“My child will not read this garbage racist book and I would like you to immediately assign an alternate curriculum for the month that you will be spending on reading and disseminating this garbage book!”
So wrote school board election candidate Ingrid Campos of “Stamped, Antiracism and You,” a book by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds discussing the racist principles and institutions embedded in America’s history and present-day institutions. In the same post on her website, titled “When has Scholastic Books become deviant publishers?” she denounced Scholastic Books for promoting a “deviant lifestyle” by including LGBTQ+ perspectives in literature for students.
Backed by the Silicon Valley Association of Republican Women, whose president started an effort to recruit members to run for November’s school board elections, Campos ran upon a platform of “traditional family values,” advocating for the end of what she perceived as critical race theory teaching in Palo Alto Unified School District (PAUSD) schools and for the removal of texts with LGBTQ+ characters and themes from school bookshelves. (Critical race theory, as defined by Encyclopedia Britannica, is an organized framework of analysis based on the ideas that race is a social construct and that racism is inherent in American institutions. It is generally affiliated with higher education.)
Although Campos didn’t win the election, she did garner 9.5% of the vote, providing a local example of a nationwide trend with her increased focus on race and gender in school curricula: Fewer than two weeks after PAUSD’s school board elections, the Keller Independent School District in Texas elected to ban books introducing the concept of gender fluidity from school libraries. Moreover, in January of this year, the Florida Department of Education sought to block College Board’s new Advanced Placement (AP) African American Studies class from Florida schools on the grounds that the course was contrary to Florida law and lacked educational value—officials took issue with topics like intersectionality and reparations.
Conversely, people have also tried to remove works that could potentially offend historically underrepresented groups. In late 2020, the Burbank Unified School District removed five novels from its curriculum list, including “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” due to concerns about racist language and depictions. This year at Hamline University, adjunct professor Erika López lost her job for showing an image of the Prophet Muhammad, though she had taken multiple precautions before doing so—officials deemed her action Islamophobic.
It is clear from examples like these that discussions of minority groups and narratives in curricula have become increasingly politicized, and Campos’ campaign demonstrates that Gunn is not far removed from the issue. Further investigation into Gunn’s history and its current approaches to race and gender in curricula is therefore necessary in order to trace the roots of our current culture wars; in looking at how attitudes have shifted over the decades, we can better understand our current paradigm and predict what the future might hold.
The turbulence of the 1960s
When Gunn opened as a three-year high school in 1964, it had only two years’ worth of students. With a small school and the freedom of a fresh start, the English and history departments worked together to create a coordinated curriculum. According to retired English teacher Karen Myers, who taught at Gunn beginning in 1964, students all took the same humanities classes in any given year—all students would take American history and literature in one year, for example, and rotate to the next pair of classes the following year. “The intention was to integrate other arts—music, movies, theater—to make it a humanities curriculum,” Myers said. “That was the most exciting curriculum Gunn has ever had.”
The curriculum of this era was shaped by the social upheaval of the time, including the civil rights and antiwar movements. “(The administrators) very much wanted us to reflect the changes of the ’60s, which were monumental,” Myers said. “I graduated high school in the ’50s, and our curriculum did not include anything about peaceful protest, which happened in the ’60s, or about gender issues or about racial issues. I grew up in Oregon, and I didn’t know about the Japanese internment camps that were happening in my own state. (In 1964), we felt we were cutting-edge.”
According to Myers, education on these social issues was accomplished through inquiry-based learning, which gave students the freedom to research the issues they were interested in. While there was no specific scaffolding for social justice within the curriculum, students could choose to pursue it as a topic of study.
As teachers shaped this new curriculum, Myers noted that parents had a hands-off approach to their children’s education, contrasting sharply with today. “It’s really interesting to me that when we got to plan the curriculum in ‘64 in preparation for the year ’64-’65, the community basically turned that job over to the professionals,” she said. “Parents and politics have a lot more influence now than they did then.”
Parents and politics have a lot more influence now than they did then.
— Former English teacher Karen Myers
As the 1960s went on, efforts to reshape curriculum moved alongside those to racially integrate PAUSD’s high schools. On May 20, 1968, PAUSD Superintendent Harold Santee drafted a proposal for a multicultural education program which aimed to provide “a range of opportunities at all levels to acquire the knowledge and experience necessary for (students) to develop those attitudes essential for the building of a truly free and open society for all people.” The program involved adding new instructional units and courses, acquiring new instructional materials and allowing for increased interaction between PAUSD students and those in the “larger community.”
As in the present day, this proposal to alter the curriculum generated a fair amount of discussion. According to board documents from May 20, 1968, Julie Stoneburner wrote a letter on behalf of the Ohlone School Parent Teacher Association Board in support of the program, noting that children needed an education preparing them to live as members of a multicultural world. On the other hand, former teacher then acting as a substitute at Palo Alto High School (Paly) Louise Champion said she hoped “that Anglo-Saxon values would also remain in the schools—that it must be a two-way street.”
Still, a push to diversify the curriculum was clear, as evidenced by several messages from community members to the board regarding representation of minorities in curriculum. Records from the meeting note that Robert King, then a junior at Gunn High School, felt that he “found it hard to identify as an American” in the elementary schools in the district, given that “there was no mention of any Negro in the history books and one somehow gathered the impression that the Negro had been here all these years just sitting around and not doing anything.”
The diversification of the 1970s
In 1975, in order to save money for the district, Gunn—along with Paly and Cubberley—became a four-year high school. From an administrative standpoint, this change meant shifting the curriculum to encompass a whole new year’s worth of learning. Although it is difficult to say whether this change definitively diversified the curriculum, it is likely that with an added year of instruction, more room would be available for students to learn about different groups or to take elective courses on different groups. According to an article from a 1976 issue of The Oracle, students had even suggested the addition of an ethnic studies class by this time.
More formative to the curriculum’s development, though, was increased attention to the growing diversity of the student body. An emphasis was placed on helping limited- to non-English-speaking students succeed in schools, partially in response to a series of state laws regarding bilingual education (including California law AB 1329 of 1976, which mandated that students unfamiliar with the English language receive instruction in a language they were familiar with, and that the district provide them with equal educational opportunities).
According to Myers, teachers shifted their approach in the classroom to accommodate a wide assortment of needs and learning abilities; they attempted to find texts and activities that would better reflect the needs of a more cosmopolitan student population. “(There was a focus on) designing alternatives for coursework that met the needs of people who couldn’t be just straight down the middle, with (that) slightly old-fashioned approach to education,” she said.
Expanding the debate: the 1980s
The ’80s, characterized as a decade of increased conservatism nationwide, actually showed a continued commitment toward including minority voices in the curriculum at Gunn. Myers, upon her return to Gunn after a decade-long hiatus, marked the efforts of the English department to make the texts used in English better represent Gunn’s student population.“I remember (during) most of the ’80s—at least, the mid ’80s—in the English department, (we were) searching for reading materials that met the cultures of the people we that were in Gunn then,” she said. “The ’80s was a much more global approach to the whole world—(the approach) to immigration, California, especially, it had just changed quite a bit from 20 years earlier when I started teaching.”
In pursuit of better representation, the late ’80s saw the addition of several new books to the curriculum, including “The Joy Luck Club,” “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” “‘Master Harold’…and the boys” and “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” English Instructional Lead Paul Dunlap, who began working at Gunn in the ’90s, was pleased to see the improvements but worked to add yet more underrepresented voices to the curriculum. “I joined a group of mostly women teachers, and we created a women writers elective,” he said. “But even then, we knew that there was a flaw in that thinking: If you have to have a course of just women writers, you’re probably not having enough women writers throughout all the (core) classes.”
The ’80s was a much more global approach to the whole world—(the approach) to immigration, California, especially, it had just changed quite a bit from 20 years earlier when I started teaching.
— Former English teacher Karen Myers
Such progress wasn’t necessarily seen in the history department. In the late ’80s, the current social studies course progression came into existence—one year of World History, a semester each of Contemporary World History and U.S. Government for sophomores, a year of U.S. history for juniors and a semester of economics (plus one social studies elective) for seniors. This change created fewer elective slots for students, decreasing their ability to explore new narratives—electives such as Far East History and Sociology were rendered obsolete. Moreover, the Social Studies Department Supervisor at the time, John Attig, saw the new framework as favoring textbook learning over “learning by doing and primary sources,” according to a 1986 issue of The Oracle.
Conservative attitudes nationwide also informed student concerns at Gunn. A 1982 The Oracle article by Geoff Minter titled “Educational white-washing” noted the continued reliance on a “perfect America” narrative, especially at the elementary and junior high school levels. “Elementary and junior high school teachers seldom have students do reports on the unpleasant sides of America: racism, sexism, poverty, crime, the Vietnam War, the 3/5 of a Man Clause in the Constitution, the fact that women on average earn 59¢ to every dollar a man makes and so on,” he wrote. “Even some states, including the heavily populated Texas, have started to pass laws which will eventually leave only the ‘Little House on the Prairie’ series available in school libraries for students to read.”
This clash of ideals and values was also central to Stanford University’s Western Culture debate, which erupted in 1988. The argument was centered around a proposal to drop fifteen required texts—all Western classic works—from the curriculum, abandoning the core list in favor of greater flexibility and the option to include voices of women and minorities. This decision garnered backlash, most notably from United States (U.S.) Secretary of Education William Bennett, who criticized the proposal, according to a Los Angeles Times article from 1988. “They are moving confidently and swiftly into the late 1960’s, and why anybody would want to do that intentionally I don’t know,” he said.
The debate, recognized nationwide, rocked the boat of its local school district, if only through prompting students to reconsider their own curriculum. The debate around Western Culture and its ensuing curriculum changes made their way onto the front page of The Oracle in 1991, marking the seeds of culture wars in decades to come.
An era of new and old: the 1990s and early 2000s
The ’90s and early 2000s saw the rise of a new interdisciplinary program at Gunn: American Studies. According to retired social studies teacher and former American Studies teacher Lynne Navarro, the program was begun by teachers Elizabeth Darby and Suzanne Aldridge in order to teach American literature and American history side by side—a callback to the humanities blocking system of the 1960s. “They just really felt like those two subjects, American literature and American history, taught together work really well,” she said. “For example, while you’re reading ‘The Grapes of Wrath’ in your English class, if you’re studying the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl at the same time, both of them make more sense.”
The program, which ran every other year because of the nature of the English curriculum, wasn’t designed to be a social justice course. Even so, there was more room for different narratives because of the interdisciplinary approach, according to English teacher and former American Studies teacher Diane Ichikawa. “It did have much more of a social lens to things for the history portion of it,” she said. “We didn’t look at (the history) in terms of dates—whereas in Advanced Placement United States History (APUSH), you definitely have to memorize dates and a lot of different facts. Of course, we get facts in there, but it’s more about ‘What were the social aspects (of) the time in America, starting from Reconstruction and (moving) forward?’”
Still, teachers encountered some backlash. Navarro recalled one of the aspects of the program that didn’t sit well with some students. “When we first added a unit on women’s history in our American studies class, we got some pushback from students,” she said. “(There was criticism) especially from young boys saying, ‘Why do we have to study this?’ (I said,) ‘Well, look at the rest of history. Look at the rest of what you’re studying—where are the women?’”
While the American Studies program continued throughout the ’90s and into the 2000s, it was eventually discontinued. Scheduling issues, as well as student interest, played a role—some students shied away from the program because it would mean losing the opportunity to take APUSH. While the Social Justice Pathway later incorporated a smidge of American Studies’ interdisciplinary nature through pairing research with history, and interdisciplinary electives such as Women’s History have run intermittently, no such alignment of English and history classes has consistently existed at Gunn since.
(The textbook told) a straightforward story of ‘We went from the Renaissance through the Scientific Revolution and then the Enlightenment, and then we had the French Revolution. Then we had imperialism, and that was really bad, and the wars (were bad), and then things got better.
— Social studies teacher Laurel Howard
Nevertheless, initiatives like American Studies did little to change the fundamental Eurocentrism of the core curriculum. Social studies teacher Laurel Howard, who graduated from Gunn in 2011, noted that most of her work in her freshman year World History course was textbook-based, and that the textbook in question hardly expanded the traditional Western narrative. “It (told) a straightforward story of ‘We went from the Renaissance through the Scientific Revolution and then the Enlightenment, and then we had the French Revolution. Then we had imperialism, and that was really bad, and the wars (were bad), and then things got better,’” she said. “I don’t have a strong memory of learning about anything that happened outside of Europe my freshman year, other than if it was relevant to Europe.”
Howard also noted that the attitude toward the textbook as a source shaped how students thought about diversity in the course. “When we watched movies, when we read the textbook, it wasn’t presented as ‘Here are a bunch of different sources, and you’re going to wrestle with them and figure out what you think happened,’” she said. ‘It was more (like), ‘Here’s the history.’ So we read it with a different lens, and that meant it was also a little bit less representative.”
Growing political tension: the 2010s
In 2013, the English curriculum underwent a major reshaping. Teachers added a number of texts and renamed courses to “acknowledge and honor the diversity of the Gunn community and to provide students with effective choices,” according to school board documents detailing the change. This was the last time alterations were made to the English curriculum at a district level. Among the texts added to the curriculum were “The Kite Runner,” “In the Time of the Butterflies” and “Bless Me, Ultima.”
While most English courses retained their main characteristics, including their names and themes, the 11th- and 12th-grade courses English Masters Honors and British Literature became World Classics Honors and World Literature, respectively. This marked a shift away from the Eurocentric curriculum of the past decades. While a Shakespeare play remained a required text in both courses, books from women and people of color figured into the curriculum much more strongly than in previous years.
Still, as the 2010s continued, the issue of race in curriculum became increasingly controversial, a shift Howard observed as she began work at Gunn. “(The issue) was something that really started to come up around the 2016 election, in my recollection, and we’ve had to have endless conversations about it,” she said. “When is it a viewpoint (where) there are reasonable people who could think about it differently? And when is it a viewpoint that is (harming) some of my most vulnerable students?”
Current policies, initiatives in the English department
Increased flexibility has been key to diversifying the curriculum in the past few years in English classes. In the English department, the pandemic played a major role in shaping a new approach to the curriculum. During this time, review of the English curriculum at a departmental and school level intensified in response both to the reenergized Black Lives Matter movement and the demands of remote teaching and learning, according to Dunlap. “In 2020, when it was shelter-in-place, everyone was at home and school was crazy, with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, we thought, ‘Let’s go ahead and take advantage of this and try everything we can because things are not working,’” he said. “From that point on, people have felt more freedom to try different titles and to try to be a little bit more inclusive and try things like ‘The Poet X.’ I think we’re happy with that. We don’t have the standard (list of what everyone should read), but I think we’re doing a lot more to think about how we can celebrate different voices in literature.”
Although this diversity allows teachers greater flexibility in adding to the curriculum, it also means that students’ exposure to different narratives can vary depending on which teachers they have. Some teachers might be more inclined to pilot new texts and authors, while others might prefer to stick closer to traditional, “canonical” texts, according to English teacher Virginia Moyer.
This seems to be true—student experiences vary from teacher to teacher and from course to course. Senior Jayni Ram noted that while her courses in most years included few women or authors of color, her junior year proved to be different. “I think in most of my classes it has definitely been white authors and male authors,” she said. “But then last year in (English teacher Shaina) Holdener’s class, she had us read ‘Things Fall Apart’ and (‘Like Water for Chocolate’).”
Junior Vivien Chen’s experience followed a similar trend. “I think in ninth grade and 10th grade, it’s more traditional English curriculum, like Shakespeare and ‘Lord of the Flies,’ (though) I think they do a good job of incorporating books that are from all places (and are) diverse,” she said. “In the class I’m taking right now, American Classics, they focus a lot more on American culture and diversity.”
According to Dunlap, the goal is to include texts students would be able to see themselves in and those that would require empathy to immerse themselves in. “The balance is what we call window texts and mirror texts,” he said. “A window (text is one) you look through and you learn about somebody else’s world. A mirror (text is one) you look at and you see yourself. Too much of one or the other is not the balance that we’re looking for.”
A window (text is one) you look through and you learn about somebody else’s world. A mirror (text is one) you look at and you see yourself. Too much of one or the other is not the balance that we’re looking for.
— English Instructional Lead Paul Dunlap
Maintaining such a balance can be difficult, and this quandary is akin to that of the Western Culture debate—teachers must weigh the merits of classics against those of newer texts. Howard described this trade-off between window and mirror texts in her experience as a Gunn student. “I’m glad I read those classics (in English class) because they helped me out a lot—as a history person, I recognize references, and I have a frame of reference for that world,” she said. “(The classics) prepared me for living in academia, but didn’t necessarily help me see and understand the world I lived in at that moment.”
Ichikawa noted that this issue—finding a balance of classics and fresh voices—has only been compounded by the post-pandemic bell schedule. Because classes are meeting fewer times per week, reading can be assigned fewer times per week, and it takes longer to get through each book—limiting the number of texts per semester overall.
Not only that, but it’s often difficult for teachers to truly be able to experiment with new electives or texts. Support fluctuates with administrators and funding, and it’s often difficult to get new courses or books approved. Teachers often have to jump through hoops to acquire the resources they need, according to English teacher Terence Kitada. “It’s funny, because I think the money exists in many places, but it’s just a matter of, ‘Who should pay for this?’” he said. “I’ve heard from several teachers in the department as they try to get new books to pilot that it’s been a very big nightmare.”
Overall, however, most teachers and students agree that there’s room for more narratives. Senior Tra Nguyen advocated for greater inclusion of Asian American voices. “I think I would’ve liked to see more Asian American literature (in my English classes at Gunn) because I don’t think I’ve really encountered that at all, which is a little disappointing,” she said.
I think I would’ve liked to see more Asian American literature (in my English classes at Gunn) because I don’t think I’ve really encountered that at all, which is a little disappointing.
— Senior Tra Nguyen
Still, there’s a fine line between uplifting underrepresented voices and tokenization—something Kitada emphasized. He also noted that teachers must focus on the types of narratives from minorities they bring in. “If you bring in stories that are by African American authors, but the stories (only) deal with trauma or gun violence and a whole bunch of students read that, it’s just reinforcing those stereotypes of ‘Oh, this is the Black American experience,’ and I don’t want students to feel like that that is the case,” he said. “As a student, I always hated it. I read one book about Asians in high school when I was in high school 20 years ago, and it was about Chinese Americans working on the railroad. It was (about) things like Chinese foot binding. (I remember) reading this and (thinking) ‘Oh, this is weird.’ And I was the one Asian kid just feeling, ‘Oh my gosh, this is not my culture. This is not right.’”
Current policies, initiatives in the history department
Although core texts might not be as central to curricular development in the history department, given that textbooks aren’t used heavily in most courses, it certainly makes up part of the issue. According to Howard, the very nature of high school textbooks is flawed: Many are ghostwritten and don’t have footnotes, making it difficult to assess their sources, and their presentation of history can also be problematic. “(Some textbooks) present history as if it’s all solved and done, and we understand it all, because that’s just not (true)—history is this vibrant, dynamic, interesting field,” she said. Howard added that ideally, she’d have students learn mostly from secondary and primary sources.
Because textbooks often prove insufficient for instruction, the onus of providing diverse supplementary materials is often left on the teachers, again providing for variation across classes and courses—an issue Gunn graduate Thomas Li pointed out in his 2020-2021 Advanced Authentic Research project on Indigenous representation in PAUSD K-12 social studies curricula. “Much of the effort to bring in more Indigenous stories is supplementary to the main curriculum, so there could easily be inconsistencies across the school district where some teachers do not highlight Indigenous Peoples to the same extent as our interviewed teachers,” he wrote. “The lack of higher-level direction or professional development for teachers to learn about Indigenous history could mean that teachers themselves are not fully aware of the complexities of Indigenous history.”
Another issue Li mentioned in his paper was that of the deficit narrative—one that defines a group of people solely by the problems they’ve had in the past or the oppression they’ve experienced. Li noted that just as it is important to learn about the horrors of imperialism and slavery, so too is it important to learn about those who fought back.
Similarly, when learning about non-Western cultures, students have found that these groups are only explored in relation to the West, according to Student Equity Committee Board of Student Leaders member junior Sofia Hussain. “Whenever we look at things, it’s through a Western lens—(so when we’re) learning about the Middle East or Asia, it’s ‘What did the British have to do with it?’” she said.
Whenever we look at things, it’s through a Western lens—(so when we’re) learning about the Middle East or Asia, it’s ‘What did the British have to do with it?’
— Student Equity Committee Board of Student Leaders member junior Sofia Hussain
One method currently employed in the department to address these issues is weekly Professional Learning Community (PLC) meetings, as well as department meetings. According to Social Studies Instructional Lead Jeffrey Patrick, during PLCs, teachers from a certain course gather to discuss goals, objectives and supplementary materials, which aids in minimizing teacher-to-teacher variation. “There does tend to be a dominant narrative for history and people (teach) the narrative they are familiar (with),” he said. “Over time, as we’re having those discussions in our PLCs and in the department, people will get a chance to hear the counter narrative and think about ways to include that.”
Teachers have found creative ways to incorporate underrepresented groups into historical narratives. Howard uses warm-up activities as a way to incorporate primary sources featuring minority groups into otherwise textbook-heavy courses like APUSH. “A few years ago, I changed (my curriculum) so that every source you read during the American Revolution comes from a woman,” she said. “I’m not sure that students actually noticed that, but it is the kind of thing that I pat myself on the back for because you have to read between the lines to get those sources, but they’re out there, and they’re really fun to talk about.”
Those in the history department also occasionally use resources from the Stanford History Education Group, as well as Brown University’s curriculum from its Choices program, which provide supplements for history classes.
In some United States History courses, teachers have begun to employ thematic teaching. Rather than going through the history in chronological units, teachers group together movements and trends across history into related categories, like “Movement of People” and “Culture.” According to Navarro, such an approach fosters a more open curriculum. “The thematic approach does make it a lot easier to include a lot of different voices,” she said. “You can have a whole civil rights unit where you’re looking at all of the different civil rights movements that have happened, whether you’re talking about African Americans or women or (the) LGBTQ (community). It’s easy to look at all of those things and do a lot of compare and contrast.”
The thematic approach does make it a lot easier to include a lot of different voices.
— Former social studies teacher Lynne Navarro
However, students like Chen have found this method of teaching difficult to follow. “There is no chronology, just because each unit skips around and only has the events that are related to the unit theme,” she said. “You’re not really understanding how American history is progressing, but you get to understand these certain events that had an effect on the history.”
There are also opportunities for exploration through electives and other programs. The Social Justice Pathway, which began during the 2019-2020 school year, provides a three-year course of study for students particularly passionate about social justice, integrating present-day research alongside history. Ethnic Studies, currently an elective but slated to become a graduation requirement in 2029, also offers an opportunity for students to explore different narratives.
(Re)opening the political conversation
As Gunn steps into the year 2023, it appears as though race in curriculum will continue to make up at least some part of the political discussion (judging from November’s school board races alone). Although Campos didn’t win the election, her appeal to some in the community has been undeniable: More than a few comments in support of her views were left on articles during her campaign.
“I’m voting for Ingrid. Enough with PAUSD pushing CRT and gender ideology, queer theory, intersectionality, and not teaching reading, writing and math,” read a comment left on a Palo Alto Daily Post article on Campos.
“I’m for having a diversity of voices on the school board. I also want focus on growth and achievement in reading, writing, arithmetics. This state is currently dumbing down, fast, in public education. I’ll vote for her,” another said, commenting on a Palo Alto Online feature of the candidate.
In a way, the election served as a wake-up call: If these debates around race in curriculum are reaching an area as liberal as Palo Alto, what might the future hold? Given the political climate, the issue has hit close to home for teachers. For some teachers, like Navarro, the situation has become disheartening. “I honestly don’t know what to do about it, and I’m really tired of people just throwing around terms like ‘critical race theory’ when they don’t even know what they’re talking about,” she said. “Critical race theory is a subject that’s taught at the college level, like gender studies. And if a kid in the fourth grade reads one book that’s about slavery, then people are saying things like, ‘You’re teaching critical race theory to fourth graders.’”
According to Navarro, changing the curriculum in any way is bound to garner backlash. “If you change anything too quickly or too radically, then people are upset, and if you don’t ever change, then a different group of people is upset,” she said.
Still, Li noted that the fact that representation in curriculum has become politically tinged doesn’t make it taboo. “If we avoid things that just happen to be political, then we avoid (issues) altogether, and then that means that we aren’t having these discussions about diversity and how to make curricula more inclusive,” he said.
If we avoid things that just happen to be political, then we avoid (issues) altogether, and then that means that we aren’t having these discussions about diversity and how to make curricula more inclusive.
— Gunn alumnus Thomas Li
This is especially true since PAUSD is far from an embattled district—there remains a commitment to diversity at some level, something teachers like Dunlap have expressed gratitude for. “(When) I taught ‘Beloved’ I held it up and I said, ‘I’m so glad to teach in a district that can teach you this and not feel like I might get fired, or I might hear parents protest,’” Dunlap said. “Because that’s one of the top (things) that people who don’t understand critical race theory say: ‘People should not read this book because it might make soft white people feel bad about our heritage.’ And so as a white male of privilege, it’s my responsibility to help other people feel more empowered.”
The issue, then, becomes not about what teachers cannot do, but what they can do. Most teachers agree that the best way to approach the current situation is through a lens of inquiry and exploration—a callback to the spirit of the ’60s. “I, ethically, don’t believe that I should ever be telling a student what to think or what to believe,” Howard said. “That said, I acknowledge that I’m in a position of power over my students, and I’m in the position where I get to choose what I bring before them, and that’s a big responsibility. So I try to ask open-ended questions.”
This holds for the English department as well. “I think everyone should have more questions than answers,” Dunlap said. “The more you can say ‘What is life like for you?’ instead of ‘Life is this way,’ I think that’s how we move forward.”
Dunlap noted that this approach works well with the goal of literature as whole—to empathize. “That’s one of the things I love about teaching English—that we’re reading stories about humans,” he said. “I can read what it’s like to be a Black woman (though) I’ll never be a Black woman. I’ll never be an Indian woman, but I can read stories and say, ‘You know what? I feel that too.’ That’s human.”
I can read what it’s like to be a Black woman (though) I’ll never be a Black woman. I’ll never be an Indian woman, but I can read stories and say, ‘You know what? I feel that too.’ That’s human.
— English Instructional Lead Paul Dunlap
Empathy between students and teachers is equally important, especially when it comes to these sensitive topics, according to Howard. “Sometimes, when I’m talking to other teachers, I say, ‘Maybe I wouldn’t (teach) it this way. Maybe this feels a little problematic,’” she said. “Teachers will say, ‘Well, most students have never said that to me.’ And I always have to say, ‘Would you have the words as a 16-year-old or a 17-year-old? Or would you just know something’s off and not be able to say why?’”
Student involvement and initiatives
Although students at Gunn may not be able to vote, there are a variety of actions students are taking to address the issue of representation in curriculum. Gunn’s Student Equity Committee, founded in 2020, currently has a curricular review subcommittee who has three main tasks for this year. The first is to revise the English and history curriculum through the lens of diversity and equity, an endeavor that will require an audit for which participants will need training. The second is piloting books in the English department at the high school level and the middle school level, and the third is helping to develop the Ethnic Studies curriculum. Throughout the process, the committee will be soliciting feedback from students, allowing their voices to be heard.
According to Hussain, student engagement with those in power is what spurs change at a larger scale. “One thing that I’ve found (helps create change) is really getting involved in committees and talking to the people in power because when you set a requirement, when you persuade the head of the history department to (make a change), that means that all the teachers do have to do that,” she said.
There are also opportunities for students to join textbook selection committees, which review and evaluate textbook candidates. At meetings, they can share their opinions on the texts, including their thoughts on diversity and representation. Li, who served on the 2018-2019 United States Government textbook selection committee, found the experience to be a positive one. “It was cool to work with teachers and admin in a more informal, casual manner, and it felt like I was contributing to something,” he said.
Li added that going to the school board can also be an effective method for students to voice their opinions, as there are opportunities for public comment. Students who are interested can reach out to School Board Representative senior Daniel Pan.
Actually, if you look at the statistics, it is true that younger people have way less conflict over diversity and inclusion. Maybe there is hope.
— Former social studies teacher Lynne Navarro
Even simply talking to teachers can do a world of good, Dunlap said. “If you’ve read something on your own and you think your teacher might appreciate it, share the title,” he said. “When we are piloting titles, we’ll tell students, and so that’s where you say, ‘Hey, I want to try this title.’”
Although it’s often not always clear how much small things like these can help, they can lead to larger initiatives. Navarro has faith in the ability of the student body to enact change. “I hope that (this) generation can be smarter than the other generations,” she said. “Actually, if you look at the statistics, it is true that younger people have way less conflict over diversity and inclusion. Maybe there is hope.”