History teacher Sue Nellis displays a copy of “Mexican Americans/American Mexicans: From Conquistadors to Chicanos” by Matt. S. Meier and Feliciano Ribera during a Sept. 10 meeting concerning senior Gabi Alvarado’s proposal. Also shown are high school English department chair Jason Hinojosa, Alvarado and senior Yanele Ledesma. (Photo by Jacqueline Chao)
Clubs continue to push for ethnic studies course; faculty says materials in classes already diverse
As a junior in her AP English Language and Composition class last year, senior Gabi Alvarado wrote a proposal about creating an ethnic studies course to replace Country Day’s sophomore World Cultures course.
Alvarado perceived a lack of fair representation of minorities in the curriculum — especially in history classes.
“But the disparity happens in every class,” Alvarado said. “Videos we watch in science classrooms are always all white, all male. And when you get to higher-level classes and want to be in that field, if you’re seeing a movie where you’re not represented, then it’s another nail in the coffin, showing you again that people who look like you don’t make it — people who are white and male make it.
“And just pointing that out, just for teachers to say, ‘Think about it,’ is important.”
But high school science chair Kellie Whited disagreed with Alvarado.
“While I don’t show many videos in my classes, much progress has been made to ensure that classroom videos include a diverse group of actors,” Whited said. “It is not a fair or factual statement to say that they are all white and all male.”
Alvarado shared her proposal paper with head of school Lee Thomsen, head of high school and English teacher Brooke Wells, assistant head of school and history teacher Tucker Foehl, middle and high school history department chair Chris Kuipers, history teachers Sue Nellis and Liz Leavy, high school English department chair Jason Hinojosa and third-grade teacher Kristi Mathisen. Then on May 25, representatives from ChicanX-LatinX Student Union (CLSU), the Chinese Club and the LGBTQA+ Club met with some of those teachers and administrators.
During that meeting, Alvarado and others explained the proposal and answered questions about the “nitty-gritty things,” according to senior Yanele Ledesma, a member of CLSU.
However, Ledesma and Alvarado said many of the questions asked had already been answered in the proposal, and the meeting did not go as smoothly as they had wished.
“It wasn’t really productive for any of us,” Ledesma said. “We could tell none of them had read the proposal.”
Wells said he was under the impression that the agenda of the meeting was to present the proposal.
But Esme Bruce-Romo, ’18, who was also a member of CLSU, added that she felt “we basically just went around in circles the entire time.”
There was significant student support for the proposal; in a May 3 poll of high school students sent out by Bruce-Romo, 67 percent of respondents said Country Day’s history classes didn’t cover enough material on ethnic minorities.
Many alumni, such as Jesus Galindo, ’17, also supported adding an ethnic studies class.
“Something I noticed while I was studying at Country Day was that some people were in the bubble of Country Day,” he said.
“I would notice when students would say racist phrases or mock minorities. Those types of little things — that would usually come out of nowhere — made me realize that some students aren’t very informed about how the world is going on; it’s not a bad thing, but they should not disrespect something they don’t know about.”
Kaeleigh Valverde, ’17, added that Country Day’s diversity necessitates accurate representation in classes.
“It’s important for students to be educated about different minorities, and the next step forward in most schools has been to promote diversity and acceptance of other people,” she said.
But these students aren’t alone in their support of an ethnic studies class, as Foehl also commended the proposal and the push to improve Country Day.
“It’s invaluable to have students who care about what material they’re looking at in class and are invested in our programs,” Foehl said. “I think it’s great that students are asking for a deeper look at race and ethnicity in their classes.”
Later in September, most of the same students and faculty reconvened to discuss the proposal.
According to Ledesma, Wells and other administrators told them a specific ethnic studies course would not be created.
“They said they had other plans and felt their curriculum was already on the right track,” Ledesma said.
Alvarado also said that Wells told her the curriculum at Country Day was already diverse and that an ethnic studies course was not “one of their priorities,” Alvarado said.
According to Wells, staffing and logistical problems prevented the creation of a dedicated class for ethnic studies this year.
Kuipers added that replacing the sophomore World Cultures course would be difficult. Rather, he felt Alvarado’s proposal outlined a sociology course instead.
“The course they’re envisioning would be a really valuable addition, but at this moment, the ongoing conversation is about where that would best fit,” Kuipers said.
Sophomore World Cultures teacher Bill Crabb agreed, adding that he would like to see more social science classes at Country Day.
“Right now, it’s just history,” he said. “An ethnic studies class would be perfect, but we would need student support. The students need to be interested and sign up for it.”
On the other hand, Kuipers and Alvarado suggested that the course would be made a requirement.
“My hope is maybe there’s a way to adjust the daily schedule to open up spaces for ethnic studies where it’s a required course but something that’s not a full, yearlong course,” Kuipers said.
But he also mentioned the difficulty behind finding a teacher.
“To present (the course) well and authentically requires a certain skill set,” he said. “And if we are able to adopt it, it’s something that’s important to roll out well the first time. High school students can be a tough audience — they’re not always the most patient in something new, and there’s always going to be bumps, but if (the course) didn’t roll out well, student opinion could turn against it. It’s better to be patient rather than rush into something.”
Wells added that, although Country Day has no ethnic studies course, the history and English classes cover a wide range of texts.
“(A class) is a great idea, but it might not be the exact direction the faculty have in mind,” Wells said.
Instead, he mentioned having a curriculum that focuses on “windows and mirrors” — a philosophy for a student to view the experiences and identities of others while also reflecting on the student’s own culture and identity.
“The plan is to continue to make our current curriculum as widely inclusive as possible,” Wells said.
He cited his 10th-grade English class, which now focuses on stories and journeys to California through reading “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck, “Enrique’s Journey” by Sonia Nazario and “The Joy Luck Club” by Amy Tan.
“(These are) different tales that represent the phrase ‘windows and mirrors,’ so you as a student have something that is similar to your story, and you also get to see something that is similar to your friend,” Wells said.
Foehl, who is in his first year of teaching U.S. History, also noted the importance of diversity in his curriculum.
“Race and ethnicity are at the core of the American experience,” Foehl said. “I have an advantage in teaching a course that would be impossible to do without ethnic studies — it’s at the core of the class.”
Crabb also said that in his sophomore World Cultures class, students have the opportunity to choose what to learn based on their own interests.
After teaching the “core historical moments,” Crabb said he gives students an open-ended topic and allows them to choose what they specifically want to study.
“I have students learning about a wide range of topics,” he said. “We talked about imperialism; now we’re talking about what happens next — how people are revolting or changing ideas — and we have groups doing Mexico’s independence, the revolution in China, the rise and fall of the Soviet Union and movements in Cuba.”
Similarly, later on when students are learning about World War I and II, Crabb plans to give a general overview and then let students pick specific countries to focus on.
“(That way), students can study something they’re passionate about and make the curriculum their own,” Crabb said.
When English teacher Jane Bauman taught freshmen, students could also follow their own interests through the memoir project.
Students chose one of five memoirs, all written by women. A few include: a Japanese-American from Seattle who was relocated to an internment camp during World War II, a member of the Little Rock Nine and a 12-year-old girl who lived through the China’s Cultural Revolution.
“The ninth-grade curriculum was pretty white-male-centric, and it needed greater balance,” Bauman said. “We had two dystopian works, ‘Animal Farm’ and ‘Lord of the Flies.’ These might seem like theoretical concepts, but in fact, they have real-life applications. And what better way than to choose books about specific, true historical events where civil rights were repressed?”
Even though Bauman has moved on to teach AP English Language and Composition and English 11, Hinojosa still uses one of the memoirs, “Warriors Don’t Cry” by Melba Pattillo Beals, in his freshman English classes.
Last year, Bauman added “The Marrow of Tradition” by Charles W. Chesnutt, which is set in the run-up to the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, to her junior English classes at the suggestion of former history teacher Damany Fisher.
“The story is wonderful literature, and it’s rhetorically complex and about 200 pages long — meets all my requirements,” Bauman said. “Students really enjoyed reading it; the response was excellent.”
Bauman also mentioned the difficulty in choosing books for her classes.
“It’s very difficult to choose books that are worth reading, that students want to read and that are diverse,” she said.
Hinojosa’s 12th-grade English classes — in which the books cover a “wider range than three years ago,” according to Wells — were another of Wells’ examples of minority representation in Country Day’s curriculum.
In the class, seniors read “Beloved,” by Toni Morrison, a black, female author; “The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven” by Sherman Alexie, a Native American who grew up on the Spokane Indian Reservation; “Wide Sargasso Sea” by Jean Rhys, who was born on the Caribbean island of Dominica; “The Complete Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi, a French-Iranian author; and “The Laramie Project” by Moisés Kaufman, a Jewish, Venezuelan playwright who wrote about the murder of a gay student at the University of Wyoming.
“It’s about picking books by people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, and that’s the start of expanding the curriculum,” Hinojosa said.
And through those books, he said he is able to weave the themes of marginalization and identity into his course.
“If you put those topics in the front of the conversation, a lot follows from that,” Hinojosa said. “(But) if you put something more philosophical or more dominant-culture-oriented at the front, then it’s harder to insert something like a conversation about non-majority populations.”
On the other hand, his ninth-grade English class is still a “far more traditional course,” he said.
“I like the ninth-grade curriculum, but it’s a little old-fashioned for me, and I think it can pop a little more. (We’re reading) books that I was taught, books that maybe my dad was taught as a ninth grader. ‘Lord of the Flies,’ ‘Animal Farm’ — they are extraordinary books, but I don’t know if we need to keep talking about them.”
However, with regards to his senior class, Hinojosa said that to add books with different perspectives would require him to drop other books.
“It’s back to the opportunity cost,” he said. “To add something, you have to take something out — something’s got to give. Our school has a lot of opportunities to do better, but there’s a logistical reality that’s a challenge.”
Kuipers also added that within a class, each student’s experience with the curriculum differs.
“But at the same time, I feel very comfortable with the history curriculum that exists,” he said. “It’s a cohesive, global curriculum that isn’t perfect, but it includes the stories of many peoples of across the world.”
In Nellis’ freshman Comparative World Cultures class, the first semester focuses on western civilizations, and the second semester on the indigenous peoples of the Americas and Africa.
As part of their study, students read “Through African Eyes” by Leon E. Clark, which is about the ancient kingdoms of Africa, the African colonial experience and the struggle to regain freedom from Europeans.
“I use it because that’s the voice of the people,” Nellis said. “Ethnic studies consists of a lot of voices — as much first-person history as possible to get away from outside interpretation. But the unfortunate part is many indigenous groups have been overrun, so some of those voices have been lost. But ‘Through African Eyes’ does give the voices of Africans — certainly those in the 19th and 20th centuries.”
Regarding her AP U.S. History class, Nellis said the curriculum has “changed tremendously” in the last 15 to 20 years to include more about the perspectives of minorities in the U.S.
The nature of an AP course, however, limits what Nellis can include in her curriculum.
“We’re always re-evaluating and trying to figure out the best way to teach something,” she said. “But there’s way too much to teach, so those choices had changed over time and will probably continue to change.
“It’s important to recognize the different viewpoints, but I can’t do that for every single event. But I try to do it in some of the bigger events.”
For instance, this year Nellis has expanded on a project about westward expansion by adding Chinese immigrant and Mexican-American perspectives as new topics for students to study.
However, junior Alyssa Valverde said that the project did not go into as much detail as she would have liked.
“It was still kind of broad — even trying to do research (resulted in) mainly the stuff in the book, which was focusing in on the U.S.,” Alyssa Valverde said. “I was trying to find stuff on Mexican-Americans, and it touches base on them, but it’s U.S. history; we’re not focusing in on Mexico.”
However, English and history classes aren’t the only classes incorporating diverse perspectives into the curriculum.
“While the history of biological discoveries often involves white male scientists, that is certainly not the case for modern-day biology,” Whited said.
And in Whited’s AP Biology class, students read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot, which is about a poor black woman whose cells were taken without her knowledge in 1951.
“The book discusses the ethical obligation that scientists and physicians have to treat their patients as a human and not just a diagnosis,” Whited said.
“It provides us the opportunity to discuss the discrepancy of medical care given to different ethnicities throughout history. The immeasurable good that has come from the cell line created from Henrietta’s cells is dirtied by the unethical way in which her cells were obtained.”
Even with the incorporation of diversity to certain classes, however, many students felt more could — and should — be done.
Ledesma said that although she could relate to themes and ideas in her U.S. History class last year, which wasn’t taught by Foehl, the curriculum didn’t include anything directly related to Mexican-Americans.
“I never really got to learn anything about the Chicano Movement, the east LA walkouts or anything that felt personal to me,” she said. “We mainly focused on a few topics — early America and slavery — and then, because of lack of time, skipped right over to Japanese-American experiences in incarceration camps.”
However, Alvarado conceded that with the new teachers and changed curriculum, many of the specific missing topics she found may have now been added.
“The curriculum has changed a lot, but it’s wrong to say, ‘Look, we’ve come this far, so we’re done now,’” Alvarado said.
Nina Dym, ’18, agreed that merely expanding on current classes wasn’t enough.
“They’re not hitting the problem head on,” Dym said. “I don’t see why they couldn’t incorporate a whole class, or even more than one.
“One thing in college you face is meeting people who don’t look like you and don’t have the same background as you.
“And to diversify Country Day’s students and really prepare them for college, having a class that can teach about diversity and inclusion would be important.”
Alvarado added that one of the points in her proposal was that students weren’t ready to encounter the diversity in colleges.
“We aren’t being prepared for dealing with people who are different than we are,” she said. “Country Day is a fantastic college-prep school, but we are severely depriving our students of realistic expectations in college.”
Dym added that at Northwestern University, where she is a freshman, many of the discussions she is having are “eye opening.”
“A lot of what I learned is from people around me, and there’s a lot of conversations about diversity and inclusion,” Dym said.
“I’ve always been interested (in ethnic studies), but it was especially when I got to college that I figured out that there’s so much more that I want to learn.”
And Bruce-Romo, who is majoring in Chicana/o Latina/o Studies (CLST) at Loyola Marymount University (LMU), is required to take at least one Studies in American Diversity course, which she said is essentially an ethnic studies course.
“My first semester, I took the Introduction to CLST course, and that class was my favorite,” she said. “It was everything I dreamed of and more. The course went from colonization up until today to explain the development of Latin America.”
She added that even though the course was intended for CLST majors, it still covered the histories of black, Asian and Native American people.
“That class constantly made me realize how much information I had been missing out on throughout my education,” she said.
Carlos Nunez, ’18, is also taking a course at Santa Clara University about the Californian experience, in which he said he learns about people’s stories.
“In this paper I wrote about the Mexican Repatriation, I ended up learning a lot about the topic, and I felt a lot more connected than I had in the past to Mexican-American history,” Nunez said.
On the other hand, Galindo, a sophomore at Ibero-American University in Mexico City, said he has not taken a specific ethnic studies course.
“But people are generally very talkative about these issues in almost any class, especially the ones that are more philosophical,” he said.
However, Kaeleigh Valverde, who attends Mills College — a women’s college in Oakland — has had a less welcoming experience. She said she noticed “a lack of understanding and sensitivity” there, partially due to a social divide among students.
“There seems to be a very direct split between people who are typically white, upper-class and paying full tuition versus minorities who are on scholarship,” she said.
Some professors add to the problem, Kaeleigh Valverde said.
“I’m at an all-girls school with a large percentage of people who identify as minorities, and I heard stories of people being in class with a teacher — who was a white male — and he was saying misogynistic and vaguely racist things to (students’) faces,” Kaeleigh Valverde said.
“I wouldn’t want Country Day to turn into something like that, where you feel attacked in the classroom and can’t say anything because there’s such a large divide and such a huge issue.”
Alvarado agreed that diversity and compassion in teachers, as well as students, is important.
“There’s a validation in seeing someone of color who’s an expert in the field teaching or mentoring you,” Alvarado said.
In addition to the efforts of many colleges to incorporate ethnic studies courses, many high schools have embraced diversifying their curricula.
For instance, Foehl and Alvarado cited the Urban School of San Francisco, where freshmen take a six-week course called Identity and Ethnic Studies. In the course, students “explore their identity and culture, as well as examine historical factors that shape social constructions such as race, ethnicity, nationality and class,” according to the Urban School’s website.
—By Allison Zhang
Originally published in the Jan. 15 edition of the Octagon