Push for race education at PHS intensifies

The PHS History department is currently working on revising the U.S. History I curriculum in order to provide more thoughtful discussions on race in America. photo by <span class="credit credit- "><a href="/credit/"Aaron/" title="View all of this person's work">"Aaron</a></span>

The PHS History department is currently working on revising the U.S. History I curriculum in order to provide more thoughtful discussions on race in America.
photo by Aaron Wu

Following last year’s Humanities department program review, the department is revising the curriculum, to include current issues such as race.

These revisions aim to alter the U.S. History I curriculum to increase the timespan that it covers and to provide more discussions on contemporary issues.

These reviews were instituted by Steve Cochrane, superintendent of Princeton Public Schools, and are set to occur every several years, ensuring that course material is up-to-date and includes essential information.

In order to allow U.S. History II students to cover more of post-World War II America, the history department plans to shift part of the U.S. II material to the U.S. I curriculum, instead of ending the U.S. I curriculum after the Reconstruction era. The U.S. II course will instead begin with the Spanish-American War and imperialism in Latin America.

To make time for additional material, the department plans to focus on a thematic style of teaching, concentrating on key information instead of on specific details, and avoiding previously taught material.

“You have to approach it thematically. As a department, we have to think about what is essential, what’s important, [and]what kids have been taught before,” said PHS Humanities Supervisor  Mark Shelley. “By framing [history] thematically, we can reduce the volume of details kids have to know and make [the teaching] more meaningful.”

As a result of this curriculum review, teachers will have more time in U.S. II to teach contemporary topics, which they would usually not have the opportunity to teach.

“[Students] don’t feel [that] our social studies courses, especially at the high school, do enough to engage them in discussing modern history and current events,” Shelley said.

In the past year, acts of discrimination and racism have illuminated a need for understanding of other cultures and diversity in the PHS curriculum. Recent events in the district have prompted concerns from the community about the need for racial literacy, including a Snapchat that was sent by a PHS student that included a racial slur that resurfaced in April, and the false accusation of a black student at John Witherspoon Middle School distributing marijuana-infused brownies in May, prompting outrage in the Princeton community. As events like these unfold in the district, PHS students and staff feel they reinforce the need for greater education on race and culture.

“We want to make sure [that teaching racial literacy] is more explicit and make sure that all teachers have the same foundation from which to teach,” said U.S. History teacher Dr. Rick Miller. “It’s been a focus of our district for a [while]. However, various students and others have been doing a lot of work to help make [race] more explicit in all the courses. So I think the student work has helped prompt some of these changes.”

To revise the curriculum, students helped by including proposals for an elective on racial literacy and the implementation of racial literacy textbooks. The Minority Student Achievement Network came up with the idea of implementing a racial literacy course at their annual conference in October, and have been drafting the necessary requirements for it since then. The club has completed a course description and a course rationale, which includes the structure of the class, and were offered a curriculum from Roberto Schiraldi, a board representative of Not In Our Town, a local Princeton organization that focuses on combating racial injustice. In May, the textbooks were passed out to history teachers for potential use in classrooms, which includes a copy of Schiraldi’s work.  

“As friendly, open, and diverse as we think we are — we are not. We should be able to reflect the diversity that we actually have in this school. This course will allow people to be more consciously aware of themselves and this community and the impacts certain social structures have on certain people. [Racial Literacy] will allow people to live a more informed life,” said Joanne Adebayo ’17, a member of MSAN.

The proposed textbooks were created by CHOOSE, a student-led organization that looks to make people more aware of the impact on race in society. The book aims to combat racism by spreading awareness of the issue in communities and by making it easier to discuss race in classrooms.

Inclusion of a unit on racial literacy in the curriculum revision and the new Racial Literacy course are part of the PPS Racial Literacy Program and Strategic Plan, which focuses on equity, racial literacy, outreach, and achievement. In a Civil Rights Commission meeting on May 30, Cochrane presented the district’s Racial Literacy Program. This program calls for reconciliation in acknowledgement of current inequities and increased efforts to empower student voices and actions through the establishment of structures to foster continued dialogue.

As part of the plan, the district will also be revising the third-grade curriculum in addition to PHS’s U.S. I curriculum. Instead of a strict focus on colonial times, there will be discussion on contemporary issues such as school segregation in Princeton. Additionally, there is a new class on Race and Culture being led this year at John Witherspoon Middle School.

Furthermore, the district also looks to diversify all K-8 classroom libraries and create a new PHS summer reading list that showcases diverse cultures, genders, and genres.

The majority of the U.S. I revisions will take place during the summer, during which the curriculum work will be done and sent to the Student Achievement Committee for approval.

The PHS History department plans to begin using the revised U.S. I curriculum in the 2017–2018 school year. During the summer of 2018, teachers will then revise the U.S. II curriculum so that it continues where the new U.S. I curriculum stops and includes more recent issues and events from the past 30 to 40 years.

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