Fresh texts at OPRF for a new age

Teachers' reading lists show shifting mindset on cultural issues

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

What's going through the minds of English and history teachers at Oak Park and River Forest High School when it comes to the great race and gender debates currently roiling popular culture?

A list of books up for final approval by the D200 school board at its May 24 regular meeting could be a significant indication. 

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet (Vol. 1), the first comic book by Ta-Nehisi Coates (author of the best-selling Between the World and Me) and Born A Crime, the by many accounts hilarious autobiographical comedy by South African comedian and Daily Show host Trevor Noah, were both recommended in the English Division. 

 So was The Hate U Give, a young adult novel by African-American author Angie Thomas, which revolves around a 16-year-old's decision to become an activist after witnessing police shoot and kill her unarmed friend. 

Greg Johnson, OPRF's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said all of the texts were chosen by English and history teachers, who asked for provisional support from division heads to use them in classrooms this school year — a test run of sorts for figuring out whether or not the books will be officially added to the curricula and read by more students in the years to come.

"It's a transition period for these books," Johnson said. "Before we adopt them, we want to make sure they work. Once the board approves them, our teachers will have access to the books should they choose to use them down the road." 

Because they were selected by the teachers, the books are also reflections of how some instructors are processing major cultural issues and lend insight into teaching methods. 

As part of the process of getting the books approved by the board, teachers needed to fill out instructional materials adoption forms, which required them to point out some of the books' positive qualities.

"African-American superheroes … engage a larger audience," wrote the teacher who recommended Coates' comic book, which also aligned with the "African kingdoms unit in world history." 

Noah's book, which a teacher recommended for use in an English 10 College Prep course, would be "used as a core text for the unit on South Africa, to be read after students learn the history of apartheid and the history of South Africa before apartheid became the official system of government," one teacher wrote. 

Johnson said that, although he can't say the books are directly the result of district policies, he does think there's some correlation between the book choices and the district's focus on equity and multiculturalism embedded in its strategic plan. 

"I'd say that [the book choices] are emblematic of the growth we're trying to do as a district," he said. 

"We have a whole bunch of initiatives going in the same direction and we want those initiatives to take on a life of their own," Johnson added. "We're seeing that with the individual choices teachers are making with their curriculum. This is absolutely a progression from last year and we're happy to be moving along." 

But Johnson was careful to stress that the book choices fundamentally boiled down to individual preference.  

"Credit goes to the teachers," he said. "They've been engaged in a lot of curricular development. They decided to pick these texts for their own reasons. They're helping to push our curriculum into a wider area — from considering different religious texts to examining bias. The idea is to help our students understand the world, and to do that, we need fresh texts."

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

Reader Comments

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Ramona Lopez  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 6:30 PM

Mike....nowhere did I state that black people are not oppressed. Yes, bad stuff happens to them and others and it is up to us as individuals to squash it when we can. The books selected play the identify politics game of today. In that game an individual has no value, one only has value based on the group they belong to (black, hispanic, transgender, female, etc.) and all that does is pit groups against each other. Mr. Cohen....Referring to me and others as simple minded is quite the sophomoric and immature comment one would expect from a troll like yourself who has absolutely nothing of substance to offer to the conversation. Instead, you resort to polite insults and baseless assumptions. I'm glad posts from those you disagree with give you a chuckle (like a little girl would chuckle). Have a great day Mr. Cohen and good luck on all your future endeavors.

Jason Cohen  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 4:46 PM

@Alex, apology accepted.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 3:19 PM

Well, Jason and Mike, so sorry that you take umbrage over some here criticizing OPRF for choosing leftist advocacy over education. As for Mike's comment, we can all cherry-pick identity controversies du jour from headlines (really social media) near and far. In reply to that, I'll simply pose the question whether students at Oak Park are also being taught about Chicago's and Cook County's excessively high violent crime rates, and who is most often both the criminal and the victim in those cases. Hint: It's people of color. If those facts are not also part of the English and History curricula at OPRF, why not? Why is whitey (and in particular white cops) the sole focus of OPRF's cultural Marxist angst and the peculiar reading list cited in this article?

Jason Cohen  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 2:31 PM

@Mike, not worth your time responding to the simple minded on here. It's aways the same handful of people that are up in arms over every little thing. I bet none of the people responding have kids at the school or likely ever have. The comments on here reflect this. People act like all they read are these books and that's it. They don't teach any standard literature or history at OPRF. It's all hanging out reading Marx. I get a chuckle out of it now honestly.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 2:02 PM

If the books seemingly have an "oppressor vs oppressed" theme, it's because for many black people, that is likely and unfortunately their American experience. In the last few weeks, black people have had the cops called on them for BBQ-ing in a park, investing in real estate, napping in a common area at an Ivy League school, having "vegetation" stuck in their car window, etc. It's rather ridiculous and embarrassing that this continues to happen in the U.S. 50+ years after the civil rights movement. I'm quite certain the pros and cons of Marxism versus capitalism are the furthest things from their minds...

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 1:29 PM

Mr. Hanline.....I see nothing wrong with reading books about the African American experience. In fact, I would encourage it. If you look closely though at the 5 books pictured, 4 of them have a oppressor vs. oppressed theme. This is today's version of the bourgeous vs. the proletariat theme that drove Marxism in the 20th century. Again, nothing wrong with that, but where is the counterpoint? Any books on that list from Milton Friedman, Thomas Sowell or Walter Williams. I wonder if they are taught that at the hands of communism literally hundreds of millions of dead bodies can be stacked up due to Marxist policies (Russian, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Cuba,Laos, etc.). Again, teach as you may, but if there is no counterpoint then we aren't teaching critical thinking. Mr. MacMillan....Of course a student doesn't have to agree with everything they read, but if they ONLY read literature from one perspective, then what has been accomplished? Lastly, people vote with their feet. I don't see hoards of people jumping fences these days to get into Venezuela, North Korea or Cuba. They need armed guards to keep people in. Let that sink for a minute. If anyone thinks communism is the answer (most likely because "their guy" wouldn't be as cruel as Stalin or Mao) think again. It's just another form of tyranny and those never turn out well.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 12:57 PM

all reading is good. Its not like a kid automatically is forced to agree with everything they read either. The article also clearly said it came down to the individual's preference

Mike Hanline  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 12:14 PM

Books about the black or African-American experience = "neo-Marxist" and "leftist nonsense." Did I get that right, angry Oak Park conservatives?

Alice Wellington  

Posted: May 23rd, 2018 10:57 AM

Schools need to stay out of politics, period. How about a large funding cut, leaving OPRF just enough money to teach the necessary subjects, instead of this leftist nonsense?

Ramona Lopez  

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 3:55 PM

Nothing wrong with teaching Neo Marxism Mr. Henderson, as long as an opposing view is taught as well. Therein lies the problem of today's institutions of higher learning. Only one side is taught, thus pumping out students who have no capacity to think critically. Thus, upon graduation and entering the "real" world, they can't have a dialogue or discussion with someone who doesn't agree with them because they have NEVER had to defend their position. and are not able to articulate or formulate a response when challenged. I can't get into it here, but for a very successful model I would suggest looking at how the Jesuits operate.

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 3:48 PM

@David: The purpose there is not to allow OPRF students to learn. It's to indoctrinate and drive a specific agenda, which is to perpetuate division based on race, class, gender, i.e. identity politics. It's also pointedly anti-white. Remember when English and History taught just that instead of these cultural Marxist pedagogies?

David Henderson  

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 3:20 PM

Alex, why is learning neo-Marxist? The kids will enjoy it. Why can't you enjoy it too?

Alex Garcia  

Posted: May 22nd, 2018 2:47 PM

The problem with high school faculty right now is that they view themselves as social justice warriors first and as teachers a distant second. "English" and "History" at places like OPRF are approached strictly through the lens of a post-modern relativist and neo-Marxist. Enjoy kids!

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