Adi Talwar

Matt Gonzales, director of the School Diversity Project at New York Appleseed speaking at an event titled 'The Harm of Segregation: Why where we live and learn matters' in October at St. Ann & Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn.

“The curriculum taught me that white people captured me and took away my freedom. Why would I want to learn this?”

That goes through the minds of many black students as they sit in social studies class, says Jamaal Bowman, principal of Cornerstone Academy for Social Action in Co-op City.

Cornerstone takes a different approach. While many schools begin their study of black history with American slavery, Cornerstone reaches back to Ancient Egypt’s African roots. His students, Bowman told a town hall on education in the Bronx last month, learn that they “are descendants of kings and queens, not descendants of slaves. That’s a big difference.”

Parents, students and educators at the town hall are part of a larger conversation about how to make schools welcoming and relevant for all children—not just the white, middle-class ones. Equalizing resources and even integrating schools is not enough, says Matt Gonzales, NY Appleseed’s Diversity Project director. We, also, he says, “have to do deep work so all kids who enter the classroom are uplifted.”

Nelson Luna of the Bronx, now a first-year student at Columbia University, agrees that’s not currently the case. “When you don’t see yourself, you don’t feel connected and you don’t feel passionate. You feel out of place,” says Luna, a co-founder of Teens Take Charge, which organizes students to speak out about integration and other issues.

The effort to get those students connected goes beyond simply reading a couple of novels by black or Latino authors. It includes recruiting more black, brown and male teachers; providing cultural sensitivity training for teachers; adopting a curriculum that speaks to the huge diversity of New York City’s 1 million students; and making schools less test driven. As outlined in a platform issued by the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice, schools would cultivate critical thinking; link academic work to current events and student experiences; and enable students to strengthen their own identities and work with those from other cultures.

Out of step?

The focus on what its proponents call culturally responsive education or CRE comes as the New York City Department of Education openly confronts the sharp racial and economic segregation of its schools. Changing the cultural biases of a school system whose children speak some 180 different languages could be an equally large challenge.

More than a half century after schools abandoned the “Dick and Jane” readers in the wake of concerns about their whiteness and sexism, many lessons and materials in New York City schools seem out of touch with a student body that is about 85 percent of black, Latino and Asian.

A few highly publicized incidents have drawn attention to the issue. There was the 5th grade practice test that praised Robert E. Lee’s wife for showing “genuine concern” for her slaves by teaching them to read, write and sew. A middle school principal ordered an end to classroom lessons on the Harlem Renaissance and, in another middle school, a teacher ordered black children to lie on the floor and then stepped on their backs to show them what slavery felt like.

But much of the bias is far less obvious and, says Gonzales, more damaging. “It’s pervasive throughout the system in the way teachers interact with young people,” he explains, such as mispronouncing people’s names or calling on some students instead of others.

“This is not to say teachers who are making mistakes are trying to hurt black and brown folks,” he says. But racism and classism are, he says, embedded in the culture of teaching and leading,” and so “all education has to confront the overt mechanism of bias.”

Last month, the Coalition for Educational Justice released an analysis of English language arts curricula and booklists used in many city elementary schools. It found the overwhelming majority of the books’ authors–well over 80 percent–were white. Leading characters in the books were somewhat more diverse, but still fell far short of reflecting the races of the students who would be reading them.

In history, many issues are ignored or distorted. “Often, we don’t tell complex histories nor do we tell truthful histories,” says coalition coordinator Natasha Capers. “Students are still learning that Columbus discovered American and he was a brave explorer tried and true. That is just not true. And it erases the true history of what Columbus did across the Americas to other folks.”

Aneth Naranjo, director of youth leadership at IntegrateNYC and a recent graduate of Leon Goldstein High School for the Sciences in Brooklyn, thinks her history courses there had a white male perspective. “The American Revolution gets so much time but they skip over hundreds of years of slavery,” she said, adding, “As a Latina, I know my people’s history has a place in our history but I never got that.”

Luna graduated from Democracy Prep Charter school in Upper Manhattan, which follows the state curriculum for global history. “You spend one day on South America, and two days on Africa, and most of the lessons are concentrated on European and American history,” he says. “The French Revolution–you go very in depth on that, almost two months.”

Capers thinks that all students, regardless of race, would benefit from a change. “Culturally responsive education is not just for black and brown students,” Capers says. “We all do better, including white students, when we learn a truthful history about this country that we’re in and when we learn about all of the people that make up this history and that make up, for lack of a better term, this melting pot.”

Maurice Blackmon, a leadership and advocacy coach at IntegrateNYC, teaches a class called Worlds Collide at Essex Street Academy in lower Manhattan. It looks at three major American civilizations–the Maya, Taino and the Aztec–and considers “what made these civilizations unique and advanced for their time. We don’t spend the majority of the time talking about the genocide or the colonizing of civilizations. I think that is a unique approach,” Blackmon says.

This strikes a chord with the many Latino students at Essex. But Blackmon says studying those civilizations and reading multiple accounts of them helps the entire class: “It enables us to talk about how history is taught and whose history is taught and which context. [Students] really feel that they are doing the work of historians by engaging in these conversations instead of just sitting there and being fed history from a particular perspective”

Calls for change

Some educators have long sought a more culturally responsive curriculum, and lessons and assignments have changed over the last several decades. But the calls for change have accelerated in the past few years. CJE issued its platform in spring 2017. About a year later, the Education Council Consortium, a group of members of New York City community education councils, issued a call for “systemic changes to dismantle racism” in city schools, including culturally responsive teaching and integration.

Meanwhile, students have been speaking up on the issue, prompting a discussion “of who and what we value in the classrooms,” says Sarah Zapiler, executive director of IntegrateNYC. Students are saying they want to be represented, included and honored, she says, “and adults need to listen way, way more closely to what they’re saying.”

Although curricula are largely determined by individual schools, the Department of Education says it is continuing to develop new lesson programs that address all communities, including a kindergarten through grade eight social studies program and a middle school writing curriculum.

In response to the report on bias in elementary school readings, Chief Academic Officer Linda Chen issued a statement pledging to “continue to collaborate with CEJ and communities as we ensure a curriculum that matches the rich culture of our city.”

Since becoming chancellor last spring, Richard Carranza has drawn more attention to these issues. Carranza, Gonzales wrote in an email, is rhetorically “on the same page with many advocates for racial justice about where our schools need to go in New York City, despite some public backlash from those who desire to protect the status quo. I find him to be authentically committed to equity and integration.”

Specifically, the chancellor has highlighted a need for more black and Latino teachers and announced a program aimed at persuading New York City teenagers return home to teach school after college.

Students think more black and Latino teachers would help. “When you look at who’s coming into these low-income neighborhoods, low income schools, it’s kids from Teach from America who are middle class, fairly affluent, young–very young–people who have just come straight out of college and some of them come with the mindset, oh we’re going to be the saviors of all these low-income black and brown kids,” Luna says. “We need more teachers who look just like us.”

To work with the teachers already here–60 percent of them white– Mayor Bill de Blasio last spring set aside $23 million for cultural sensitivity training. Carranza has stepped up the program, speeding up the original four-year timeline to two. “They have built an amazing team to carry out this work and they’ve done some amazing stuff,” Capers says.

All employees who work with students will be required to take training sessions such as one held in August for about 100 principals and superintendents at Brooklyn Law School. Chalkbeat reported that, for part of the training, the administrators paired off to discuss their childhood aspirations. One aim of the conversations, a trainer said, was to change stereotypical assumptions about other people.

She is optimistic that it can make a difference: “A lot of work can get done with this teaching force. I’m also a believer that most teachers go into this work to do great good and not great harm and that teacher preparation has to do better.”

By many accounts teachers seem receptive. More than 90 percent of teachers responding to a survey from the NYU Metropolitan Center for Equity and Diversity said they would modify their lessons to connect with students of different races and ethnicities. They said they had not received training on how to do this but would welcome guidance and encouragement.

Lesson plans

Culturally responsive education can take many forms. It can look like Cornerstone, where a mural of what Bowman calls “the Mount Rushmore of hip-hop” adorns his office and children created a video on the history of hip hop. They also engage in Socratic seminars and take extra periods of math and science.

Or it can look like Blackmon’s one-semester social justice class organized around key social movements. Students are examining the conversations between Audre Lorde and James Baldwin. The students are “essentially watching and reading as these two social justice heavyweights battle it out,” Blackmon says. “It’s interesting how they are finding themselves through the content.”

Previously Blackmon gave a social justice course at Goldstein, which is majority white. There, he says, he took a different approach, relying more on fiction, such as The Crucible and Their Eyes Were Watching God. “Fiction is a wonderful vehicle for exploring the human condition because you’re not preaching to them,” he says.

Will Ehrenfeld brings in a lot of different sources for students at Pathways in Technology Early College High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to consider. When his class studies the Spanish-American War and its aftermath, they read the words of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt but also of Cuban and Philippine independence activists.

Most of all, he says, it’s important for teachers to listen. “You have to teach students history that matters to them,” he says. “The important thing is we can engage about what it means to be an American — and for most of my students, what it means to be black or Latinx, to be a minority.”

Muhammad Deen, now a first-year student at Hunter College, graduated from Victory Collegiate, a predominantly black school in Canarsie, Brooklyn. (Deen is of Central Asian descent.) He thinks New York City schools could be more relevant simply by taking advantage of what’s in front of them—the diversity of the population and the city’s cultural riches.

He would like to see teachers hone in on students’ cultures and how those cultures shape their understanding of issues. “If a teacher is talking about gender roles, OK, we know about how gender roles operate in America, but the conversation never got pushed further: How are the gender roles back home, in your country?” he explains. “A kid from Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, all three of them would have had a different perspective and when you engage in dialogue like that it really opens your eyes.”

Like advocates and some other students, Deen—a veteran student leader with Teens Take Charge—draws a link between integrated schools and culturally responsive ones. Discussions such as the one on gender roles, he says, would be better if individual schools were more diverse. “When there are different cultures and different people speaking different languages, it means so much more because everyone has their own cultural perspective to put in,” says Deen. “If your peers are all from the same neighborhood as you, from the same socio-economic class and from the same background as you, you’re not really being pushed.”

He concedes these talks might be challenging, but he thinks that’s what school should be about: “The learning zone is between the comfort zone and the uncomfortable zone,” he says.

Beyond the test

Whatever the merits of class discussions about ethnic lenses on gender roles, the material discussed almost certainly would not be on a state Regents exam. Advocates for culturally responsive education see testing as a barrier, both in terms of the ways things are taught and what is taught.

New York’s standardized tests for students in grades 3 through 8 cover only English language arts and in math. That, along with a push to prepare students for careers, has spurred many schools to downplay history and social studies.

Changes in state graduation requirements mean fewer students will likely take the Global Regents in the years to come. The state is dividing the curriculum in two–9th graders will study the world until circa 1750; 10th graders will study everything since. The Regents exam, though, will concern only the 10th grade material, and so, almost inevitably, that’s what students and teachers will focus on. This means less emphasis on early civilizations, including African, Asian and Native Americans ones.

“What the test does is signal to teachers what’s acceptable to teach,” says Alan Singer, director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University on Long Island. “The multi-cultural curriculums of the 1990s and discussion of human rights have been abandoned for skills education and test prep.”

A similar controversy has wracked the AP World test, which many city high school students take. The College Board, which runs the test, proposed having the course start at the year 1450. But after critics, including the American Historical Association, said that would make the course too Euro-centric, the College Board added another 250 years, starting the class at 1200. (The College Board offers an AP European History class, along with AP World, which includes some European history; it does not offer stand-alone tests on Asian, African or Latin American history.)

“It’s a horrible disservice we do to our kids by testing them on curriculum that is biased,” Ehrenfeld says. He sees this as a particular problem in New York with its system of requiring students to pass standardized exams in key subject to graduate from high school.

But concerns about tests go beyond the material on them. Many proponents of culturally responsive education see the very idea of rigid tests as anathema to preparing students for a diverse and challenging world.

Blackmon views this getting to the very question of what the purpose of education is. “Is it to make sure that by June a student can sit down for three hours at a times and take eight different tests?” he asks. “Or is it to teach students to ask important questions, to do research and then to present an informed position and have some kind of verifiable support in place for that position.”

So far there is no indication New York City or State is about to abandon its tests. The Regents test requirements, although revised, remain in place and only a handful of public schools, including Essex Academy, are exempt from those requirements,

Responsive to whom?

Gonzales says that Carranza’s “leadership has inspired not only folks outside of the DOE, but many on the inside, who have taken his unapologetic stance towards racial justice as an indication that DOE will protect and support those that wish to elevate this work.”

However, a bureaucracy as huge as the New York City Department of Education can be slow to change. Beyond that, culturally responsive education has critics, who may see it as trendy or giving short shrift to the contributions of European-based civilizations. What is culturally responsive to one group can seem biased to another.

Blackmon says some colleagues and parents at Goldstein took issue with he calls his “aggressively multi-cultural approach.” Julisa Perez, executive college director at IntegrateNYC, who took Blackmon’s class there, says some of her fellow students were initially hostile to it. In the end, she says, “It didn’t change their minds, but it opened people’s minds.”

In 2016, PS 75 on Manhattan’s Upper West Side became the target of abusive emails, threatening phone calls and outraged social media posts after Fox News’ Sean Hannity publicized a kindergarten art project showing other country’s flags superimposed on the American flag. More recently, staff at Sunset Park High School moved a student’s poster from the lobby after receiving complaints that it was anti-police. The poster was reportedly part of discussions of Black Lives Matter at the Brooklyn school.

Discussions about such issues are bound to be difficult. Twenty-five years ago, a diversity curriculum called “Children of the Rainbow” and one book on it–Heather Has Two Mommies–led to the ouster of then-Chancellor Joseph Fernandez.

However much has changed since then, we all have biases, Capers says, and need to be trained to recognize them and confront them. She says, “We all have to do our part to undo bias in our world, in our city and in our school system. Shifting hearts and minds is step one and then putting it into practice is step two.”