July 19, 2017

New PHS Courses on Racial Literacy and Harmony Join Curriculum for Coming Year

Reading, writing, and arithmetic are still on the agenda at Princeton High School (PHS), but students, faculty, and administration are demanding more in response to these troubled times and will be introducing new courses for 2017-18 in racial literacy and harmony, as well as world religions and current events.

Based partly on “the need and desire expressed by students and parents to have rich conversations about issues that really matter to kids today,” the new course offerings will enable students and teachers “to focus more on the modern world” and “to make connections to lives in the contemporary world,” according to Humanities Supervisor Mark Shelley.

The development of these elective courses has been the result of strong student initiative and effective collaboration among students, teachers, and administration. “These electives are indicative of our district’s ability to innovate,” Mr. Shelley said.

The history department course Racial Literacy and Justice, to be taught by Joy Barnes-Johnson and Patty Manhart, will take an in-depth look at race and the cultural divide in America. Developed in collaboration with the Minority Student Achievement Network (MSAN), the course was created in part as a response to racial issues in the school community as well as events dominating the national media.

“There was a sense of urgency to get these courses going,” Mr. Shelley said, and he noted the support of Superintendent Steve Cochrane and High School Principal Gary Snyder in getting the course on the fast track to be offered in the coming school year.

“This one elective course isn’t necessarily going to solve any problems,” Mr. Shelley said, “but we’ll have important discussions that approach matters from all sides. One goal is to foster mutual respect on both sides of the issues.”

Joanne Adebayo, MSAN president and 2017 PHS graduate, explained how the members of her organization shared stories last fall about lack of understanding and the need for students to be educated about race. “We took action step by step. We worked together to try and make this happen. We had many supporters, but it really came from the students.”

Ms. Adebayo said that Racial Literacy and Justice would be a “discussion-based” class with “all engaged” and “no room for disconnectedness.” She added that from an academic and historical background “students will have the opportunity to explore what social justice means to them and what race means in their community and their world.”

MSAN advisor Lenora Keel, PHS social worker, added, “It was a successful group effort. I’m very proud of them.” She described how the group developed an action plan focusing on helping students to be more sensitive to the needs of others, particularly those of different ethnic groups and religions.

“In the midst of all the different racial issues during the past year,” she continued, “there was a push to make this course happen.” Emphasizing the importance of mutual understanding and respect, she further stated, “This course will enable the students to have conversations in a safe place, in an intellectual way. They’ll be able to bring in their own unique experiences.”

The Harmony Project in the English department has grown out of the sophomore classes team-taught by Bryan Hoffman and Jaya Kanchi. With a heavy dose of literature about genocide and the Holocaust, the tenth graders’ most common response to the curriculum was, “It’s just so depressing.”

Mr. Shelley explained, “The tenth grade teachers got together and asked: ‘What’s the opposite of that? What hope do we have in the midst of that? What are the forces that led us after World War II in the opposite direction from war and the Holocaust? What are some of the factors that can create a better sense of harmony in the world?’”

The Harmony Project and the new course will attempt to answer those questions.

With literature that examines both human suffering and human triumph over suffering, “students will grapple with questions surrounding social justice and how to create harmony in a discordant world,” Mr. Hoffman explained.

“The protagonist of Yan Martel’s The Life of Pi discovers a way to synthesize the world’s religions to create peace within himself,” he continued. “In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna comes to understand that the war that is most worth fighting is not one against others, rather it is an internal war against one’s own ego. Langston Hughes demonstrates the mechanisms by which people are oppressed and he offers a means of overcoming that paradigm.”

Mr. Hoffman noted that the original title for the course was Reversing the River. “How can literature be used to help?” he asked. “We have a river of suffering. Let’s attack it.”