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Photo by Anna Sutterer.

Revising the Lesson Plan: Organizing for Curriculum Change

Petition signing, board meeting testimonies, resolution writing, marching, and connecting with community leaders contribute to the movement for anti-racist, anti-bias education.

Students and educators across Denver metro districts who’ve been watching, or experiencing, racial injustice and violence are turning their attention to history —and language arts, as well as economics, geography, civics, art, science, and math.

“Students’ ability to see themselves and people who are different from them represented in their education is a central part of teaching empathy and beginning to understand the way others view the world,” says Kaviya Chidambaram, a sophomore at Broomfield High School and co-communication director of the Diversify Our Narrative (DON) region that includes Colorado and other western states. The national organization DON engages high school and college students at a grassroots level to organize peers, teachers, and administrators; the central goal is to diversify books, curriculum, and teaching practices in schools.

Chidambaram, a student of Boulder Valley School District (BVSD) since Kindergarten, says she can’t recall a time when her class read a story featuring an Asian main character, much less an Indian girl like herself. Chidambaram set her efforts on making a difference, joining DON after finding the group through social media. She and other young organizers have gathered more than 900 petition signatures, coordinated testimonies brought to a school board meeting, and continue working with educators on revising BVSD reading lists.

In the far southeast corner of the metro area, at Grandview High School in Cherry Creek School District, freshman Lauren Campbell regards her school’s textbooks as “whitewashed” and “watered down.” She joined DON as a district chapter organizer in the fall. Diversifying materials is Campbell’s focus, but she also wants to see classroom conversations about white privilege and how to be a better ally. 

“I think that the younger we have those conversations, the less microaggressions and unconscious bias will develop in these students’ minds,” says Campbell.

Providing Frameworks for Change

The baseline petition DON makes available for chapters to use includes proposals such as adding one book by and about people of diverse races and cultures to every English/Literature class. It also calls for allowing teachers freedom to find relevant resources, and the creation of a voluntary teacher task force ensuring texts are taught with racial sensitivity.

Much of this echoes language in the Know Justice Know Peace Resolution, a plan drafted by four young women at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College (DMLK) in Denver, which was adopted by the Denver Public Schools board in October. The resolution calls for texts that cover the dynamic lives and contributions of Black, Indigenous, and people of color to be embedded into all classes. It also establishes a two-year timeline in which DPS should engage in teacher training and feedback loops with students.

Both former DPS Superintendent Susana Cordova and Interim Superintendent Dwight Jones have expressed, on the Know Justice Know Peace podcast’s second and third episodes of season two, that the continued exchange of student and teacher feedback strengthens the resolution because adults may think they have things handled, but their solutions may not connect with students’ lived experiences.

“We see kids do two things when they don’t see their culture in their curriculum: either they reject their culture and they dig in, but they deny a part of themselves, or they reject school because school is saying to fit in, to be smart, you have to give up your culture,” noted Cordova. “I don’t think it should be an either/or.”

For Native American students, the disconnect and need for community input is clear. According to a survey of state history education standards by Illuminative, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing the visibility of Native people in the U.S., 87 percent of state standards do not mention Native American history after 1900. Philip Gover, a member of the Pawnee and Choctaw tribes and Native American youth advocate for Adams 12 Five Star Schools, says Native people and their knowledge is falsely deemed separate from the contemporary world.

Gover works with kids on strengthening their identities so they might withstand classes that omit or misrepresent their people, and weather insensitive interactions with peers. If Indigenous education were included, he says, they might not have to carry a social/emotional load that often affects their school performance. 

“I unfortunately get told: ‘This is the curriculum, if you have time look it over, and what do you think?’” says Gover. “It’s not the same as: ‘I value you so much. You tell me what you’re thinking and I want to have meetings.’ That’s where you get into equity: ‘I’m not going to create this unless you’re at the table.’”

Asia Lyons, creator of Lyons Educational Consulting, reflects on her experience as a teacher in Cherry Creek Public Schools where she would receive curriculum and begin with the question: Who made the decision that this was right for my community? With Lyons Consulting, she’s able to guide local organizations through community input processes, which ensure they “create a culture of belonging.”

“If public schools, private, charter, whatever are able to implement that and have some real, true roundtables, that would be super helpful,” says Lyons. “The question is, do school districts, the institutional school, feel there’s a value in taking time to do that?”

What gets in the way

Awareness, preparedness, and buy-in is not a given.

It’s no secret that Colorado public schools struggle with funding. The state has had a nearly $9 billion cumulative deficit on school funding since the Great Recession, according to the Denver Post. That’s not made easier by drops in enrollment, as reported by the Department of Education, which could also hurt funding models.

Former DPS Superintendent Cordova, during the Know Justice Know Peace podcast, acknowledged that because of low funds, updating materials is difficult. “That means things like our social studies curriculum at [the] elementary [level] is 15 years old,” she says. 

Even with refreshed curriculum, or “all the books in the world,” notes Cordova, “if teachers don’t teach them, if they don’t use them in ways that create safe spaces for learning … it’s not going to have the impact that we need it to.”

That’s why, she says, teacher training like the one held in October 2020 with DPS middle and high school educators is so important, because it covered characteristics of white supremacy culture and how to build antidotes into their work. Meanwhile, the four young women who wrote the Know Justice Know Peace resolution are organizing to fundraise $75,000 to get the Black History 365 curriculum into DMLK’s 6th through 12th-grade classrooms.

DMLK Principal Kimberly Grayson previously told Colorado Parent that she had received emails declaring her leadership and discussions held by the Know Justice Know Peace team were not appropriate for school. Campbell got resistance, along with positive feedback, on her Nextdoor post asking students, parents, teachers, and alumni to sign her DON initiative. One asked: “Are you telling me minorities are oppressed and can’t function because of history textbooks?” Adams County students faced counter-protesters shouting and driving laps around them during a march last fall where they addressed racism and bias in their education systems.

Photo by Anna Sutterer. Students from Adams 12 Five Star Schools march and gather to discuss racism in their education system.

“We need to focus on normalizing the idea that you can hold two truths in your mind at the same time,” says Michael Machado, social studies teacher at Vantage Point High School who was in the crowd with Adams County students. He argues that in providing the U.S.’s strengths alongside its failings, students are allowed space to constructively criticize, not to be anti-patriotic, but to be honest and forward-thinking to improvement.

The same ethos may be true for personal history, according to Jennifer Harvey, author of Raising White Kids and speaker at a “Denver Talks” presentation in 2018. Parents and teachers in the audience engaged with Harvey on the question of white students’ experience of a changed curriculum: Would they resent the project of diversity and anti-racism/anti-bias if told to stand back and celebrate everyone else’s cultures? Would they feel hurt and confused about their role in society, learning about their ancestors’ participation in oppression? In response, Harvey had a few suggestions: Teach kids that heartbreak is part of being a human, and feeling heavy at times with the responsibility to fight for the humanity of others is normal. Make sure they see examples of their ancestors taking part in freedom movements led by marginalized folks—this will help them feel a sense of life-giving agency rather than a need to deny themselves.

Standards Revisions To Watch

In 2019, the Colorado General Assembly passed HB19-1192, which established the History, Culture, Social Contributions, and Civil Government in Education Commission. The commission is tasked with making recommendations to revise the Colorado Academic Standards for history and civics with a focus on including contributions made by marginalized people. Members of the body must include at least one LGBT identifying person, two American Indian, two African American, and two Latino persons.

“Part of the work of the Commission is to build a resources, materials, and programs bank for public consumption and to support districts with these resources,” says Joanna Bruno, Director of Standards and Instructional Support for the CDE. Applications for committee members closed January 31, 2021 with work beginning May 2021.

Meeting needs by any means

Phillip Gover is just one man, one person charged with the wellbeing of Native students in Adams 12. Most of his time goes to keeping kids connected to school and helping find resources for families. However, he finds support in a recently formed alliance that includes Jefferson County’s Indian Education team, DPS’s Native American Culture and Education Department, local organization Spirit of the Sun, and the American Indian Academy of Denver (AIAD). Together, they make up the Indigenous Education Collective.

It’s a critical mass of thinking, says Gover, to come up with ideas to advance services for their students, and non-Native students. One idea from JeffCo Indian Education’s Chenoa Crowshoe-Patterson, member of the Blackfeet and Karuk nations, is for teachers to attend powwows; just show up and then encourage culture to happen in the classroom.

“I would love to have a requirement for all teachers to take ethnic history in order for them to incorporate it into all their courses,” says  SCD Enrichment Program founder Shalelia Dillard. With that education, teachers might be primed and equipped to find their own resources, taking some pressure off the districts as they work out institutional changes.

Dillard’s program could also help fill gaps. Her organization offers cultural education workshops to schools and community partners, plus some virtual course options for students at home. Dillard is also working with schools to expand their pools of gifted and talented students, citing studies that show a pattern of Black, Indigenous, and students of color overlooked for programs. She’s developing a Multicultural Nomination Tool, which takes into consideration a child’s learning and leading strengths according to their cultural background, for example oral storytelling, translation, or peer influence.

Collaborative approaches to curriculum are fundamental to Dillard’s programs. She allows high school students space to research and come up with focuses for their courses. She also brings in facilitators from the local community to share their cultural heritage, a practice that could help schools forge connections with students and families, plus a recognition of knowledge outside textbooks.

“Somehow, someway, we lost the connection from intelligence and culture,” says Dillard. “Somehow education is synonymous with white, and not synonymous with people of color. So [SCD’s] motto encompasses what we do for our program: Elevated in mind, rooted in culture.”

While widespread changes in Colorado curriculum appears far-off given systemic challenges, those most affected—students, teachers, and community members—continue to offer solutions, because, as Dillard says, “When you’re rooted in culture, you’ll know that it is very African to be intelligent. It is very Latino to be intelligent. All places in the world come from intelligence.”

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