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Diversity in the SMA Curriculum

June 2, 2017

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Diversity in the SMA Curriculum




Come August, I will leave for a college two thousand miles away. In the mean time, I read the self-introductory paragraphs my future classmates post on the Class of 2021 Facebook page. Though I’m pretty amazed by the people who research penguin linguistics, or can play a hundred jazz standards by heart in every key, the incredible diversity of cultures, languages, and backgrounds has been the newest and most exciting aspect for me to witness.

That’s because for everything that I love about SMA, for everything this school has taught me about confidence and eloquence, persistence and feminism, I cannot call it the most diverse community I have belonged to.

SMA is not necessarily to blame for this. Portland has the largest percentage of white residents of any major city in America, and our student body reflects the demographics of our location.

“Diversity is a founding principle and value [of SMA],” Assistant Principal of Academics Alena Kelly said when I asked about the mention of diversity in our school’s mission statement. “Women in 1859, regardless of their color or ethnicity, were the silent voices, the invisible half.  The courage it took to lead on this front has to be underscored. All through the decades that followed, women still fought for recognition, and it continues.

“Adding women’s voices was and is first priority,” she said.

I don’t doubt that. We do an amazing job of empowering women here—we have an entire week focusing on just that; we have a myriad of female faculty with inspiring passion and expertise, male faculty who are staunch allies, and students fervent and articulate enough to fight for feminism in their daily lives. But the focus on feminism can sometimes overshadow any conversation about ethnic diversity. Class discussion of Huckleberry Finn during my junior year often found themselves steered far off course, backtracked by comparisons of white women’s experiences to American minorities’ experiences.  And while women and people of color share a history of underrepresentation in the Western world, while the importance of intersectionality cannot be underestimated, ethnic diversity is a vital issue that deserves the opportunity to stand on its own, sometimes.

The first book any of my English classes would read by a person of color, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, was also the last book we would ever read for high school English. It came fourth quarter of our senior year. In Honors World History, we did not cover Egypt, the Inca, or the Maya, but we studied from a textbook that considered China, Vietnam, Japan, and Korea a single general cultural unit. In a religion class last year, a teacher handed out a pamphlet of racist microaggressions in an attempt to show people what not to say. Beyond what they learn in their degree programs, SMA does not require any sort of diversity training for its faculty.

The one area in which I feel underprepared for college is my ability to discuss world history and literature.

Now, SMA is changing. The book lists for English classes have changed since my freshman, sophomore, and junior years. As Ms. Kelly said, “Can we do more—in education, the answer to questions such as these is always, yes, regardless of the curricular area.  We are educators because we want students to have the skills and knowledge that will serve them in their lives and future professions.  The world and environment we live in isn’t stagnant and education can never be static either.”

In fact, the world we live in is beginning to realize the importance of minority voices in education. This February, lawmakers proposed Oregon House Bill 2845, which would mandate the development of statewide standards for ethnic studies in Oregon public schools. The bill calls for a committee made of representatives from African-American, Asian-American and Pacific Islander, Native American, Latino, and Middle Eastern communities, as well as women, LGBT, and disabled members, to examine current social studies requirements and recommend changes and additions that will more thoroughly incorporate the history and perspectives of minority Americans. The committee would reconvene biannually to review school districts’ progress and provide further input into materials for the classroom and faculty training.

The only existing state legislation of its kind is California’s Assembly Bill 2016, which became law last September and ordered the creation of a sample ethnic studies class curriculum that any California public schools could choose to adopt. This advancement was a compromise following the failure of another measure that would have required all California schools to offer ethnic studies. Oregon’s HB 2845 finds a middle ground between these two ideas. If passed, it would not require schools to offer an ethnic studies class but to incorporate new standards into their existing curricula, though all schools must adopt them.

But SMA senior Emily Berg, a member of Women of Color in Action, pointed out that any standards the bill developed would need to be carefully and consciously planned for this action to have a positive impact. “It’s more important for the state to take their time with coming up with an integrated curriculum that is respectful and accurate than [to] make this measure a quick-fix type of bill that does not take the time to consider all factors,” she said. Requiring teachers without proper training or experience to teach about minority cultures could do as much damage as the same teachers glossing over certain histories.

While researching the bill, I found myself reading through the comments on various articles about ethnic studies, discovering waves of people who oppose the entire idea of an ethnic studies class with surprising vehemence. “Cool beans, you came from somewhere with its own history,” one commenter wrote, “but so did everyone else, and we really can’t spend our time teaching a thousand different histories when American students don’t even know American history. Study where you came from on your own time.” They went to say that ethnic studies “fostered anti-American thoughts.”

If that person truly believed students needed to spend more time on American history, they could have supported chipping away at yearlong European history classes, or the entire semesters in world history spent on Greece and Rome. But that’s not what the reviewer said or meant; they only criticized the histories that weren’t white, not the ones that weren’t American. In saying that ethnic studies is un-American and unimportant, they asserted that America is meant for white people and that people of color have not contributed to American history. Ethnic studies is American history, and its presence is beneficial for America’s youth—beyond broadening the worldviews of white students and giving students of color an opportunity to see themselves represented, ethnic studies classes help the overall attendance and grades of at-risk students.

HB 2845 is still in its early stages; on May 31st, lawmakers held a public hearing and work session regarding its contents. And, should the bill pass, its jurisdiction would not necessarily cover SMA. However, its existence, and the twenty-two Oregon lawmakers who have sponsored it, demonstrate that the issue of minority representation in primary and secondary education is on the minds of Oregon citizens.

Even without the legal connection, diversity within the social studies curriculum has been on the minds of SMA students, too. In the 2014-2015 school year, the social science department sent out a survey to SMA students and alumnae asking questions about the future they’d like to see for the department. The most common suggestions for future classes, from both students and alumnae, were sociology, geography, women’s studies, and ethnic studies.

Sociology, women’s studies, and ethnic studies are all clearly linked to voices underrepresented in academia, but even geography—this year’s newest addition to social science offerings at SMA—shows potential for discussing diverse perspectives. History teacher Matthew Vannelli described that, in piloting the new freshman geography class this year, instructors made a point to make sure the scope of the course was truly global, often incorporating modern case studies to expand on broader geographic concepts. When discussing population, he said while listing a few examples, they covered China’s one child policy; when discussing agriculture, they studied the role of women workers in sub-Saharan Africa; and when discussing the global issue of water usage and rights, they examined the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, North and South Dakotas.

Developing a new elective class like geography is a long process, Mr. Vannelli explained. After gathering survey data during the 2014-2015 year, SMA’s social science department spent the next school year creating and proposing a curriculum for the new geography course. Two years after the initial survey, the course has run its first semester. But the main factor in its slow arrival is not necessarily the time associated with writing the syllabus itself, but the scheduling conflicts that arose. As we all know from our summers spent anxiously waiting for our schedules to come out, creating functional class schedules for seven hundred students is difficult. The more electives that SMA offers, the more complex the process becomes. And in our relatively small school, each new elective in one department has the potential to harm the enrollment of electives in other departments. Before implementing a course in the social sciences, SMA has to consider how it may affect art and elective science classes, for example.

But at SMA, the individual departments have the most control over the contents of their curricula, and the social science department knows that the student body and is growing more and more interested in learning about diverse perspectives. In response, Mr. Vannelli said that they are continually working to incorporate more global cultures and histories into their required classes. In recent years, they have added a unit on Africa into World History courses; they also plan to focus more on pre-Columbian history in AP and regular US History, and to study slavery more extensively when discussing mercantilism in European History.

In some ways, the freedom that departments have with their curricula is encouraging. It means that, as students, our voices can have a more direct impact on what we (or, at least, subsequent classes) learn. Sometimes it doesn’t have to take a House bill to show our teachers what matters to us.

Last year, senior and WOCA member Jaiden Wong organized a meeting with three other students of color and her English teacher, the head of the English department, to discuss Huckleberry Finn. I was one of them. The initial goal of our meeting was simply to voice a desire to hear more minority voices while studying the background and modern implications of the novel, as the book comments on race from a white lens. But the meeting, which lasted over an hour and headed into more emotional territory than originally planned, led to a conversation about diversity among the authors of SMA’s English curriculum. While the English department had already approached this topic to some extent, we tried to make it clear that change was on the minds of SMA students in an immediate way. And though no one demanded Huckleberry Finn’s removal from the curriculum, this year AP English 11 read The Color Purple by Alice Walker instead.

“I think diversity in a curriculum is beneficial not just to the students of color, whose heritage and history is finally explored in an academic setting, but to white students as well, whose minds are able to be broadened,” Jaiden said when asked about the value of minority perspectives in education. “Although St. Mary’s has recently been making an effort to diversify the curriculum, I believe it’s beyond crucial to add more diverse history classes and literature in order to end ignorance. Portland is [approximately] 30% people of color; at least 30% of our discussions in classrooms should reflect this.”

And in classes like English 12, which covers some European literature and World History, that ratio only grows. Portland may be a fairly homogenous city, but the greater world we live in—and learn about—is not.

SMA is moving forward. When I hear of the new curricular developments that will come into being once I’m gone, like the new senior English classes exploring identity and revolution, it’s easy to get a little jealous, but I realize now it’s more constructive to value that my school is making progress. As I stand on the precipice of leaving, I’m more inclined to focus not on the gaps SMA has left me to fill, but on the many skills this place has helped me hone—like questioning. Like caring about what I leave behind. 

SMA has given me so much, but that’s not to say we have no place to improve. In Jaiden’s words, “It’s time to no longer try, and just do.”

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