What does it mean to teach Moby Dick with cultural sensitivity?
Guilford Public Schools Superintendent Paul Freeman says it’s a matter of perspectives.
“In Moby Dick, Queequeg is the only character of color, and Queequeg is presented as a noble savage,” Freeman said.
One way to broaden the lesson, he explained, would be to have students look at whaling in different cultures. Another would be to introduce students to stories of New Englanders of color who also engaged in whaling.
“That doesn’t mean that we’re going to stop teaching Moby Dick or look to pull down statues of Melville,” Freeman said. “It’s about enriching the experience, not replacing one with another.”
Reevaluating how a classic work of literature, like Moby Dick, is taught, is one example how Guilford schools are pursuing what Freeman says is a commitment by the school district to address equity and social justice in the classroom.
In June 2020, the Guilford Board of Education voted to discontinue the use of the “Indians” as a school mascot. Over the course of that summer, the district began a number of initiatives, including an audit of the kindergarten through 12th-grade curriculum, to hire an equity liaison, and to participate along with 20 other school districts in a student teacher residency program which will bring a teacher of color into the district.
The board also voted and Freeman said that the emails he received about that decision were a large part of the impetus for reevaluating the curriculum. He said he received over 200 emails about the decision, including from recent graduates asking that the district hire more diverse teachers, train teachers in how to teach within a “culturally responsive” framework and incorporate a greater variety of texts and viewpoints into the curriculum.
Freeman said that the graduates who reached out to him expressed a feeling of being left unprepared to engage in critical conversations around history that were taking place at their universities.
“They felt at a loss,” said Freeman. “They felt unprepared to be able to enter those conversations, and wanted to have more of that opportunity when they had been students here in Guilford.”
Freeman said that many Guilford graduates “walked away feeling like they, in fact, had come away with a really traditional, one-sided version of American history.”
Evaluating the curriculum
With the guidance of an expert, teachers in Guilford took a look at their curriculum to determine how well their materials and teaching methods did or did not reflect a diverse spectrum of experiences. The responses focused less on what was being taught and more on how the teachers were approaching the texts.
Freeman said the district asked Don Siler, an associate professor of education at the University of St. Joseph, to work with English and Social Studies teachers in grades 5-12 to review and reflect on the curriculum and how they teach it.
Siler had spoken at a community conversation in Guilford on race and equity issues a few years ago, according to Freeman, and he was willing and appeared to be a good fit.
Siler asked the teachers to complete a self-evaluation of the curriculum based on a scorecard developed by New York University. Teachers rate their teaching materials on a numerical scale based on how well they reflect diversity and accuracy in displaying different cultures.
The scorecard had two parts.
For “representation,” teachers evaluate whether their course materials convey a diversity of characters, whether those characters play prominent roles in the work, and whether those characters are described without falling back on stereotypes.
For “social justice,” teachers are asked to consider whether the curriculum highlights the strengths and talents of people of different races, gender and ability, and whether these viewpoints are given value. It also looks at whether the curriculum encourages students to engage in equity issues in their own communities and connect to social, political and environmental concerns in their own world.
After completing their reflections, Siler meets with the teachers and discusses their findings. Freeman said that Siler is preparing a report on his work which he anticipates will be available to the public in the fall.
The evaluations were delayed by the pandemic, but Freeman said that “Asking teachers to be at the center of doing this reflection is the right way to do it.”
Asked about the audit, both Freeman and Siler said that so far the responses hadn’t shown the need to change the core curriculum, which dates to 2016, and Freeman said that he didn’t expect the district to add any new texts to curricula this year. At a meeting of the Board of Education’s Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment Committee on May 24, Siler praised the current curriculum.
“I was actually kind of buoyed by seeing the breadth of some of what they already have,” said Siler.
Now, Freeman said, the goal was to take that curriculum and draw out from it a mix of voices and viewpoints, particularly those that traditionally are forgotten or ignored.
Freeman said that a social studies lesson, for example, might dissect the reasons for the United States taking part in World War I — a controversial decision at the time — by reading newspaper articles from the period. A unit on the 1960s might ask students to compare the positions of Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, or to critique a position being espoused by the Black Panthers.
“[We want] to make sure that we’re presenting those classes in a way so that we’re looking at complicated historical events, honestly, openly and critically,” he said. “And also creating classroom environments where again, students feel … that they’re not simply expected to absorb a dominant narrative.”
Freeman pushes back on “Critical Race Theory”
Local fears that the schools are teaching “Critical Race Theory,” in part spurred a forum last week attended by hundreds of people. Freeman said those concerns are both surprising and unfounded.
“Some of the reactions that we’ve been experiencing this year, to me, seem wholly out of place in response to the actual conversations that are happening,” he said.
According to Siler, Critical Race Theory is not part of the work he is doing with the district.
“We are not looking specifically at the role that race plays in education,” Siler said. “If we were taking a Critical Race Theory approach to this, we would absolutely be looking specifically at what role does whiteness play in Guilford. That was not one of my questions. That’s not something we’re addressing.”
Freeman said that there is nothing radical or new about this type of teaching, either in social studies or in English.
“We’ve always talked about being critical readers of literature. This is just a reminder for us to be better at doing it in a way that is really inclusive of all of our kids,” he said.
Siler said that he has also been interviewing high school students about their experiences in the schools. He said he’s interviewed 30 students in a group, and then 12-15 in a smaller group, and some individually. Siler said he asked them how education is talked about in their families and in their households, and whether there were things in the classrooms that made them feel more or less visible or comfortable.
“The goal … is to provide students who are from marginalized groups areas in which they can see themselves in the content, in order to build up connections,” he said. “We are trying to find more ways to establish relevance for the students.”
He said that while he was specifically looking to hear from students of color, he also wanted to make sure that he was getting a diversity of responses from students.
“It is about how richly and deeply can we look at what their experience in this district has been overall. It’s more about the richness of the story, as opposed to being able to generalize.”
Siler said he is also working with instructional coaches to help the teachers implement practices that encourage sensitivity and dialogue. Freeman said they wanted to make sure that students felt comfortable debating different points of view.
“How do you create those conversations where students feel really safe and supported expressing an opinion that might be contrary?” he said. “If we set up a class where we want to debate whether it was right or wrong to enter world war one, we need to make sure that students are comfortable speaking strongly on both sides of that debate.”
Latitude for teachers
Any eventual changes to the curriculum would require the approval of the town’s board of education, Freeman said, but the district does give teachers latitude to choose new books or materials that might best interest their students.
“We hire really talented teachers who are really committed to their students, who are experts in their disciplines and in their work,” he said.
Freeman said that teachers discuss choices with their peers, with instructional coaches and with their principal, but that he trusted the teachers’ judgment on what they decide to incorporate into their lesson plans.
“The best person to make that decision is the teacher, who’s in the class with the students every day,” he said. “That is not a flaw in our system. That’s a feature in Guilford Public Schools. It’s made us who we are and we’re enormously proud of it.”
Freeman said that the district intends to audit the curriculum in the younger grades as well, and to look at science and math curriculum, a process which he anticipates will be “less weighty” than social studies and English.
Siler emphasized that having a curriculum that exposed students to a broader array of stories and viewpoints would benefit every one of the students, not just students of color.
“The more perspectives they see, the better they understand things, the more stories they’ve heard from their peers, from the content, the more different ways they have explored things, the better prepared they are going to be,” he said.