Curriculum Committee on the Hunt for Violations of Conservative Idealism at April Meeting

The April 4 Curriculum Committee meeting had a short agenda, but a comparatively long list of triggers that did not escape the radar of its hyper conservative, DEI-paranoid members. Among them were the words “struggle,” “other,” and “feminist lens,” as well as the Toni Morrison novel Beloved. They each seemed to skirt by safely unchanged for now, but they serve as a reminder of the current board’s quest to scour all curricula of anything that can be framed as liberal indoctrination.

Updates to two language arts courses – Western Lit Honors and AP Literature and Composition – were discussed, both senior courses that are not required. Western Lit Honors was explored first, with K-12 Language Arts Supervisor Sarah Raber and the two primary architects of the curriculum, teachers Daniel Linskey and Rachel Pulsefort, present to explain how the structure of the course will been changed to center around over-arching themes characterizing three “mega units.”

The tone was set when committee member Ricki Chaikin noted the inclusion of Beloved on the optional reading list, and because of the graphic nature of the novel asked at what point parents are alerted of the content and informed that they can opt out or “tell the child to opt out” (6:08 on livestream video). Beloved, which is about the trauma of former slaves in the years immediately following the Civil War, was recently a source of major controversy in Virginia where it inspired a bill that would have required parent notification and exemption options when students read explicit books (it was ultimately vetoed.) So, it’s no surprise that its appearance in the curriculum, even as optional reading, triggered the committee immediately.

Raber responded that while there is no formal way to opt-out, lists of all reading materials are accessible to parents online, and students who are uncomfortable with a particular work can always opt to read something else. However, committee member and board president Joan Cullen asked them to take it a step further, saying it would be “nice” to be “proactive” and make the reading lists available to parents at Back to School Night, even though most teachers already do this.

“I had your daughter in class a couple years ago,” Pulsefort said to Cullen. “I always put…the works that we're doing [on the PowerPoint] because I think it is important for parents to know that stuff.”

With seemingly no place left for the committee to go with the issue at that time, Cullen soon moved on to the next one. She questioned the names of two of the three course units, “Manifestation of Struggles” and “Internal Struggles” (11:22). She was concerned that it means that “two-thirds, or more than two-thirds [of the course], is focused on struggles,” later adding, “when I saw that it was so much struggle, to me that meant, like, oh, there’s a lot of darkness.” She seemed to be implying that the teachers should somehow regulate the ratio of what might be perceived as happy vs. negative content in the literature the students study.

Linskey explained that essentially all written works are about some kind of conflict, which is what characterizes the “struggles” in the writings of the course, and Puslefort elaborated, saying that “literature largely is a vessel for people to try to figure out who they are and their struggle to find their own place in the world and…that's especially pertinent for high school seniors who are preparing to go out into the world the next year.” These responses largely placated Cullen, though she didn’t let the matter drop until after the teachers assured her that the middle unit, “Comedy and Satire,” show the students the more “fun” side of literature. (Of course, comedy and satire themselves are usually tools for shedding light on society’s flaws, but Linskey and Pulsefort wisely refrained from wading too deeply into that.)

The next sensitive spot for the committee was the use of a “feminist lens” to explore and contrast works like The Awakening, a late 19th century feminist novel, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet (15:44). Committee member Jordan Blomgren was the first to ask the question “why does there have to be that lens,” also raising the concern that the same nefarious tool appears in the other literature course on the meeting’s agenda. After Raber clarified that students only take one course or the other, meaning they aren’t required to explore feminist lenses twice, Linskey went on to explain what a feminist lens is and is not. He said it’s a perspective, not a way “to apply some sort of pre-conceived notion of what feminism means.” And since most of the students will be going on to college where they will be asked to use many kinds of literary lenses, some of which are much more analytically complex, they would be “totally blindsided” without an introduction to the general concept.

These explanations seemed, at least for the time being, to mostly quell the fears of the committee. Blomgren thanked Linskey for his response, indicating that the part he said about not force-feeding students preconceived feminist notions was the part she’d been most concerned about. Chaikin, however, needed the most convincing.

“Just to clarify,” she chimed in after continued discussion that involved even Superintendent David Bolton’s input on how a critical lens works, “the feminist literary lens really isn't about the feminist movement, you're saying? It's something different?” (20:20).

Pulsefort then reiterated the advanced critical skills the students will need in college, and the committee finally appeared to be satisfied.

The committee finally moved on to the AP Literature and Composition course, where even though the college board holds primary jurisdiction over its content, Blomgren questioned the appearance of the term “other” in the unit titled “The ‘Other’ in Short Stories.” After quoting text from the PowerPoint that itself pretty clearly explained how the term applies to characters the students will study, Blomgren said, “my concern with just looking at it, like if I’m just a parent is…is it something that could possibly marginalize the students more and maybe make them think of their own insignificance heavier [sic]?” (27:16)

Though he didn’t quite say it, Linskey’s answer was basically “no.” He outlined what “others” look like within the context of the stories – they are essentially characters who feel alienated, not due to race or sexual orientation or other controversial differences the committee may have been looking for, but rather traits they embody that make them feel different from their family or community.

“So yes,” he said, this might resonate with a student because of what “they themselves might feel separate from…but in a way that…reframe[s] what might be othering about [them] as a positive.”

Bolton went on to ask where the terms “other” and “othered” originated, possibly to explore whether Linskey and Pulsefort could use less trigger-some language, but Linskey said that terminology is used by the college board.

In the end, it appeared to be another successful defense of the curriculum as it stands, with Cullen concluding that as an AP course, the district has no choice but to essentially teach to the test, as though that’s what stands in the way of the board and teachers being able to morally purify the curriculum. She also stated that the vote to pass these two updated curricula is scheduled for the May general meeting, not April, so there will be time for the committee to ask further questions next month.

The next curriculum committee meeting will be held on Monday, May 2, 2022.