Here’s the icebreaker: What do you wish you’d learned in school?
“Indigenous history,” one student said.
“Something I wish I didn’t learn was the false information about Christopher Columbus,” said another.
“More about international struggles for human rights,” said Aneesa Roidad, a recent Ballard High graduate who led the conversation with her peers, members of the NAACP Youth Council, over Zoom on a recent Wednesday.
The students are spending their summer writing a curriculum so future students learn important lessons they didn’t. At the top of their agenda: designing coursework in science, math, English, history and other subjects that is steeped in principles of ethnic studies — lessons that focus on the experiences of people of color.
They’re part of a growing group of students and educators in the Puget Sound region who are calling for ethnic studies across all grade levels and disciplines. This isn’t a new call to action. Many local ethnic studies teachers have advocated it for years. “It’s always been urgent to us,” said Jon Greenberg, an ethnic studies teacher at The Center School in Seattle.
But a national social movement over racial injustice, a pandemic that has caused those in power to rethink how learning happens, and momentum in the form of new school district policies and legislation, raises hope for some that change is coming.
Last year, lawmakers required the state’s education officials to develop ethnic studies materials and encouraged districts to use them in grades seven-12; a 2020 law expanded this to kindergarten. Northshore School District has launched an ethnic studies pilot that’s expanding this fall. And Highline’s superintendent says she wants to transform the district into an actively anti- racist institution.
“I do see signs and symbols of hope,” said Roidad, co-president of the NAACP Youth Council. “It is important always, but now is a really important opportunity that we can’t squander.”
Ethnic studies calls for learning that’s more equitable, truthful and inclusive of all people — not just the experiences of those who are white, which tend to dominate history books and assigned reading.
Ethnic studies might come in the form of stand-alone classes on Black, Asian, Latino or Pacific Islander studies. It may mean rewriting core curriculum so it represents the oppression and accomplishments of people of color. It could require teachers to undergo anti-racist training.
And there seem to be real benefits: studies suggest ethnic studies courses help students better understand structural racism and are tied to significant improvements in attendance and performance, particularly among boys and Hispanic students.
The way social studies is taught actually has a bearing on how children of color do in math classes, because what we learn in history sets a certain expectation for who is “good” at mathematics, said Niral Shah, a University of Washington assistant professor of education. If you teach about scholars of color across the spectrum, students of color could see themselves achieving in lots of different academic areas, too.
To truly make change, some say, mindsets among teachers, administrators and families need to shift.
Greenberg and many others interviewed for this story say they’ve felt pushback “for years” against the work they do. About seven years ago, Greenberg was banned from using certain curriculum in his classes. And despite support from many, he was transferred for one year to another school after a family complained about his lessons.
The tides have begun to turn: in 2017, after a push from the Seattle NAACP, Seattle school board members unanimously supported an ethnic studies resolution. In June, the school board passed a new resolution directing the superintendent to craft Black studies curriculum for grades K-12.
But Greenberg said he’s watched powerful efforts to turn the 2017 resolution into action all but evaporate. The program manager leading an ethnic studies advisory group, Tracy Castro-Gill, has spoken openly against certain district policies and is now in mediation with the school district over her position. For months, Greenberg said, the advisory group’s work has stalled.
Tim Robinson, district spokesperson, said the “work is continuing and will likely accelerate in the future. It is complex work and it remains a district priority.”
Castro-Gill, who leads the nonprofit Washington Ethnic Studies Now, said she couldn’t speak about her work in SPS. But historically, she said, anti-racist initiatives are “seen as something outside of curriculum and instruction, outside daily operations of a school district.” They’re more likely to get cut if they come in the form of stand-alone courses, she said, which is why she’s pushing for ethnic studies “everywhere in curriculum and instruction,” for all teachers to undergo anti-racist training and for deep organizational change.
Roidad, who moved to Seattle three years ago from Pennsylvania, and whose mother immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan, has never taken an ethnic studies class. Ballard, which is predominantly white, doesn’t offer one.
But Roidad’s history teacher talked about race and oppression in his lessons; her Spanish teacher did too, and hung posters and photographs on the walls of Frida Kahlo and Bayard Rustin. Ethnic studies, “is not two comments in class about racism,” she said. “It’s a real continuous, arduous effort. And these two educators were the closest thing I got to that effort.” Roidad, who is taking a gap year before attending Harvard University in 2021, is now working on ways she and other students can have more voice in instruction.
Teachers on the front lines are now navigating a challenging new school environment. They taught at a distance this spring and will likely continue to teach remotely at least part of the time this fall. Some, such as Garfield High ethnic studies teacher Jesse Hagopian, say there’s no excuse for teachers to not educate themselves and use tools or curriculum available now: there are books, such as “Rethinking Ethnic Studies,” and organizations such as the Zinn Education Project that offer online lessons in some subject areas.
Students will be returning to class after a national reckoning on police brutality against Black people and systemic racism and possible personal trauma after months in isolation.
If he’s able to teach in person, Hagopian wants to post images around his classroom from the recent racial justice protests over the police killings of George Floyd and other Black people. “Students will go from image to image with Post-it notes and write a comment on how that photo makes them feel,” he said. The lesson will be a launch pad for his students to dig into their textbooks and critique how other historical events, such as the 1967 rebellion in Detroit, are portrayed. “Do they call it a rebellion, or do they call it a riot?” he said.
If he has to teach online, he’ll flash the same images over video.
“Your understanding of this moment is dramatically transformed when you realize this is a permanent feature of American society: mass uprisings against racism,” he said. “What does that tell you about the nature of our country? What does that tell you about what needs to change and how change is made?”
Seattle Times Education Lab reporter Katherine Long contributed to this story.