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 

Other recommended books

Waking Up White by Debby Irving (explores white privilege)

Whistling Vivaldi by Claude Steele (explores the racial stereotypes and their psychological effects) 

White Like Me by Tim Wise (another examination of white privilege that is “one-part memoir, one-part polemical essay,” according to the Amazon synopsis)

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