Whose Curriculum?

Activities & Lessons


Social Justice & Student Voice



60 minutes+.

Human Restoration Project CC-BY-SA.

January 2021

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This activity deconstructs who writes the curriculum. Students learn to understand how knowledge is constructed and whose knowledge is presented.

video overview

overview & purpose

This lesson involves deconstructing the messaging presented in textbooks and state curriculum, analyzing the actors and imagery represented and considering if important information is left out intentionally or unintentionally. By discussing figures from various subjects that may be commonly left out of the curriculum, students are encouraged to consider the potential limitations and biases of the education they receive.

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educator notes

Students will need assistance in “knowing what they don’t know.” The majority of students have not been presented more than the mainstream narrative/curriculum. You can introduce important figures, their backgrounds, and then continue the discussion above.

lesson / activity

Locate the textbook and/or state standard recommendations for your class. If you don’t use a textbook, you will be able to find a free electronic variation online. Have students “de-construct” the message:

Browse the actors and imagery presented. Who is primarily represented? To juxtapose this to later figures, the educator or students could write the actors/imagery on the board.

Do you believe important information is left out? Is this intentional? If it is, why would it be? If not, why would it be left out?

Do textbooks and state curriculum avoid “political” topics? Why is social justice not in the curriculum?

(Below is a small selection of examples. There are many more examples one could incorporate.)

An image of Benjamin Bannaker. Source: Library of Congress | Wikimedia


Abū Sahl al-Qūhī (940-1000): Persian mathematician who theorized a center of gravity and contributed to the invention of the compass.

Francis William (1702-1770): Jamaican mathematician who showed that black individuals had the same intellectual capabilities as white individuals.

Benjamin Bannaker (1731-1806): The first scientist to showcase the relativity of time and space, preceding Einstein, among many other achievements.

Emmy Noether (1882-1935): German mathematician who coined Noether’s Theorem, which showed the relationship between conversation laws and symmetry, and Noether’s Ring, changing the principles of abstract algebra.

An image of Dorothy Vaughan and her colleagues working on the "human computer." Source: Wikimedia


Ernest Everett Just (1883-1941): A biologist who pioneered innovations in the role of a cell surface.

Dorothy Vaughan (1910-2008): A mathematician and “human computer” who worked in the segregated West Area Computers, who were instrumental in challenging the Soviet Union during the Space Race.

James West (1931-present): A physicist who co-developed the modern microphone with over 250 other patents.

Flossie Wong-Staal (1947-present): A virologist who was the first to clone HIV and understand its gene makeup, leading to prove that HIV causes AIDS.

An image of Claudette Colvin. Source: Wikimedia

Social Studies

Although some of these figures are commonly known, it is interesting to analyze what is “left out” of the curriculum.

Squanto (Tisquantum) (1585-1622): Six years before the “Thanksgiving story”, Tisquantum was kidnapped and brought to Spain to be sold into slavery. He escaped and made it back to North America, where he found his village destroyed. Allying with a neighboring group, Tisquantum became a translator to colonizers in Plymouth.

Helen Keller (1880-1968): A political activist and outspoken member of the Socialist Party of America who focused on women’s suffrage, labor rights, and anti-militarism.

Barbara Gittings (1932-2007): A prominent activist for LGBT equality who organized the New York Daughters of Bilitis and was one of the first to protest the ban on employment of gay individuals by the United States government.

Claudette Colvin (1939-present): A leader of the Civil Rights Movement who refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama at the age of 15 (before Rosa Parks), and challenged bus segregation in Browder v. Gayle (1956).

The cover of Eleanor & Park. Source: Wikimedia

Language Arts

These are all books that were banned or challenged in some way by school boards. Why would these works be intentionally left out?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie (2007): The story of a 14-year-old who lives on the Spokane Indian Reservation who transfers to an all-white high school. It has been challenged for “excerpts on masturbation” as well as “vulgarity, racism, and anti-Christian content.”

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon (2004): A murder mystery told through the lens of a 15-year-old autistic boy named Christopher Boone. Christopher discovers the body of his neighbor’s dog and comes under suspicion of killing the animal. Some found this book had too much “offensive language” and “took the name of God in vain.”

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell (2013): The story of Eleanor (a 16 year old girl with curly red hair) and Park (a half-Korean, 16 year old boy), who meet on their first day of school and fall in love. This book came under fire for its “problematic depiction of race and abuse.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987): The story of a former slave who escapes to Ohio and is haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s infant daughter, who is forced out - but soon the new character Beloved appears. This work is challenged and/or banned in many school districts due to its “sexual material, violence, and bestiality.”

A portrait of Wen Zhengming. Source: Wikimedia

Music & Art

Wen Zhengming (1470-1559): A Chinese painter and poet who is regarded as a master of Ming painting, an important cornerstone in Chinese art history.

Florence Price (1887-1953): An American classical composer who was the first African American woman to be recognized as a symphonic composer and be played by a major orchestra.

R. C. Gorman (1931-2005): A Navajo painter who has been called “the Picasso of American Indian art” who focused on Navajo women and their roles in the Navajo Nation.

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988): An American graffiti artist who focused on racism and classism under the name SAMO.

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