Literature helps us cultivate an understanding that those who may appear dissimilar share many of the same problems and possibilities.2 Through literature, we can vicariously experience what a character is experiencing, challenge our own thinking based on a characters’ actions and emotions, think critically about an issue, grow as a person, and become more empathetic and educated. In the Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Freire defines critical literacy as the reading of texts with the intent to critically examine and question the social, political, and economic conditions of the society in which the texts were written.1 Critical literacy practices encourage readers to examine texts deeply to identify an author’s stance and include perceived themes of social justice.3 According to Ladson-Billings, culturally responsive teaching uses students' cultural knowledge to support their learning. It empowers students by valuing the students’ respective identities, experiences, and norms in ways that improve their literacy outcomes. This occurs because the dynamic transactions between reader and text, through which meaning is made are facilitated when the reader has more relevant cultural knowledge that aligns with the text. Lack of accessibility to culturally diverse children’s literature privileges white students and marginalizes nonwhite students.4
Using culturally relevant texts (crt) is especially beneficial for culturally and linguistically diverse students.5 According to numerous research studies, well‐matched crt can help readers construct meaning because they can draw from their background knowledge to make predictions and inferences, emergent bilingual middle school students had fewer miscues and higher comprehension when reading stories and African American middle grade students who were reading well below grade level made significant gains and contributed to the positive shaping of identities.6 In order to align with culturally relevant pedagogy, educators must be willing to expand mainstream views/concepts of environmental justice, community and nature to include students’ lived experiences, honors and affirms their cultural identities, and empowers young people to engage in social change in their own communities.7 Without a platform for personal sharing and critical conversations that this curriculum includes, it would be easy for some students to leave with an appreciation of nature and the environmental justice movement but an appreciation of the inclusion and the role of their respective communities.8
Teachers can serve as guides with questions, writing prompts, works of art modeling how to frame discussion topics for informal or formal whole and small group discussions or reflective writing. An equally important part of this authentication process is building and bridging student connections which may be achieved by connecting with community groups. During this phase, teachers can lead students toward avenues of possible expansion of how they define nature and environmental justice and examine the context in which their respective constructs were contrived. Teachers can present examples of how others similarly situated as those in the foundational text created other opportunities, exercised choices, or alternate outcomes within the various contexts. Using this methodology, students are being asked to reflect on the origins of their respective constructs of nature and appreciate the construct’s malleability, reevaluate future choice implications, and create opportunities for themselves to build on their existing cultural skills.9,10,11
These student skills and networks can be thought of as forms of currency or capital. A literature review by Locke et al cites sources showing that students from traditionally marginalized groups (TMG) come to school with various forms of capital that are often not recognized or valued by schools.12 Additionally, they cite other research that illustrates that achievement comes at significant personal and community costs for students from TMGs.13 This curriculum unit hopes to maximize student capital while minimizing the costs to a student as a member of a particular cultural, racial, and/or linguistic group. It is hoped that this curriculum will assist in the increase of both student agency and achievement.
Often students from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds find their images are missing in their classrooms and the materials from which they are taught. Even when images are present, they represent a stereotypical view of their culture and position their ways of knowing and communicating as deficient or obstacles to their success These students walk a tightrope between their communities and school expectations, and teachers are responsible for helping them bridge the two. Applying asset pedagogies which are culturally sustaining and reimagining students’ local knowledge as assets to their learning is necessary. It is a pedagogy focused on a student’s right to their own language, keeping their community and cultural ways of communicating while allowing them to pick up mainstream communication styles without sacrificing their culture.14