Designing an Enhanced Web-Based Civil Rights Curriculum

Karen Kaun, Payal Arora, Abby Bucuvalas

Teachers College, Columbia University


STEPS to Literacy was designed to help strengthen English Language Learners (ELLs) academic writing. In our pilot study, we worked with 8th grade students in a middle school in the Bronx, NY, who speak, read and/or write Spanish as a first language and who are in the process of learning and mastering English for academic achievement. The timing of our pilot coincided with a New York State Education Department (NYSED) 8th grade social studies assessment; therefore, we decided to create curricular materials that would coincide with topics that were being taught in the classroom and that would help to prepare students for the assessment. To design computer-based curricular materials, our team drew on scholarship in social studies of literacy (Street, 2005) and multimodal literacies (Kleifgen, 2005; Kress, 2003; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001). In order to situate our work in the context of a Latino immigrant community, the curriculum also draws on research in bi/multiliteracies (Martin-Jones & Jones 2000; Hornberger, 2003). And finally, we considered the research showing that students who learn literacy in one language have the underlying knowledge base to attain literacy in another (Verhoeven, 1991; Cummins, 1996).

Our curriculum was shaped by affordances and constraints, which is inherent in the classroom situation.  These included: adhering to the standardized test format while engaging the students; the opportunities and challenges of designing questions along the STEPS + G pedagogy; and providing depth and breadth of content without losing or distracting the students.  The term affordance, coined by Gibson (1997), describes how objects are perceived in the environment in terms of their possibilities for action (e.g. pen in hand to write words on paper). The Internet extends the affordance of pen to paper and hence the written word, through its inherent multimodality and its capacity to assemble people, places, material artifacts, and information to enhance human potential. These affordances are important to ELLs because multimodal representations (e.g. text, images, sounds, patterns and space) may aid in reading comprehension and augment writing.  Yet with these affordances come the constraints of the test format.  For example, while student recall is aided by the visuals in the document-based question (DBQ), students generally do not use multimodal representations to answer questions.

Although the expected written deliverables of the test is a constraint, May/June of 2006 provided the opportunity to connect the civil rights issues of the 50s and 60s to current immigration issues, thereby leveraging students’ “funds of knowledge” (Greenburg, 1989; Moll, 1992) to engage them in learning.  Funds of knowledge are students’ home/community-based skills, interests, abilities and practices.  In May 2006, hundreds of thousands of immigrant and migrant workers, many of whom were Latino, took to the streets to protest current U.S. immigration laws.  A number of the basic human rights issues that were evoked in these protests related to the U.S. African American and migrant worker struggles of earlier decades.  Hence, we selected a test, visuals and audio from the speeches of Martin Luther King, Cesar Chavez, from the protestors of the streets of Los Angeles and from the lyrics of contemporary hip hop artists that addressed such issues.


The curriculum design balance to be achieved related to the depth and breath of the subject matter.   Through STEPS + G, students learn to evaluate subject matter through the lenses of social studies, technology, economics, politics and geography.  We therefore debated the degree to which we needed to pre-populate the Web site with content in both English and Spanish, including, for example, more technical explanations of rulings such as “separate but equal” that were decided in “Plessy versus Ferguson” and integral to the case of Brown versus the Board of Education.  Certainly, with more background knowledge, students could more adeptly utilize the STEPS + G mnemonic to dissect, analyze and write about the issues.  Yet our primary task was to encourage the students to write academically by using the STEPS+G framework to analyze content that their teacher covered, rather than to teach the content itself.

Furthermore, due to our time constraints as well as school regulations, we could not allow students to explore the Internet without limit, and therefore, we populated our Web space with appropriate content and links from the Web.  As a result, we expected that the students would spend less time searching for materials and more time in deep exploration of the material at hand. This would give students the opportunity to investigate their own histories and funds of knowledge, as well as to discuss and write collaboratively based on the materials provided. The trade-off was that we would not be able to devote time to help students understand the complexities of navigating the Web; we would be restricting their sphere of experience and reducing the potential for them to learn beyond the dictates of the school curriculum.

And finally, while we believe that providing content in English and Spanish improved the accessibility and meaning of the curriculum for the students, there were some complications in translating material from English to Spanish.  First, it is difficult to guarantee that students will derive the same meaning from a message in English as they will from a translated message in Spanish.  This results from social factors (i.e. what a given language means to a given student) and challenges of translation (i.e. whether a selected word in Spanish has the exact meaning of its English equivalent).  Second, it is possible that students from different countries, or even different regions of the same countries, will define the same Spanish words in different ways, increasing our uncertainty about whether each student will receive the intended message of the curriculum.  And finally, we were not aware of how the cultural meanings attached to a Spanish term such as “derechos civiles” might differ from those attached to the English term (i.e. “civil rights”).  Such an understanding might have further improved our capacity to connect to the students through the curriculum, as we attempted to do by incorporating the aforementioned protests and hip hop lyrics.



Overall, we chose a few powerful images and audio clips to convey the main ideas of the subject matter at hand in as succinct a way as possible.  These were accompanied by captions/brief explanations in English and Spanish. The questions were constructed along the lines of STEPS+ G, with each session having questions from two to three of these categories to demonstrate to the students the range of thinking and domains of knowledge that should be tapped to gain a multidimensional perspective on the topic. We also designed the questions as open-ended and provocative, allowing for more discussion and furthering of writing.









Social: Describe anything unusual that you see in this photograph. If you were to get on this bus, where would you sit? Do you think that would be an issue in Montgomery during the 1950s? Why or why not?


Political: In reference to this photograph, what was “quiet” about Rosa Park’s protests that led her to become the mother of the civil rights movement? In today’s world, do you think that people use this kind of “quiet” protest to make their voices heard by the public?


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