot of ‘we’ and ‘us’ language that shows that this class is empowering our students in ways that they have not been engaged in in other classes where they are the minority,” she said. “This brings it home for me how important it is for our students to see themselves in their study of history but also to have teachers who are trained and actively working to provide culturally relevant teaching practices.”
While African Americans are already beginning to see inclusion in the history curriculum, Adkins said her new committee will work to widen the umbrella.
“This committee will be continuing the work of that (African American History) commission to include other groups that have been marginalized in the teaching of history including Latinos, Native Americans, Asian Americans, LGBTQ+, Jewish Americans, Muslims, and other minority groups in America,” Adkins said. “We are proposing changes to the social studies standards for K-12 to be more inclusive of those narratives.”
Adkins said she will serve on the Social Studies Standards sub-committee. However, the Professional Development sub-committee will focus on culturally relevant professional development for re–licensure.
That work will include “preparing a roadmap and resources for districts to be prepared to implement that requirement,” she said.