As River Forest’s District 90 prepares to open school next month, one issue that still may be under review is how racially and culturally sensitive material can be taught in Roosevelt Middle School history classes.
Lynda Holliday, a parent of an eighth grader, and District 90 Superintendent Edward Condon may meet again in the coming weeks to explore how the district can teach the facts and focus on the deeper meaning behind topics such as slavery or the Holocaust.
In an elementary school district that is becoming more diverse, administrators note that handling the issue, which bubbled up late in the last school year, could be improved upon.
Condon said sensitivity is critical and that how matters are taught should be on the minds of teachers as they get to know the students and their emotionality.
“We are proud of our diversity efforts, but there’s always a need to improve in this area,” Condon said. “It’s one area that we have worked on in professional development and continue to support our teachers’ skills in this area.”
The issue at the center of the controversy focused around the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, a matter that contributed to the start of the Civil War. While the specifics of the incident may be a matter of how the teacher taught the lesson, the way the exercise was carried out distressed Holliday’s daughter, a seventh grader at the time.
Students were assigned a side; wrote and discussed their positions and came up with a compromise. Then they talked about what actually transpired.
The lesson was part of “History Alive! The United States through Industrialism,” a curriculum provided by TCI, or Teachers’ Curriculum Institute, social studies textbooks and curriculum for K-12 schools. The district has used the material for at least five years, district spokesman Tari Marshall said.
Holliday’s issue was not with the subject matter but rather what she said was the insensitive manner in which it was handled.
On the day in early June that the class focused on Dred Scott, only one of the two African-American students — Holliday’s daughter — was present in class. And because of where she was seated in the room, she was assigned to defend the decision, Holliday said.
The 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all blacks – slaves as well as free men – were not and could never become citizens of the United States. Scott, a slave who lived in the free state of Illinois before moving back to Missouri, a slave state, had appealed to the court in hopes of being granted his freedom, according to a study guide to the PBS series, “Africans in America.”
Chief Justice Roger Taney, a staunch supporter of slavery, wrote that [blacks] had … been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
As a lawyer, Holliday said she thought the exercise would help mold her daughter’s critical thinking and debate skills. As a parent, Holliday was appalled. She spoke with building administrators who said they’d speak with the teacher to learn the particulars of the assignment. Efforts by the Journal to reach the principal, Larry Garstki, and the teacher were unsuccessful.
The teacher apologized to the student once she became aware of the situation but did not contact the parent, Marshall said.
The teacher, who has taught at Roosevelt for 12 years, was not disciplined, Condon said, but was told that she needed to make modifications in how material was presented in class.
Independently, Holliday contacted Condon, who felt the meeting was productive. She also brought the issue to the school board’s attention in June.
Condon said that the lesson did not trivialize the seriousness or significance of the subject. To the contrary, Condon said, the critical thinking activity that was part of the exercise focused on building a student’s understanding of how the differing perspectives contributed to the nation’s actual path toward Civil War.
“The manner in which the lesson was conducted was appropriate,” Condon said.
Museum educators note that schools can’t ignore these subjects.
“There is no justification for slavery. But teachers ought to show the impact these topics had on the world. They can afford students an opportunity to see the world through the eyes of the victim,” said Pemon Rami, director of educational services and public programs at the DuSable Museum of African-American History in Chicago. “Teachers need to allow students to look back at what happened, note how much progress there’s been in society and how far society still needs to go.”
In choosing sides on an issue, it’s important not just look at pros and cons: the lessons should be about making choices and lessons should focus on the motivations behind making those choices, said Amanda Friedeman, youth educator at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center.
“Choices have consequences,” she said. “Teaching history should not be about conveying facts, but helping to make students contributing members of society. It’s about what kind of communal and social values do we want them to have and how to relate to people around them. That’s implicitly conveyed in the way we teach them.
D90 has seen a slight demographic shift in the past few years, particularly at Roosevelt Middle School. While enrollment still is predominately white, 25 percent of the population in 2012 was minority or multi-racial/multi-ethnic, according to the D90 report cards.
Holliday suggested that D90 require diversity training; set up a committee to evaluate the appropriateness of course material as related to diversity; create a committee of parents, teachers and administrators to provide guidance on the issue; implement a program, along the lines of the Oak Park and River Forest High School program, “Courageous Conversations.”
Condon said “I would be very pleased to speak with her, and I encourage Mrs. Holliday to come directly to me or the principal to discuss them.”
Holliday was excited that D90 appeared to grasp the importance of this issue.
“I look forward to productive dialogue,” she said.