Amber Vandenack asks her 6th-grade daughter what she learns every day. When February started, the Prineville mother asked her daughter what she learned for Black History Month. Her daughter said nothing.
“I asked her every day for a week and it was always no,” Vandenack recalled.
Vandenack complained on social media and to the school about what her daughter wasn’t learning at Crook County Middle School. She said she also talked to school board members and district administrators.
There’s no state requirement that schools teach about Black History Month, though schools and districts tend to hold assemblies or share stories about Black history in the month of February.
The Crook County School District said it has several lessons and projects for students in elementary and high school for Black History Month. In middle school, the district said students learned about syncopated rhythms and the connection to African music.
Vandenack said the district was responsive to her concerns.
“I was really surprised about how they reacted to it, cause I was expecting pushback,” Vandenack said.
She said one of her daughter’s classes started talking about Black History Month at the beginning of every class. Her daughter was assigned a project to research someone Black.
“At first she was upset with me because of making a big deal about it and she didn’t understand why,” Vandenack said. “But once it started happening and she started learning about it she was so excited because she said it was nice to see people achieve stuff that looked like her.”
Her daughter, who is biracial, chose chemist Alice Ball. Vandenack said her daughter isn’t interested in chemistry, but offered another potential reason for the choice.
“I think it’s probably because it was a woman who looked like her,” Vandenack said.
Vandenack didn’t face pushback from the district, though on social media, she’s received some negative responses. But to her, teaching Black history matters for all students.
“It’s not even just about my child, it’s about other kids,” Vandenack said.
That’s something that districts in Oregon and throughout the country have said all month long.
The focus on Black history has intensified this year, as districts also consider broader curriculum changes amid a national reckoning with racism and racial justice since the death of George Floyd last May and the protests that followed.
Districts all over the state passed resolutions last summer, pledging to be anti-racist, and some outlining direct actions to build a more supportive environment for all students, and specifically for students of color.
The national conversation also led to increased attention on a long-awaited set of social studies standards set to be taught in all Oregon classrooms.
Ethnic studies: moving out of ‘anonymity’
In 2017, House Bill 2845 passed the Oregon legislature, requiring Ethnic Studies. Since then, advisory groups have been meeting and developing new standards that would include the study of “ethnic and social minorities.”
“We were kind of toiling in anonymity for a while, just another committee in ODE,” said Amit Kobrowski, social science specialist for the Oregon Department of Education.
After George Floyd’s death on May 25 and the protests that followed, Kobrowski said there was a renewed interest in teaching about racism, and about Oregon’s history with racism in particular. A change.org petition asking Oregon schools to teach about redlining and segregation gathered thousands of signatures.
A draft of the new standards is available for review online, and ODE is accepting comments until March 1.
Some of the new standards are pretty general. There’s a kindergarten standard around developing an understanding of one’s own identity, and a third grade standard about describing “the use of stereotypes and targeted marketing in creating demand for consumer products.”
Others are more Oregon-specific and address some of what was called for in the petition
A draft standard for first grade reads “describe how individual and group characteristics are used to divide, unite, and categorize racial, ethnic, and social groups.”
In 4th grade, students typically learn Oregon history — how Oregon became a state, understanding the state’s agricultural development, and learning about the nine federally recognized tribes in Oregon.
Under the draft standards, all of those targets are still there. But students would also be expected to “investigate how the establishment, organization, and function of the Oregon government, its Constitution and its laws enforced and/or violated democratic conceptions of equity and justice for individuals and groups including Native Americans, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, and other immigrant groups.”
Other standards include identifying and critiquing implicit bias, institutional racism and racial supremacy.
Kobrowski said school districts are allowed to begin using the 2021 draft standards. Some are already planning to, like Beaverton.
But these new standards won’t be a requirement for schools to teach until 2026.
Kobrowski said the longer time frame allows teachers to receive training, and for instructional materials, like textbooks, to become available. He said some of those materials are being developed in response to last year’s racial justice protests.
“We’re just now beginning to see publishers, really in the last year...addressing these topics, not in response to Oregon so much, but in response to what’s been happening in America in the last year,” Kobrowski said.
Other states have similar requirements to teach Ethnic Studies, but California’s process has become contentious. Vermont’s state board of education is set to receive recommended standards by June 2021.
Oregon’s Ethnic Studies standards are just one example of changes coming to Oregon classrooms. The state’s Tribal History/Shared History lessons are rolling out this year, and the state has developed learning concepts for teaching about the Holocaust and other genocides.
Teachers, school take action
For now, some teachers are doing their own thing, such as talking about current events in the classroom. Like Chris Riser, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Ockley Green Middle School in North Portland.
“This is history in the making,” Riser said.
“I love taking the opportunity to frame it that way, and remind kids that history is not something that’s dead, it’s not something that’s in the past, and it’s not something that’s just made by one great person.”
Riser, who identifies as Black, has spent this February the way he said he spends every month — talking about marginalized groups.
There are standards teachers have to follow — a focus on the western hemisphere in 6th grade, a focus on the eastern hemisphere in 7th grade, and US history in 8th grade.
But Riser said he also uses an “ethnic studies” model to highlight marginalized voices, and avoid centering “rich, white Europeans.”
Portland Public Schools had originally planned to include “Black Lives Matter” lessons at the start of the year, but they were postponed.
The district said in October it planned to incorporate social justice standards from a Southern Poverty Law Center project into lessons for students in kindergarten through 5th grade, and encouraged students to “engage in a range of anti-bias, multicultural, and social justice discussions and actions.”
For middle school students, the district said in October it offered lesson plans and resources in the second quarter, also from SPLC, that “will help to support critical conversations about identity, culture, family and belonging among students while developing their knowledge and skills around issues related to race, racism and police violence.”
But when it comes to lessons stemming from Black Lives Matter, some teachers and parents have felt the district hasn’t followed through with its original plan.
For Riser, he was ready to start a conversation about the summer when the school year started, regardless of any lessons. Students talked about marching with their families, telling stories and sharing their experiences.
“I was already ready to do Black Lives Matter stuff at the beginning of the year, just because that’s where I’m going to come from,” Riser said.
“The disappointment was for my colleagues who are not as equipped to address that, and they were being left in the lurch by the district with absolutely nothing to be able to work with students who are coming off of an isolating summer of incredible visibility of the Black liberation movement.”
For Riser, this situation points out something that’s missing in standards and curriculum — lessons that prepare students for life beyond a classroom.
“We have to prepare kids for climate change, and racism, and terrorism, and white supremacy, and sexism,” Riser said. “We’ve got to think bigger than these top-down standards.”
In the months since all of those school district resolutions around racial justice, other districts have created new curriculum or offered lessons to teachers, including in Portland. PPS’s “Tool Kit for Resilience and Empowerment” includes lesson plans, mostly focused on the election and the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol.
In Beaverton, the district’s teaching and learning team developed K-12 lessons around Racial Justice and Black Lives Matter, as well as around the election and 2021 Presidential Inauguration.
Similar to PPS, Riverdale School District held professional development for teaching staff about using the SPLC standards around social justice.
The Vancouver Public Schools, in southwest Washington, plans to review its curriculum as part of an “equity audit” that will also include reviewing efforts to recruit a diverse workforce and how the district engages with families.
In nearby Evergreen Public Schools, a new batch of books in the library aims to better reflect students, and give them more material they can connect to.
Klarissa Hightower, executive director of Equity and Inclusion for Evergreen as of July 2020, wants students and teachers to feel more comfortable having conversations about what’s going on in the world.
“With kids, they’re responding to the world around them, and there’s a lot happening around them,” Hightower said
“By default, they’re going to bring that into the classroom. We want to make sure they have resources...that give them the opportunity to talk more about that.”
Other changes go beyond the classroom and highlight how districts are all at different points in racial equity work.
In Portland, two high schools have been renamed in the last two months, through processes incorporating student and community voice. Wilson High School is now Ida B. Wells-Barnett High School, and Madison is now Leodis V. McDaniel High School.
In the Newberg School District, a newly formed equity group helped facilitate conversations around returning to hybrid learning and used its new anti-racist resolution in scoring proposals from design firms for the district’s bond projects.
Ashland School District’s resolution, passed in November 2020, cited the November shooting death of Aidan Ellison, a former student who was Black, as a “reminder of the importance of working for a more equitable and just community through education.”
A number of Oregon and Washington districts have adopted hate speech or equity policies out of these resolutions or adopted policies at the request of the Oregon Department of Education to acknowledge that Black Lives Matter, and Every Student Belongs.
But the real test of all of these words and changes will likely have to wait until all students are back to school in-person.
For Hightower in the Evergreen School District, that day is coming soon — elementary and middle school students are already back to in-person classes. At the beginning of March, high school students will follow.
“If anything, we’d be able to see if the things that we’ve put into place while they haven’t been in the building,” Hightower said.
“Now the students can have access to it, and we can see the fruits of our labor.”