Examining Equity Through a Literacy Lens

Area(s) of Focus: curriculum
Division(s): Intermediate
Level(s): Grade 6, Grade 7, Grade 8

We examined how teachers could enrich integrated literacy programs (reading/writing skills infused within big ideas from history/geography to teach equity topics). We deepened our professional learning around equity and best practices in literacy.

As Grade 8 teachers, we collaborated in order to enrich our integrated literacy programs and we used reading/writing skills infused within big ideas from history/geography to teach equity topics. We challenged ourselves to explore equity concepts more deeply together and then explore them with our students in class. Together, we reflected on the need to diversify our programs in order to address 21st century problems and infuse equity topics that may be difficult to discuss.

Team Members

  • Alana Eckler Guinane

    Toronto District School Board

  • Evelyn Pang

    Toronto District School Board

  • Heather Dorey

    Toronto District School Board

  • Margaret Maloney

    Toronto District School Board

Professional Learning Goals

  • We met regularly as a teacher team to engage in critical professional discourse
  • We shared best practices about teaching literacy through an equity lens and built a common bank of appropriate resources for the different learners in our classrooms
  • We became more informed and comfortable talking about/teaching about equity issues (within our school, community and globally)

Activities and Resources

  • We worked collaboratively as intermediate teachers and met regularly to engage in critical professional discourse
  • We created a safe space to explore equity issues and all positioned ourselves as learners in order to establish candid discussion and
  • We shared equitable classroom practices, explored high-yield literacy strategies that allow for deeper conversations, and tried out new resources/strategies in class with students (including Concept Chart, Thinking Theme chart, Author’s Construction of Meaning Chart, Role on the Wall, Character Trait Chart, etc.)
  • We shared how to use online digital platforms such as Google Classroom as a way to embed technology into the classroom and for students to respond to each other outside of the classroom
  • We shared best practices on how to use various novels in a classroom (moving away from a full class novel with “teacher guide”) to support differentiated instruction and meet each student’s individual reading level/interest. This included also sharing different ways to introduce the novels or have students self-select the novels through an activity called “book tasting” (see sample in created resources).
  • We read and explored various professional resources on equity that support the implementation of equity topics within an intermediate classroom
  • We explored, read and shared newly purchased, rich school resources that infuse equity, “isms”, FNMI and LGBTQ points of view into the materials we use in class
  • We met in formal and informal meetings to share progress in class and student work samples, complete moderate marking and to plan next steps
  • We utilized the knowledge of support staff (such as board instructional coaches) when learning about and trying out new literacy strategies
  • We created a list of deep literacy questions with an equity lens that could be used during small group book talks (or novel deconstruction) for students to answer and/or debate about
  • We also created a version of Jenga with the questions after seeing a sample image online in order to differentiate and build greater student interest in the activity
  • We reflected on student progress with the equity topics and literacy strategies, our personal comfort/knowledge teaching through an equity lens, and any struggles we were individually experiencing

Unexpected Challenges

We encountered a number of challenges during this project that slowed our progress, but nothing so challenging that it hindered our project.
Here are a few of the most significant challenges:

  • Unfortunately, we had a number of unexpected personal challenges with the teachers involved on our team, including personal illness, unexpected absences, etc. We had to schedule and reschedule several full team release days.
  • Our school goals also changed throughout the year, which caused our project timelines to shift and our scheduled sharing with colleagues to be dramatically moved forward. It was great that the principal wanted all teachers to now work on a similar project, but it also left us feeling spread thin.
  • There were a number of school initiatives that all seemed to be taking place at the same time, which caused havoc with balancing in class time to try out new strategies with students and time out of class to collaborate
  • We experienced great difficulty booking supply teachers for release time from March onwards, due to a lack of supplies in the system. In future, we hope that the original project timelines are kept (with applications due in September and decisions made by early October, in order for projects to start earlier in the year)

Enhancing Student Learning and Development

Staff reflections informed our understanding of how our students were progressing with understanding and engaging with equity topics. In order to get more student voice, we asked a sampling of students how they felt about the equity topics the teachers infused into literacy programming during the year. Here are their responses below:

  1. How did you feel about learning equity topics in class?

Student 1 – It was fun and I feel that I learned a lot while reading the books. I was enlightened. It was a new and interesting experience and I felt smarter after the books and their discussions.

Student 2 – It was a new and engaging experience.

Student 3 – I feel like it taught us a lot about how the world and people work with power and sustainability, etc.

Student 4 – I think that learning about equity in class was a new and interesting experience and it’s really important to learn about this, but we rarely do it.

Student 5 – I think that talking about equity in class opened up a lot of doors and allowed us to talk about topics that I usually don’t talk about openly. It is also very important to raise awareness about topics like these.

  1. How has learning about equity topics engaged you in class or enhanced your learning?

Student 1 – It has enhanced our learning because the discussions following have provided many insightful and thoughtful comments that have provoked great thinking and reflection.

Student 2 – By reading the books, we learned more about each other and more about ourselves. We also learned about how the world works.

Student 3 – It helped us get a better understanding of the world, and, by using the world we live in, it made us care more and try to think of connections and solutions for our world. Also, the books helped to bring groups together and with teamwork we were more engaged.

Student 4 – Learning about equity helped us learn a lot about each other and how the world works. We all know what equity is, but it helps connect that to the world and what we’re doing (e.g., sustainability).

Student 5 – Talking about these topics helped us to learn about the opinions of other classmates and allowed us to realize the true colours of the world. We also made connections to the topics we are talking about in class.

  1. How did you feel about the reading books you read in small groups and activities you did to deconstruct them?

Student 1 – I felt that the small activities really made me think and reflect on the various subtopics. For example, we made connections to the book that really made us understand the feelings and emotions of the characters.

Student 2 – I thought it was fun because it brought us together through the power of conversation.

Student 3 – The book we read was very well-written, and being in groups and working on stuff like “reader’s theatre” and “online book club discussions” helped us connect all our ideas and help one another.

Student 4 – Reading the books in groups helped us share our opinions and see different views on the characters. For example, on the online book club, we had to have our own opinion (we couldn’t see others’ until we answered), but we could learn from and argue with others.

Student 5 – Discussing the books in small groups allowed us to share our opinions and see how we view the characters. Also, through discussions and the online book club, we had to write our own opinions, until we answered and then we could see what other people thought. We could also argue with others and say why we disagree.

  1. Do you think students should learn about equity or social justice issues in class? Explain why or why not.

Student 1 – I think we should learn about it because it is good to know about different groups and their struggles.

Student 2 – I think so. Social justice is an important topic in today’s world and students have the right to know about it.

Student 3 – Yes, because it teaches us to try and change the bad ways of the world and use our knowledge to help our world.

Student 4 – I think that students should learn about equity and social justice because a lot of people can only learn about these issues from school.

Student 5 – I think that it is important to talk about these topics because many people learn about these topics from school and view the world.

  1. Which social justice or equity topics would you want to learn more about in class in the future?

Student 1 – I would like to learn more about the different cultures of the world.

Student 2 – All topics are equally important in my eyes. Equity for equity!

Student 3 – Everything because all are important!

Student 4 – I think all of them are equally important.

Student 5 – I think that all topics are equally important, but the discrimination against refugees is a big topic.


  • Our project progress was shared after each meeting with the admin team and monthly at staff meetings with the other school staff
  • We updated our parent community members through Twitter and Google Classroom on a weekly basis
  • We shared with our superintendents (we had three rotate through the role this year) when they came in for school meetings and we will send them a copy of our final report/materials
  • We would also like to share our process/findings with two middle schools close to us who we’ve heard are conducting similar inquiries

Project Evaluation

Overall, our project was very successful. As a team, we completed the goals we set out and were able to share our project much more quickly to build capacity with the rest of the staff. We were able to learn new strategies, try the new strategies in class, try new resources with students, share student work as a team, and completed moderated marking as a team.

All teachers had the opportunity to use the new resources and strategies (something we didn’t think would happen until next school year), and we are already looking at plans that encompass a school “big picture” approach instead of just looking at our grade team plans. We are also now explicitly writing in our plans which equity topics are embedded within our curriculum, so it is not seen as an “add-on,” but an integral part of the planning/learning.

Teacher 1 – I was very delighted to realize that the students were very engaged in reading these new (mostly) more sophisticated and dense social justice novels. The subject matter, sometimes non-fiction and focused on immigration, seemed to grab the attention of students, and enhanced our Grade 8 geography curriculum which focused on demographics and the movements of humans across the world. The novels put a relatable, human face to the statistics and maps which mainly informed our studies.

Teacher 2 – I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to take part in this literacy project. I found that the novels I brought into my class helped enhance my social studies program. Many of the novels we read related to the topics we were discussing in our social studies program, examples being child labour and access to global education. By bringing these enriching novels into my literacy program, it allowed the students to personally relate and give them a chance to hear their voice. I believe strongly that the literacy project has enhanced student learning and opened up their lens to relevant topics that they can connect to and, at the same time, provide an environment where students can discuss equity topics on a global level which is very enriching and exciting for students. Thank you for this experience.

Teacher 3 – My personal learning goal was to explore new novels that address social justice themes. Using different novels in the classroom (in small reading groups), I hoped to connect student learning across groups to the big idea of equity. I learned to teach some “hard to discuss topics” through literacy and to get students talking about these issues. It is a lot easier for students to discuss issues when they have characters to talk about instead of themselves. Integrating equity topics has engaged my students tremendously – they are talking about the real world and all of its issues. They are invested in the conversation and learning and it has challenged their thinking. I would like to continue learning about formats that help students draw the social justice themes from novels.

I learned about using a “concept chart” that proved to be a very successful strategy for my students. Exploring more of these kinds of formats would allow me to create a “menu” of ways that I can help students solidify their learning in this area. And, of course, I’d also like to discover more and more books that highlight equity themes.

Teacher 4 – The project definitely opened my mind to the idea of meeting student needs through different book choices, yet exploring the same equity theme as a class. I loved the way the books in our bookroom are written in different styles (e.g., some in paragraphs, some in verse, etc.). I was able to give students choice as to what book they thought they could handle reading, yet still do the same activities with each group. I learned how to support the struggling readers and challenge others.

Before using the literacy bookroom, I tended to have the entire class read the same novel. While this was easier for me, it posed some problems. Firstly, some students weren’t interested in the novel I chose and secondly, some students couldn’t read the text as it was too difficult for them. Now students feel as if they have been given a voice in their learning, and they are more interested and motivated to read the text they have chosen, instead of the text I have chosen for them. I also used the same reading activities with each group, even though the groups read different books.

I found that students in Grade 8 generally love the idea of equity. The book Refugee is a story about various refugee stories (past/present), which is based on current events and my students were really engaged in the reading of the book because of this. They liked discussing the story and making connections to what they have heard in the news and the conversations they have had about refugees in their own homes. The theme of equity is also tied into our study of Canadian history as students are able to see the parallel of some of the challenges different cultural groups had 100 years ago to the challenges people groups have today.