Using Past Experiences to Help Shape Culturally Relevant Curriculum for Students

I am a biracial, brown-skinned, Mexican-American named after my Jewish grandpa. 

My parents were intentional about representing both sides of my heritage. We celebrated Hanukkah with my large extended Jewish family and Christmas with my abuelitos. 

We honored the growth of my dad’s family business alongside my mom’s experiences as a migrant farm worker and activist. We also celebrated my mom’s many academic and professional successes. 

We lived in Los Angeles County, but I often feel like saying I’m from LA is a misleading statement. We were closer to Disneyland than Downtown LA. My favorite baseball team was the Angels of Anaheim, not the more popular Dodgers of LA.

The popular images of Los Angeles that you see in movies and on TV are a fry cry from the suburbia I called home. My hometown of Rowland Heights, in the San Gabriel Valley, was seemingly built to raise families. We had cookie-cutter neighborhoods, large parks, and schools that were considered “good.” There was great diversity in the community, but cultural pride was largely limited to my homelife. 

I was fortunate that my parents could provide an environment where my singular focus was to get good grades in school. As I reflect on that pursuit, I must acknowledge that I was insulated from national issues that did not directly impact my life. The types of activism that seem commonplace today were impossible to imagine as part of my priorities as a high school student.  

After graduating from University of California-Berkeley, I joined Summit Public Schools at Rainier in San Jose, Calif. In addition to teaching math courses, my role included serving as a mentor to about 20 students. 

The blindspots that I had developed throughout my own academic career became blatantly obvious. While I had come through a traditional college-prep track, SPS was dedicated to grouping students from all walks of life.  

This was also a new experience for many of my mentees and we were forced to navigate this dynamic in real time. I leveraged what training I had to make my space welcoming, safe, and inclusive. A few students were willing to share their experiences openly but most were not ready to quickly buy into the mentoring relationship. 

I had 10 minutes per week to prove that I was worthy of their trust. For some, this meant discussing academic progress. For others, it meant talking about anything but school for as long as possible. For one particularly challenging mentee, this meant sitting in silence while she glared at me. 

The first months were rough and I endured some abuse (who doesn’t in their first year of teaching, right?). But over time, my mentees believed me when I said that my time belonged to them. 

Academic progress always played some part during the check-ins. But, more importantly, the 10 minutes each week gave my mentees a space to offload some of the extra burdens they were carrying. Those included family pressures and expectations, supporting sick family members, and family finances, among others. 

My mentees knew that while I wasn’t always the softest shoulder to cry on, they could count on there being a shoulder when they needed it. Students looked forward to their weekly 10 minutes with me and were not shy about pointing out that they were overdue for a check-in.

This current election year has made me think back to the 2016 election. Many of my students then were understandably on edge following that election. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids had ramped up in the San Jose area and students were planning a walkout at the school.

One mentee used her check-in to ask me if I had protested as a student when SB1070, a strict anti-illegal immigration measure, was passed. I admitted that I was so focused on school that I didn’t know much about it at the time. She was angry and asked me, “How could you have not done something?”

We dedicated our check-in that day to discussing strategies for respectfully sharing her views. I also had to acknowledge that she was right to question my past ignorance. 

These experiences, from my childhood in Rowland Heights to my time as an educator in San Jose, have taught me a lot about what students need to feel like they can bring their full selves to school. 

They deserve a teacher who cares about them and provides support about more than just what they learned in a given week. A truly great teacher also serves as a coach who cheers and pushes students to their personal form of success.

Similarly, for teachers to be able to support culturally sustaining learning, they need a curriculum that provides culturally relevant materials that are both thoughtful and engaging. 

Providing lip service simply isn’t enough anymore. That’s why I’m proud to be a Curriculum Manager and help create powerful content for our Summit Learning teachers and students.

About the author

Max Zisman
Max Zisman is a Curriculum Manager on the Curriculum & Assessment team with Gradient Learning. After graduating from University of California-Berkeley, Max spent four years as a math teacher and mentor at Summit Public Schools at Rainier in San Jose, Calif.