In our Back to School series, we tackle the big issues students face, from police in schools to representation. Because returning to the classroom is about more than buying school supplies.
What if history lessons on ancient civilizations focused on empires in what’s now Ghana or Mali, rather than just Ancient Rome and Greece? Or what if literature classes around the country analyzed staggering works of art, whether classics like Toni Morrison’s Beloved or recent fiction like Tommy Orange’s There There, with teachers trained to present material in a culturally sensitive and historically accurate context?
And what if lessons on the past all had a clear line connecting them to the present, to demonstrate how racism has been entrenched systemically throughout U.S. history?
That’s what students and alumni advocating for anti-racist curricula in their respective schools are hoping to see. Instead, they feel that for far too long, school curricula have often erased, ignored, sanitized, or deliberately rewritten the narratives of people of color.
Julia Hammond, an educator in Arizona working on the push for an anti-racist curriculum at her alma mater, Xavier College Preparatory in Phoenix, notes that this is harmful in two ways: Students who don’t see themselves and their history in their curriculum can feel disengaged, and even threatened, by the material, while all students aren’t able to accurately learn about the events in question.
Incorporating anti-racist curricula, on the other hand, offers a dual corrective: Some students will get windows into new narratives and histories, while others will be provided a mirror affirming their experiences.
It’s timely, too: Many of the students and alumni who spoke to Mashable and are pushing for revamped, anti-racist curricula expressed feeling powerless in the wake of the recent, horrific police killings of Black Americans like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. Petitioning their schools or school districts to change their curricula was something tangible they could do in their communities to combat systemic racism. As they witness other institutions across the country listen to demands for racial justice from organizers — from school boards cutting ties with police to cities removing Confederate statues — they hope for a similar response from school administrators.
“Everyone feels like this is a small moment in history where change is possible,” Hammond says.
What’s an anti-racist curriculum anyway?
An “anti-racist curriculum” entails different things in each of these students’ petitions and proposals. For example, #DiversifyOurNarrative, co-founded by Stanford students Jasmine Nguyen and Katelin Zhou, wants “diverse, anti-racist texts” read in U.S. high schools around the country.
To get there, they’re asking for one book in every literature class to be by a person of color, for one of these books to be about the Black experience, and for schools to create guidelines around teaching books “with proper tools to ensure racial sensitivity.”
The campaign’s focus on books is intentional: They want to have a wide reach and their simple demands ensure students anywhere can use the same petition template in their districts.
The campaign originally focused on California school districts, but after finding success in getting the word out about the campaign, particularly through a popular Instagram page, they’ve since expanded nationwide.
Now, students from any state can find petitions for their own state through the campaign’s website. #DiversifyOurNarrative has a step-by-step action plan to help students get the petition on their school board’s agenda. They’ve also compiled guides for students at private and charter schools, where the process is different. Since the campaign’s founding in June 2020, over 32,000 people have signed a petition.
Nguyen acknowledges that #DiversifyOurNarrative’s demands probably seem minor — but, in a sense, that’s the point. The fact that schools don’t already institute these simple requirements is the problem. She was shocked by how much information she encountered for the first time in college, such as the “model minority myth.” The campaign, in her telling, was formed out of a desire to improve the high school learning experience for other students.
While Hammond and Flora Zambakari, another Xavier College Preparatory alum, are hoping to see updated reading lists at Xavier College Preparatory, their demands don’t end there. They’re leading the push for an anti-racist curriculum as part of a larger initiative known as , one of the many school-specific social media accounts that formed recently to call out racial injustice on campuses and, in many cases, demand that school officials change policies.
is focusing on adding certain books to either summer reading lists or academic syllabi for now, but Hammond and Zambakari note that the “finish line” is getting the school to take action on all five of their demands. Aside from anti-racist books, they include: a review of the school’s curriculum, admissions, and hiring process; training for faculty and staff on implicit bias, equity, and inclusion; invitations for speakers to speak about racial injustice at already existing school events; and the formation of identity-based affinity groups, should students request them.
Hammond, an educator herself, notes that properly incorporating these materials in curricula will take more than just assigning a book without giving teachers the proper training on how to present it. Zambakari adds it’s not just about the content of the books; the group wants the other demands to inform the way these books are taught.
Both Xavier Alumni for Change and #DiversifyOurNarrative’s proposed lists include many of the titles you’ve probably seen on “anti-racist reading lists” cropping up in the last few months, such as nonfiction like The New Jim Crow and fiction like The Hate U Give.
At face value, a curriculum that merely incorporates books about diverse experiences might not seem like it’s going far enough to truly be called “anti-racist.” Indeed “anti-racist” reading lists have been critiqued for lacking concrete outcomes. Yet in schools, the context is different, according to the students and alumni organizing these campaigns. For them, proposed books are a means to an end: The list starts a conversation with school administrations about curricula, which won’t end when they meet demands.
While reading lists have provided a concrete starting point for some, others argue that students can’t be expected to create a curriculum on their own, such as Jenelle Nangah, a student at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College in Denver. Last fall, she and other students proposed a change to her school’s curriculum. Rather than explicitly calling these changes “anti-racist,” they’re simply asking for curricula to incorporate Black history into other classes. She notes they didn’t realize what they were missing until a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which features an exhibit tracking Black history in the U.S. back to the 1400s.
Nangah and her classmates were puzzled: Why did lessons about Black history at school just focus on the 1960s? Why had they never even learned anything else?
Upon returning to school, students on the trip formed a Black Student Alliance (BSA) and quickly started working with teachers and the school administration to reconsider their curriculum.
Because they’ve been working on it longer than groups getting started now, they’ve gotten further: With input from students, history teachers have already started developing a new and more inclusive curriculum.
The curriculum will include, for example, units on African kingdoms and the Middle Passage in the sixth grade Western Civilization class, and an analysis of the spread and influence of African influence and culture in the seventh grade Eastern Civilization class, according to Kaliah Yizar, another student in the BSA.
History teachers and the BSA also presented to the Denver Public School (DPS) board a proposal on how they might change the DPS curriculum with similar additions. Nangah and Yizar maintain they’ve communicated with the board ever since, and they feel its members are receptive. (The deputy superintendent has informed the group of changes to curricula within the district.)
Though the BSA’s effort found receptive ears, Nangah maintains that students shouldn’t be expected to design curricula for things they haven’t yet learned. Her logic goes like this: If you haven’t been taught about this history yet, how can you be the one to teach it? Like #DiversifyOurNarrative and Xavier Alumni for Change, she just wants students to have a seat at the table as discussions about curricula, like the ones spurred by the BSA at her own school, take off.
“This whole initiative has just been about getting started,” Zambakari says. “We’re just trying to get them to start somewhere.”
Despite challenges, students are ready for more work
The students at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College feel as if their path has been relatively roadblock-free: Their teachers, principal, and school board officials have all been receptive to their demands.
The journey hasn’t been free of challenges for everyone: For #DiversifyOurNarrative, Nguyen and Zhou note that different state or district standards can make it harder to work with students in different states. For example, Zhou points out that some states have required state reading lists, which is something they’ll work through with students on a case-by-case basis: They might help students re-word demands as they present them to school boards down the road, for instance.
Hammond and Zambakari, from Xavier Alumni for Change, note that school officials have yet to reply to their emails or phone calls. In the meantime, all of the alumni involved are doing research to help build their argument.
Alongside others, Hammond and Zambakari are also talking to college faculty and retired Xavier faculty about additional books to include, and researching what Xavier reads in comparison to other schools in the area. They want to strengthen their case if the school administration replies.
Despite these challenges, each group believes in the urgency and importance of their mission.”I just want to see the school system being used as a tool to combat racism,” Zhou, from #DiversifyOurNarrative, says. She notes that there’s so much power within big institutions to make change, and she hopes more students and educators harness that power.
“This seems like a small demand,” Nguyen says of changed curricula. “[But] it’s the start of something much bigger.”
At Xavier, they’re not letting setbacks get them down. “We’re asking for a seat at the table. It’s really important we’re involved in this,” Hammond says. “We want to have those uncomfortable conversations.”