Students tout revisions to English curriculum to more deeply center anti-racism

Some of the English books for grades 9-12 laid out for distribution.Photo: Sara Barber-Just

One year before the pandemic and a renewed national cry for racial justice, the ARHS English department had already embarked on a journey to center nearly all department time on anti-racist work.

They read White Fragility and discussed it as a group, and attended a slew of related workshops, conferences, and classes, including over the summer. The group’s objective was in line with a stated district goal of “responding to the cultural identities of students of color while also dismantling white supremacy.” 

But last June, when discussing what was happening on the national stage, they decided to embark on a curriculum overhaul that would double down on social justice, would fit the new block schedule, and would engage students during a global pandemic, said Department Head Sara Barber-Just. 

“While we have always been devoted to increasing access for students and committed to social justice,” according to Barber-Just, they made braver moves this year.

For 9th and 10th grade, the department made the “decision to completely center Black, Asian, Latinx, Indigenous, Muslim, Jewish, queer, and disabled voices,” Barber-Just said, and to develop an anti-oppression framework focused on asking essential questions about social justice. 

Additionally, at one of the teachers’ conferences the department attended, there was a workshop about teaching The 57 Bus which inspired its addition as a required text for all ninth-graders, ensuring that every student would enter the building and engage in conversations about nonbinary gender identity, racism, and juvenile justice.

The required tenth-grade English course also added a living poets unit that incorporated the voices of over 50 contemporary poets, and 11th graders were all required to take a Social Justice Literature course. The choices included African American Literature, American Literature and Society, Contemporary Literature, LGBTQ Literature, and Modern and Contemporary Poetry and Drama, all courses which added new readings.

Classic courses also underwent changes to be more “relevant and diverse” and Barber-Just who added that all curricula will continue to “shift to accommodate new perspectives.”

Reactions and feedback about the ninth and tenth-grade changes were overwhelmingly positive.

English teacher Kristen Iverson said, “Ninth-grade students from the first semester loved the new books and the focus of the class.” In her class, they also participated in letter-writing campaigns to legislators and researched projects on bills that impact young people based on race, gender identity, and age. 

Student responses to reading The 57 Bus in Chris Herland’s ninth-grade class were powerful. “Some people face gender inequality, racism, poverty, and or violence in their everyday lives,” wrote one student. “Understanding these issues will also help us understand the experiences of people who go through them. It will help us to build empathy and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes.”

Sophomore Tatiyahna Clemons also had great things to say about her tenth-grade class. “I think the books and projects were very helpful with better understanding what happens outside of our homes and comfy life,” she said.

Senior Emily Wang, took British and Irish Literature this fall, one of ARHS’s classic literature courses that got a reboot. “Colonialism felt so far away until I took this class, so I think it’s crucial for students to be aware and realize that to an extent we live in a bubble that doesn’t exactly address the postcolonial reparations of destroyed and faded cultures,” she said.

Senior Alex Harvey-Arnold also took another classic literature course, American Literature and Nature, where he read The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, and discussed the rise in anti-Asian racism. 

“I think that reading and discussing more about race and racism will help make students more aware of the problems in the world they live in,”  he said. “Thinking about and paying attention to perspectives different from ones that are often shown is a good step towards solving big problems.”

Sophomore Juliana Shepard gave the curricular changes the big thumbs up. “English class can have a huge impact on the students,” she said. “There’s no better way of understanding someone else and what they struggled with than reading what they wrote about it.”