Harper College

Collaborative Equity Literacy Project boosts awareness, supports critical conversations

Andre Berchiolly and Stephanie Whalen stand in front of an image created by Martinez E-B Garcias for the Equity Literacy Project.

Andre Berchiolly, inclusive instructional design specialist (left), and Dr. Stephanie Whalen, chair of the Academy for Teaching Excellence, are two members of the group behind the Equity Literacy Project. Martinez E-B Garcias, adjunct art instructor, created the image for the book’s equity chapter.

When it comes to communicating about important and complex topics in education, it helps to have a shared lexicon. Just as auto mechanics need to know what a gear differential is, educators and students need common terms and definitions to discuss equity and inclusion.

At Harper College, a collaborative of area educators have been working since 2017 to develop the Equity Literacy Project, an initiative to help students and teachers “speak the same language” to engage in meaningful dialogue and accelerate progress toward addressing school inequities.

The group of more than 30 educators from Harper College, Northern Illinois University, Township High School Districts 211 and 214, and Barrington Community Unit 220 School District established the initiative to build toward an environment in which students and educators can thrive.

“Developing an awareness of terms and understanding – what they mean and the research and experiences behind them – helps us move forward together as a community,” said Dr. Stephanie Whalen, a Harper English and interdisciplinary studies professor who serves as chair of the Academy for Teaching Excellence and is one of the founding members of the Equity Literacy Project.

Building a common language together

The Art of Teaching for Equity Communities of Practice invited a small group of area high school staff and administrators in 2017 to discuss ways to address equity in education. It was the seed of what would become the Equity Literacy Project.

“The Equity Literacy Project is an example of something that came from Harper College’s willingness to support professional learning,” Whalen explained. “The first group of people that formed the Art of Teaching for Equity wanted to become a Community of Practice because we wanted to make sure we were intentionally carving out time to give back to the institution.”

Over the next two years, the group came together for workshops, meals and discussions. They shared stories of why they got involved and the heartbreak of seeing students grapple with inequities in school structures and environments. They started developing a collection of terms and phrases that can be powerful when understood and harmful when dismissed. Those conversations revealed the major project themes, including:

  • Ability and Disability
  • Gender and Sexuality
  • Language and Immigration
  • Race and Ethnicity
  • Religion
  • Socioeconomic Status

“If we can have a shared resource as a community where we have a common definition and understanding of the research and people’s experiences, we can really accelerate our pace as a community interested in making change,” Whalen added.

The group received support from Rebus Community, the education and professional development of The Rebus Foundation, a worldwide nonprofit dedicated to promoting equal access to knowledge.

The Equity Literacy Project first published an electronic book of its work in 2020 as a free Open Educational Resource (OER). Now, the OER resource is shared through Harper’s growing collection of Pressbooks, which is supported by Joe Wachter, chemistry professor and the Academy’s OER coordinator.

Harper students in English 101-102 complete a writing exercise related to the Equity Literacy Project.

Students in Dr. Stephanie Whalen’s English 101-102 course write about their positive and negative school experiences after previewing the chapters in the Equity Literacy Project.

Belonging benefits all students

The Equity Literacy Project is about more than helping educators understand the importance of terminology. It’s about creating a community where every student, staff and faculty member experiences a sense of belonging that increases evaluation and improvement of educational experiences and leads to empowerment. These ideas are gaining momentum.

“Culturally relevant teaching is not just about making students feel good,” Whalen explained. “We’re helping them cultivate a critical consciousness so they can be authentically engaged in their learning, in their communities and in their society.”

Survey data shows that 94% of Harper College students enrolled in English 101 and 102 with faculty who participated in the Academy’s inclusive teaching program, the Equity Teaching Academy, thought their learning was more relevant to their interests.

“Through talking with students and through our survey, we learned how important it is, from the very beginning of a course, for a faculty member to demonstrate explicitly that they are welcoming, open and doing their best to create an inclusive, safe, supportive environment,” Whalen said.

Working together to build momentum

Contributors to the Equity Literacy Project continue to collect and define terminology related to issues of inclusion, often partnering with existing events on campus. The resource continues to grow with new co-facilitators of the Teaching for Equity Community of Practice, including Andre Berchiolly – who became a formal member of Harper’s Academy team as an inclusive instructional design specialist after getting involved with the project – and Simona Bonica, adjunct English instructor.

“Both have been instrumental leaders in getting the work in shape to go live online and keeping it growing along with original artwork from their fellow Community of Practice member, Martinez E-B Garcias, adjunct art instructor, who has made the e-book aesthetically rich as the content evolves,” Whalen said.

Other current members of the Community of Practice include Monica Shirley, coordinator of student diversity initiatives at Harper, and Joe Flynn, executive director of Diversity and Inclusion at Northern Illinois University. These founding members have stayed in the group despite being stretched thin with countless initiatives.

The Community of Practice continues to find ways to keep the conversations going and add to the resource. For instance, during Harper’s 2023 Professional Development Day, University of Illinois Chicago Professor David Stovall shared terms related to historical education debt in a session designed to add critical terms to the online resource related to understanding the historical, social and political context of education.

At the 2023 Faculty Retreat, participants discussed the work of pedagogical theorist and educator Gloria Ladson-Billings, which described the common conceptions and shared visions of teachers who are supportive of minoritized students utilizing many terms from the project.

“That was an important dialogue we’re going to continue to build on,” Whalen said. “Where is the common ground here, and how can we continue to increase our capacity to understand these terms and concepts as we integrate these conversations into our professional lives? As we continue to do this work collaboratively, we will build more momentum to work together, advance awareness and build capacity than we ever could have on our own. This just wouldn’t be possible without working together.”

Last Updated: 6/3/24