At the beginning of her social studies class for sophomores, Mount St. Mary Academy teacher Rachel McLemore poses a question that will be explored throughout the semester: “What does it mean to be an American at this time, who is defining that and who belongs in that category?”
“That allows us to look culturally, what did it mean to be an American at the time of the American Revolution?” she said, and stopping to examine in different moments who has gained access to citizenship or more rights.
Her thematic teaching style -- rather teaching in chronological order -- is based on the belief that in elementary school, students have already learned about the predominantly white narrative side of history, including the founding fathers and the Civil War, giving students a broader understanding of the American story.
“Did you realize the same time as electricity was being invented, African Americans were just emerging from slavery, and kind of pulling narratives they see and don’t think are overlapping at all, pulling that together so they can see a bigger picture on how those things are connected,” McLemore said.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder May 25 in police custody, American society has shifted its focus to working toward justice and more conversations around inclusion.
“I think that's something we are becoming more and more aware of, that we’ve really got to look at what we’ve taught and what should be taught,” said Catholic schools superintendent Theresa Hall. “... It’s something we need to really look at in our curriculum. It hasn’t necessarily been a focus (in the past) but to make sure we do incorporate more and more facts, especially when you’re talking about history. Because textbooks can write what they want to write.”
Kindergarten through eighth grade follows the Diocese of Little Rock school curriculum guidelines “In Spirit and Truth,” with a committee of teachers, principals and administrators focusing on a different subject each year to update. Textbook vendors also present their books to the committee. Grades ninth-12th follow the Arkansas Department of Education curriculum guidelines, Hall said. In July during the principals’ retreat via Zoom, Hall asked them what they were doing to incorporate diverse and justice-oriented teachings in the schools.
“I think we have to be sensitive to what our Catholic faith teaches and social teaching, social justice; what should we be standing up for,” Hall said.
St. Joseph Church in Conway parishioner Christen Reyes, the Spanish teacher at St. Joseph High School, said students cannot learn a new language if they do not understand the culture. She gives extra credit for attending cultural events, from Our Lady of Guadalupe celebrations to Amigo Fest at the University of Central Arkansas. She also brings in Latino speakers, shows documentaries and shares stories of her personal life, as her husband Juan Reyes is originally from Mexico.
“I teach a whole lot about Afro-Latino cultures. For instance, we talk a lot about cultural perspectives from the Domincan Republic, Puerto Rico … We talk about how African influence is how we got so much of the music that’s popular in Latin America today.”
Reyes said it goes beyond making sure students understand another culture, but learning individual stories and that “diversity is what makes our world beautiful.”
“There are so many divisions out there currently just in general, and it’s my goal to help the kids learn to see the world through new eyes and new perspectives and think critically on how to be culturally responsive and culturally respectful,” she said. “Not just learn about the cultures, but grow in respect for that diversity.”
At Trinity Junior High School in Fort Smith, cultures are celebrated at the annual Taste of Trinity fundraiser. Math teacher Sara Hurst, one of the organizers, said parents of several ethnicities share meals from their countries, including El Salvador, Italy, the Philippines and Vietnam.
“I think it’s important for our students and their families to be accepting of each other, to not be fearful. Sometimes you're fearful of what you do not understand or don’t know,” Hurst said.
Hurst said even math lessons have opportunities to include more cultures.
“We use word problems and situations and coordinate planes” puzzles, she said. “I have one for Cinco de Mayo, (Lunar) New Year,” and uses student names for word problems to make them relatable.
McLemore, who attends Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, said at MSM they are driven by the values of the Mercy sisters, which points out that racism is an evil affecting everyone. A more culturally competent education will extend beyond the classroom.
“Not being exposed is not just bad for our students of color, it negatively impacts our white students as well that they’re not exposed to the richness and pain that American history can be. Because then they’re not necessarily prepared to have these conversations when they go out into the world as well” whether it be in the workplace or on social media, she said. “To have an understanding of American history beyond a dominant narrative, beyond the march of progress idea and sometimes it wasn’t great. You need to know that, really own that, and that’s how we move forward.”
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