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Nov 12, 2021 Our People Interview Staff Feature DEIJ

Our New Head of Program, Natasha Padilla-Goddard, On Her Work Toward DEIJ in Education

“You can still teach literary skills to students reading a book of their choosing...we need to fill our libraries with books they actually want to read.”

Abby Leigh Curtis

I had the chance to sit down with Natasha Padilla-Goddard, our new Head of Program for EXPLO Senior, to learn more about her impressive career and the incredible work she’s done to bring diversity, equity, and inclusion to the forefront of education. 

Over the course of her career, Natasha has taught at Moses Brown School, Noble and Greenough School, Northfield Mount Hermon Upward Bound, and University of Massachusetts/Noble Upward Bound. She was the Department Chair for English Language Arts at Wellesley Middle School, where she served on the School’s Leadership Team and the Academic Council for Wellesley Public Schools. She was also our Dean of Students here at EXPLO before she moved into the Senior Program Head role. 

Our interview felt more like a coffee date with an old friend. Her laughter is infectious, her cadence is comforting. Read on to get a glimpse of it.

You've made your mark at several schools over the course of your career. Out of all of the posts you’ve held, did you have a favorite?

Honestly, being at Wellesley for 21 years speaks for itself...not only did I love my job, but I also fostered friendships that will last for life. Being the Department Head was the best of both worlds — I had a seat at the administrative table and one foot in the classroom. I learned so much about teaching, curriculum development, education as a whole...and I learned it from not only living it, but also from watching other educators teach.

“I had a seat at the administrative table and one foot in the classroom.”

It sounds like your experience there had a major impact on you — and I know you made an impact on the teachers and learners there, too. Can you tell me about your work diversifying the language arts curriculum while at Wellesley Middle School?

I made it my mission to expand our classroom libraries — to incorporate new works into the curriculum. I could take certain liberties at Wellesley that I hadn’t been able to previously...the privilege that exists in the school, in the community, benefitted me in that way.

At Wellesley [Middle School], standardized test prep was not as pressing; kids had the context they needed. However, the English curriculum was far from fresh. There were three core texts for 7th grade, (Tom Sawyer, Warriors Don’t Cry, and Shakespeare), and three for 8th (Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Fahrenheit 451). You probably remember them.

Oh, yes. Some quite fondly, some not so much.

Right! And young adult (YA) literature has exploded. Looking at those core texts, I asked myself: “What’s missing? Who’s missing?” And the answer was clear — characters of color. LGBTQ+ characters. A diverse array of characters in general. Though there are endless options for YA, I wasn’t going to pick just any old book. We need owned voices — characters of color written by authors of color...and not just about slavery.

I was able to swap out Fahrenheit 451 for All American Boys, the fictional story of two young men, one black and one white, who recount the reverberations of a horrific incident of police brutality as only victims and witnesses can.

A note: In 2020, All American Boys landed the third position on the American Library Association's list of the most commonly banned and challenged books in the United States.

“We need owned voices — characters of color written by authors of color.”

The authors, Brendan Kiely and Jason Reynolds, actually came [to Wellesley] to speak to the students. One student, Yusuf, was drawn to them immediately. He approached them to ask if they knew anything about prejudice toward Muslim people. He told them about his experience, his struggle, and they were so compassionate and engaged. By the end of their exchange, they were all in tears.

Oh, wow. That’s really special.

It was. And it just grew from there. Jason actually wrote a poem about Yusuf. Then Yusuf spoke at his graduation and did it all in his South African accent — something he had intentionally been suppressing. And then Brendan wrote another book —The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege — with an entire chapter about Yusuf.

What a wonderful story.

They were lovely, lovely people.

What was your biggest takeaway from this time in your career?

Representation matters. For students of color in particular, but also for white students. They read The Hate U Give, and were like, “Do you have more like this?”

You can still teach literary skills to students reading a book of their choosing...we need to fill our libraries with books they actually want to read.

Was there pushback?

Definitely. Some would say, “This is too much race stuff.” But you have to be strong, and you have to be able to connect the dots. This isn’t just about content. It isn’t just about race or racism. This is representation. This is showing our students — all of our students — that they matter.

“You can still teach literary skills to students reading a book of their choosing...we need to fill our libraries with books they actually want to read.”

I love that. Okay, I have to ask: on top of all of your accomplishments, I hear you’re also an award-winning soup chef?

Ha! Arguably my proudest accomplishment.

All jokes aside, what got you into soup-making?

About four or five years after my family and I moved into our neighborhood, we got invited to the annual neighborhood soup contest. I immediately knew what I’d make; my “surrogate aunt,” a close family friend, used to make this phenomenal gumbo. Though it isn’t easy to find all of the necessary ingredients — especially seasonings — in Massachusetts, I pulled it off. It won easily.

The following year, I made this difficult-yet-unbelievably good lobster bisque from Cooks Illustrated...flambéed lobster tail and all. That won, too...no contest!

The third year I entered, my husband said: “You absolutely have to make Barbara Lynch’s creamy leek and potato soup.” I immediately agreed — it is so good. It has seared Nantucket Bay scallops...mmm. And wouldn’t you know it, that one took first prize, too!

My mouth is watering. I sincerely hope you plan to make one of those delectable dishes for the next EXPLO potluck!

I’ll consider it...kidding! Of course I will. Maybe I’ll even just bring some in as a mid-week treat.

We’re so thrilled to have Natasha with us — she’s already brought such warmth, laughter, and energy to the Exploration Center and the Sarah Lawrence campus. We can’t wait to learn alongside her. Please join us in wishing her the best in her new role by sharing this blog with a friend or member of your community!

Abby Leigh Curtis