As we strive to deliver an anti-racist education, Holton’s faculty has committed to a shared professional goal for the 2020-2021 school year (and beyond!). It reads: “We will facilitate opportunities for students to critically identify and examine the historical origins and perpetuation of systems of power and privilege in order to take action in support of human rights locally, nationally, and globally.”
Teachers have taken action toward reaching this goal by engaging in Holton’s curricular renewal process, P.R.I.S.M. (Pinpoint, Research, Illustrate, Strategize, Move). Collaborations with independent schools within our network have provided us with equity auditing tools—such as the inventory for Assessing Bias in Standards and Curricular Materials—that provide important considerations for creating an anti-racist curriculum. Using a Backwards Design Method, teachers are creating competency-based units drawing from the School-wide Learn Well, Live Well, Lead Well Goals & Competencies. This work is not new at Holton this year, but there is certainly a greater sense of purpose and urgency as we continue to undertake these critical shifts to better reflect and honor all our students in our curriculum and to introduce them to perspectives and lives beyond their own.
Here, we take a closer look at ninth- and 10th-grade English classes and what this work and these shifts look like.
In the ninth grade, teachers modified the literary circle unit by adding four new books: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Disobedience by Naomi Alderman, The Other Wes Moore by Wes Moore, and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet. In addition, the historical background learned from Jason Reynolds’ and Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You has helped students understand how Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God serves as an anti-racist text. Teachers, with the help of peer schools, Holton librarians, and students, are searching for other texts with which to further diversify the curriculum next year.
In the 10th grade, students explore literary lenses of the American Dream. This American literature course is a genre study that now focuses on the American Dream through the lens of immigration, race, gender, sexuality, and personal identity. Teachers design lessons around the following essential questions:
- How do different examples of literature support, complicate, or interrogate the standard vision of the American Dream?
- How has your background and experience shaped your own definition of the American Dream?
- What makes the personal essay genre distinct and effective in conveying meaning to an audience?
- How does a writer use voice and language to provide insight into the individual thought process and life experience?
In the fall, students read a diverse collection of essayists who wrote about their American experiences. Many were culled from NPR’s “This I Believe” series; other works included Brent Staples’s “Black Men in Public Space,” Amanda Machado’s “ My Immigrant Family Achieved the American Dream. Then I Started to Question It,” and Jesmyn Ward’s “Cracking the Code.” Students wrestled with writers’ various perspectives. Naya Patel ’23 wrote that she agreed with Anthony Guo’s view that America provides the opportunity to “migrate to America with little to nothing and can climb up economically and socially,” but also saw that “cultural acceptance for immigrants does not come with achieving the American Dream.” Nora Goodin ’23 said, “I will never know what it feels like to be an immigrant or a child of immigrants, but I know there is an issue of racism and xenophobia in our country...that needs to be acknowledged.” In the culminating unit assignment, students were given the choice to write an essay or recite an oral recording through Flipgrid. Students articulated how their own intersecting identities influenced their experiences in the United States and used the articles as a way to frame or support their own pieces. You are welcome to watch two examples here from Meso Ezebuiro ’23 and Lily Wyatt ’23.
In the second trimester, The Piano Lesson served as the central text for important and timely conversations about the American Dream and race. The English 10 team specifically chose August Wilson’s play for the fact that it contains no White characters (except for a ghost) and instead focuses on multiple perspectives from a Black family in the 1930’s. The conflict over whether to sell a piano allowed students to explore the trauma of slavery, the opportunities and pitfalls of the Great Migration (and its effect on transforming the landscape of America), the racism of the “Black codes,” and other continuing issues involving the prison system and generational, inherited wealth. Students linked much of the content to today, including a conversation about reparations. Laiya Ebo ’23 commented how “Boy Willie and Lymon’s attitudes towards racism call attention to the common struggle for dignity...and natural rights.” Discussions also included highlighting lines from the play that could be uttered today at Black Lives Matter protests. The unit extended to other Black artists and authors, including Jacob Lawrence, Romare Bearden, and Maya Angelou, and allowed for connections to Stamped, which students were reading at the same time in Advisory groups. Madeline Feldner ’23 said, “Stamped enriched my experience of reading The Piano Lesson through educating me on the history of racism and how I could really see Wilson apply its generational effects on the Black community. Also, learning about the terms such as ‘antiracist,’ ‘assimilationist,’ and ‘segregationist’ helped me classify certain characters’ actions and behaviors and see the bigger picture of Wilson’s work.”
As with all of our work on both diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging and the deeply interconnected LW3 Goals & Competencies, we know that these efforts are ongoing and iterative—and critical if we truly want to live out our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Mission Statement and empower our students to Learn Well, Live Well, and Lead Well.
Please look for more updates on this work, and what it looks like in various departments and programs, in the coming weeks and months.