Racism in school curriculum sheds light on including students in conversation

Regan Anderson reads a textbook at the University of Arizona Science and Engineering Library in Tucson, Ariz. on Nov. 7, 2017. Anderson is a biochemistry major at the university. (Photo Illustration by Leah Gilchrist/ Arizona Sonora News)

Calls for diversity in classroom textbooks have led to tensions over how ethnic groups are represented in school curriculum, boiling down to a case of teaching tolerance and creating more inclusive learning for students.

Starting in the 1940s and 1950s following the desegregation of schools, school curriculum hit a crossroad where educators had the opportunity to write new textbooks following the use of previously segregated classroom materials.

Textbooks and classroom materials have evolved since desegregation of schools in the 1960s, largely due to advocacy from groups including the NAACP. Textbooks used in classrooms across the country were found to be an issue in subjects from English to biology, not just history.

It was a case of institutionalized racism, teaching students subconsciously how to view peers of different racial backgrounds through materials used in school.

“For most of history in most in our textbooks, racial minorities were either ignored or slightly distorted and stigmatized,” said Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor of history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, who has written books about the politics in education and curriculum controversies.

“There were some exceptions to this,” he said. “For example, in all black schools in the South during Jim Crow, they would use books written by Carter Woodson and other African-American historians. … Those books paid close attention to the black experience.”

Textbooks have paid more attention to race and ethnic groups since the 1960s, Zimmerman said. Changes to the ways minorities were portrayed came after World War II and during the rise of the Civil Rights Movement. He said today students have textbooks that are much larger and intend to include as many narratives in the American story as possible.

“They were mostly, throughout most of our history, about white men,” Zimmerman said. “But due to the activism and change, they’re incredibly multicultural. This is why at the middle school level the kids are carrying around textbooks that I think are about 900 pages long, precisely because they’re including so many different subgroups of peoples.”

In his 2004 article in History of Education Quarterly, “Bown-ing the American Textbook: History, Psychology, and the Origins of Modern Multiculturalism,” Zimmerman shows how textbooks laid foundations of racism in the minds of children — including illustrations derogatory toward people of color. White school officials, he said, saw no wrong in the way the classroom materials were presented or written.

The NAACP played a role in making the case to change or stop using the materials that put people of color in a bad or secondary role in the narrative.

“Not surprisingly the people who attacked Jim Crow and segregations, they also attacked what were called segregated textbooks,” Zimmerman said in an interview.

The issue spans several areas of subject matter, from English literature to biology. In the children’s book, Little Black Sambo, illustrations of a southern India boy and his adventures in the jungle were considered stereotypical to people of African descent.

The book violates one of the common rules of creating a culturally inclusive classroom, or mutually respectful of the cultures involved. The book is banned today from use in the classroom for its insensitive depictions and illustrations.

In geography and biology textbooks from the 1950s and 1960s, black people were often portrayed in a lower level of a racial hierarchy, while those in tribes were depicted as backwards from the people colonizing the land.

In the 1960s, textbooks underwent revisions due to advancements in science and technology, which opened the opportunity to revise issues with race.

It was a matter of changing minds, not just changing the law. As officials found with the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision, no matter where black children went to school, if the white children were taught to dislike them, they would still dislike them.

Some teachers have avoided the topic of race, Zimmerman said, when they should be talking about it and the gruesome details of historical events at an age-appropriate level.

“A ninth-grader is not a first-grader, and frankly I think with these issues, we treat too many of our ninth-graders like first-graders,” Zimmerman said, especially since students are already exposed to issues of race through social media.

The College of Education at the University of Arizona offers courses that focus on building and creating curriculum for an inclusive classroom, while challenging future teachers to question material that might start a conversation or cause children to ask questions, said Donna Jurich, director of early childhood education.

“You need to know the kids as much as you know that content — and that when you take that approach, it creates a better context for learning,” Jurich said. “That, in a way, includes (the childeren) in the diversity of the classroom.”

In the past, lessons on Christopher Columbus sailing to America have been discussed with the terminology that Columbus “discovered” America. Jurich said since we now know that isn’t the whole truth of the story, educators have to think about how they’re going to introduce the topic to students.

“It’s helping children see that the term discovery isn’t the way we should talk about Christopher Columbus — that we need to think about Christopher Columbus in new ways,” Jurich said. “That means the teachers themselves have to rethink those ideas.”

Educators should talk to students about issues in the news and fears they might have. It goes beyond the reading, Jurich said.

“I think going back, to me the first step is if we want 5-year-olds and 10-year-olds to be thinking about race, then we need to be thinking about it ourselves,” Jurich said.  “How we teach is through the lens of who we are. It’s not something that is distinct from us.”

Holding age-appropriate discussions in the classroom has been a breakthrough in handling situations in classroom curriculum that might be considered sensitive to some students. Moving forward in building inclusive classrooms and class materials, teachers have to think critically about the material taught in their classes and if the perspective is one that is fair and honest. 

“Teachers have to be aware of new knowledge that is research based, and use that within classrooms even when it has gone against everything they’ve been taught,” Jurich said.

Leah Gilchrist is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact her at leahgilchrist@email.arizona.edu.

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