J oseph Fails, a history teacher at North High School in Worcester, is deeply invested in “decolonizing” the curriculum.
“I’m 63 years old,” Fails said at a March 27
forum sponsored by the MTA’s Ethnic Minority
Affairs Committee. “When I was growing up I didn’t
understand about a colonized curriculum. It’s all we
knew. It wasn’t until much later that my eyes were
“Now I am a history teacher after a career in
law,” he continued. “I teach history for 40 weeks
a year. I only get two weeks out of that 40 to teach
about African American history, and most of that is
negative history about slavery, the Turner Rebellion
and so on.”
The forum, held in Worcester, was one of six
such sessions scheduled around the state in March
and April. Participants were asked to think and talk
about how the state-mandated curriculum reflects the
views and values of the dominant white culture, as
well as what educators can do in their own classrooms
and schools to make sure their students’ lives and
backgrounds are better reflected and valued.
Asked to define the term “colonized curriculum,”
Samantha Westall, a librarian at Framingham State
University, described it as white and Eurocentric,
reflecting the values of an industrialized society with
a middle-class bias. “It doesn’t leave room for other
points of view,” she said.
One of Westall’s jobs is to provide resources
to future educators, but she finds the pickings slim
when it comes to diversity.
“Less than 10 percent of the books are about
diverse peoples,” she said. “Only 6 percent are about
diverse cultures and only 3 percent are written by
people of color.”
Karen Hughes, a Spanish teacher in Lincoln and
at Hanscom Air Force Base, said she was shocked
to discover that a pack of 20 family flash cards she
ordered only depicted white family members.
“I’m teaching children who are Chinese, African
American and Latino, and I only have images of
white people to show them,” she said. “I’m sending
the cards back.”
A related concern is the lack of educators of
color throughout the state. While more than half of
the students in Fails’ urban high school are students
of color, all but about 20 of their teachers are white,
Bias, unconscious or not, can also discourage
people of color from going into education. Saul
Ramos, a paraeducator who works with visually
impaired students and a former NEA Education
Support Professional of the Year, described going
into a building that wasn’t his regular school and
being mistaken for a substitute custodian.
“If students don’t see people who look like
them as educators, then they do not feel they can
be educators,” said Zena Link, an English teacher
who used to work in Worcester and now teaches in
Weston. Link helped lead the Worcester forum.
Lack of diversity can lead to misunderstandings.
“Educators need to understand different cultural
behaviors,” said Jackie Garcia, a Leominster
guidance counselor of Puerto Rican descent.
“For example, they might feel like a kid is being
disrespectful if he looks down and doesn’t make eye
contact when he’s being scolded. But that’s actually
The group also discussed solutions. Link said
that regardless of the subject, educators should try to
raise awareness about diverse cultures through the
materials and content they bring to the room and by
analyzing current events.
Rita DeOliveira, ESL director for Leominster,
said that a home visit program she participated in
was very successful because it gave her a chance
to interact with students and parents in a friendly,
If home visits were more common, she said, “It
would revolutionize education.”
Garcia, the guidance counselor, said one of
the best events at her school was a family culture
night for English learners. The students made flags
representing their countries and parents brought in
food from their cultures — a lot of food, because
sharing food is a common way to bond and express
generosity in many cultures.
Talia Gallagher, a first-year history teacher in
Worcester, said she believes that history lessons
should include more stories about those who
fought back. “I don’t want to just teach the history
of oppression, but also of resistance, change and
empowerment,” she said. “I feel if you can reach
students at a young age, that’s a way to change the
Talia Gallagher, a first-year
history teacher in Worcester,
said she believes that history
lessons should include more
stories about those who
Photos by Laura Barrett
Worcester history teachers Talia Gallagher and Joseph Fails joined paraeducator Saul Ramos,
right, in a discussion about making classrooms more relevant to diverse student populations.
Spanish teacher Karen Hughes received flash
cards that depicted only white families.