Jason Sox comes from a long line of educators. With a mom, sister and cousins in the field, he is no stranger to the classroom. Yet, every day he sees another family member in the halls of his school — his wife, DiAnna. So it was with that familiar ease that the Soxes decided to tackle their doctoral degrees together.
“Pursuing a doctorate has been a goal of mine for a while,” Jason Sox says. “I was initially attracted to the curriculum and instruction program because it was online. With our family and schedules, we didn’t have the freedom to leave home for class. Having my wife interacting in the same classes with me at the table really complements the degree process.”
DiAnna Sox was no stranger to the university. She completed a bachelor’s in English literature and a master’s in secondary education on the Columbia campus. Her experiences with her professors and the recommendations of her colleagues brought her back to the online program.
“I was not sure exactly where I wanted to go with this degree,” DiAnna says. “Curriculum and instruction seemed like the best fit for us because we could use what we learned either at our school or district.”
The doctorate in educational studies allows students to choose from one of four interest areas. The curriculum studies pathway allows students to utilize an equity framework to both identify and address problems of practice in their classrooms and communities. While they both admit they have been challenged by the program, they have embraced the subject matter with open minds.
“We’ve seen so much growth in ourselves,” DiAnna says. “The program has expanded and broadened our worldview more than we initially expected. It challenged us to consider the origins of our perspectives.”
DiAnna recalls an article from one her classes explaining an initial defensiveness when encountering subjects like race or privilege.
“I remember feeling a little bit of that,” DiAnna says. “It was the first experience I had encountering those subjects personally. The more that I read, though, the more I felt almost an out-of-body experience — like I was viewing myself with a bigger picture. I realized just how important it was for me to consider these perspectives for my students.”
Jason’s experience emphasizes his wife’s realizations. He counts a mathematics educator whose problem-based approach helped him discover his passion for education.
“She presented math in a way that went beyond worksheets and formulas,” Jason says. “I want to do that for my own students. I want to present science in a way that interests and reflects the experiences of all of my students.”
Jason’s time in the program has led him to consider how he can make his classroom more inclusive on a broad scale. By incorporating names in his problems beyond “Jack” and “Jill” and adding more diverse representation in his physics experiments, he is slowly learning that small changes can have big impacts on how students feel engaging with the subject.
“I have an obligation to make sure that my teaching is equitable and serviceable for all the students that are in my classroom,” he says. “We do an experiment called the Barbie Bungee jump lab, and I realized that I could purchase dolls that better represent my students. I’m becoming more aware of even my small-scale actions.”
Jason knows he is not going to change overnight. There are content standards he must meet so his students can succeed on their exams, potentially saving them money as they continue their education. He understands the work it will take for him to revamp his lessons to be more culturally relevant.
“All students have the capacity to learn,” Jason says. “Some kids just need encouragement to help them see how the learning connects to their everyday lives. That's where I can step in, and that is the purpose of my research.”
In his unit on nuclear fusion, he challenges students to consider how a new nuclear plant would impact their neighborhood and the local environment. He allows them to consider the real-world context and think critically about the subject instead of rote memorization. He sees the holes in what has traditionally been emphasized and how he can adapt to expand his students’ knowledge.
“It is important to acknowledge the contributions that females and people of color have made to science,” Jason says. “I admit that much of our history is linked to the only people that had the access and ability to investigate and be published. I try to bring in modern examples of diverse contributions to highlight what is happening right now in our world. I want to cultivate a sense of belonging in my classroom.”
DiAnna hopes her research not only benefits her students, but her colleagues as well. After reviewing her syllabus, she realized that she is teaching many of the same authors she taught when she began her career 14 years ago.
“We were presented with a theory that what you teach is just as important as what you choose not to teach,” DiAnna says. “So the idea that if I'm not showing or celebrating Black authors or the Black experience or what it means to be Black in America, then I'm essentially teaching them that it's not worth knowing.”
DiAnna says fear has kept her from broadening her classroom discussions.
“I fear what will come out of a discussion if I open it up to students about race. I fear looking ignorant, saying the wrong thing or offending somebody,” she says. “I don’t want my fear to get in the way of my students’ learning. The change needs to start with me.”
DiAnna thinks that many of her colleagues relate to her in this, and she does not want to be touted as an expert. She wants to participate in her own research and learn with her fellow teachers how they can all make their classrooms and school more inclusive.
“I'm a white person, you know” DiAnna says. “I’m facing the same challenges as my colleagues in growing in our cultural competency. I’d like for us to talk and try to learn and grow in it together.”
DiAnna also emphasizes that as student populations change, the need to shift curriculums will as well to represent and be inclusive of the entire population. Having literature written by and about minorities in the curriculum, validates the importance of these cultures and establishes a rapport among students of different cultures within the classroom.
“Culturally relevant teaching is worth it for students because it promotes academic achievement by connecting the content we teach in the classroom to the real-world experiences of our students,” DiAnna says. “Socially, it helps strengthen the identities and acceptance of all students in the classroom, providing a feeling of belonging.”
The Soxes are glad this program gave them the opportunity to challenge themselves first, so that their students have the best opportunities for success.
“We would encourage educators to engage in these discussions in their classrooms,” say DiAnna and Jason. “Don't let a fear of what could go wrong keep you from stepping into a pursuit of what is right. Speaking from our personal experience, we were ill-equipped to address the need for social equity until we were nudged into a discourse that was somewhat uncomfortable. This discussion considers the perspectives of others. From that, we gained a greater sense of empathy, guiding us to where we are now, attempting to make a larger impact within our small circle of influence.”