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D65 ‘Black Lives Matter’ curriculum questioned

The Atlantic asks whether Black Lives Matter teaching materials in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 cross "the line between education and indoctrination."

The cover of "Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness" that's used in the District 65 curriculum.

“What Happens When a Slogan Becomes the Curriculum?” asks an article this week in The Atlantic. It questions whether Black Lives Matter teaching materials in Evanston/Skokie School District 65 cross “the line between education and indoctrination.”

But the District 65 Board of Education says the BLM Week curriculum is fair, important, and “vital in supporting our district mission of preparing students to contribute positively to a global and diverse society.”

The article in The Atlantic, a politically liberal national magazine with a history that dates to publishing the works of prominent abolitionists before the Civil War, was written by staff writer Conor Friersdorf, who says he is a “strong proponent of significant ideas dear to Black Lives Matter activists.”

Friersdorf says “some valuable materials” about restorative justice and multi-generational households were included by local teachers as part of the Black Lives Matter at School program. A book on transgender identity is praised as one of several “inspired responses on how to introduce sensitive subjects to young children.”

But the article also says that the Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action also uses a “heavy handed” approach, pushing the specific agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement rather than including it as one of many historical efforts for civil rights.

One third grade lesson mentioned describes a slide deck which begins with a “teaching point” that states “Today I’m going to teach you about what the Black Lives Matter movement is and why it’s necessary.” Friersdorf concludes BLM is absolutely worthy of study, “But flatly describing the movement as ‘necessary’ is a value judgement.”

The article also talks of a kindergarten assignment which, at least to some, could be seen as anti-white.

A book called “Not My Idea, A Book About Whiteness” includes, according to Friersdorf, a devil holding a “contract binding you to whiteness,” which says: “You get: stolen land, stolen riches, special favors. WHITENESS gets to mess endlessly with the lives of our friends, neighbors, loved ones, and all fellow humans of COLOR.”

Friersdorf calls the lesson “a jarringly didactic assignment for kindergarteners.”

The article says even in a place like Evanston, “some self-described liberals and progressives, who are happy to have their children taught that Black lives matter, have misgivings about public schools encouraging their children to adopt the expansive agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement.”

One parent was quoted anonymously, because Friersdorf said the man feared repercussions if his name was used. In this parent’s telling, the author stated, BLM Week was well intentioned, but “his school district’s leadership frames any criticism of its ‘equity’ curricula as ‘white supremacist thinking.'” The parent said that as taught, the curriculum “present[s] every issue with such moral certainty — like there is no other viewpoint. And we’re definitely seeing this in my daughter,” who is “quick to call out racism” over any “squeak of criticism” of Black Lives Matter.

The article concludes that while some of the BLM-linked curriculum has value for helping children learn about race and equity, “educators should be neutral as to the question ‘Should my students embrace the narrative and policy agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and become activists on its behalf?'”

Putting BLM into historical context with other movements, as well as including criticism of the movement from other Black activists, Friersdorf suggests, would be more like education and less like indoctrination.

“In persuading Evanston educators to adopt a BLM at School curriculum, Black Lives Matter activists did their job,” Friersdorf says, and then asks “Did the District 65 public schools do theirs?”

School Board President Anya Tanyavutti, who has read the Atlantic article, tells Evanston Now the board indeed did do the right thing for students and for the community.

In an emailed response, Tanyavutti cited the Black Lives Matter webpage, which says BLM “is an affirmation of Black folks’ humanity, our contributions to this society, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.”

She says “That aligns with the vision and values of this Board to do our work through a racial equity lens in order to repair past institutional harm and exclusion, including full affirming robust curricular content about all people including those historically excluded….”

The board president adds that district educators spent the summer building the content for equity weeks, and that content is available on the District 65 website. For example, the second grade curriculum “focuses on how to notice when people are being treated unfairly, how we are the same and different,” and understanding the oppression of black women. The second grade week concludes with a “Day of Healing and Celebration,” focusing on how to respect “the rights of self and others.”

She says while BLM week at school aims to honor the many ways families can be built, “our framing of the curricular content aims to be inclusive and loving to all family structures rather than exclusionary to any.”

Tanyavutti also included a statement released earlier this year by the Board, the District 65 administration, and the teachers union calling the lessons “developmentally-appropriate” and “necessary in centering both the academic and social-emotional needs” of children via the BLM Week as well as with Latinx and LGBTQ+Equity weeks.

The statement adds that the curriculum is inclusive and incorporates the history of those who have traditionally been unseen or marginalized, and “We firmly and proudly stand by our educators and administrators in supporting Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action.”

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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