This year, as I stated in an earlier Letter of the Week, we probably made more changes to the curriculum in terms of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism than in any previous year. This is not to say that we haven’t been making changes over the years, because curriculum is always changing and evolving, but rather, that more concentrated work has been done this year. A range of reactions is typical with any transition, and in this instance, we have received expressions of appreciation as well as questions about why we made some of these choices. Today I want to share with you some of the why behind these decisions, and please know that I am always available to discuss this in more depth with individual families should you have further questions.
After the murder of George Floyd there was a racial awakening across our country that led to a great deal of reflection both on individual and institutional levels. Schools in particular—public and private—began to reassess themselves through the lens of equity, inclusion, and anti-racism.
During our reflection, we heard from current students and hundreds of alumni. They shared with us, in the spirit of making Brentwood even better, their experiences--good and bad. One of the unifying themes throughout was about curriculum. While they all acknowledged that they went to college fully prepared with all of the requisite skills, analytical abilities, and flexibility in thinking, they felt underserved by the lack of breadth offered in our curriculum, especially with regard to diverse perspectives across their classes in terms of the voices of traditionally underrepresented people. As an example, several recent alums were frustrated that, prior to college, they had never even heard of Critical Race Theory, let alone had the opportunity to make their own evaluations of its strengths and challenges.
The value of diversity to groups and individuals has been well documented in numerous articles and studies such as How Diversity Makes Us Smarter. But it is not a matter of simply putting diverse groups together to learn things from one lens and never presenting, asking for, or listening to their diverse perspectives. When a curriculum highlights traditionally underrepresented groups, then diversity is given voice. That is, as one student told me: “We’ve been friends for years, but it wasn’t until we looked at the lasting affects of slavery in today’s society that, for the first time, my friend and I talked about race with each other--he’s LatinX and I’m white. It was like a huge part of him that I had never even known about before.” That is, a curriculum that intentionally brings out underrepresented experiences helps everyone attain a deeper understanding of one another and society in general.
This approach is working, as our students are becoming more and more curious about race, differences, and points of view. As Upper School teacher Asako Kurasaka-Jost wrote in the most recent Tuesday Insights:
"These days, topics surrounding race and ethnicity (which used to, at times, feel like a 'taboo' topic), are now frequently brought up in traditionally 'non diversity-oriented' situations….While many students who identify as Black, Indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC) have always shown eagerness to talk about race and ethnicity, more students, particularly those from the dominant culture, seem to have developed a thirst for understanding inter-racial relations within the United States and within their own school community."
Courageous curiosity about differences is a key component of the genuine healing and deepened understanding that we need across our entire nation. In this regard, like others, I expect Brentwood students to be leaders.
A more contemporary curriculum involves replacing elements that were long familiar to many of our adults, which can be as unsettling for parents/guardians as it is exciting for teachers. And, just as previous generations came home with different ideas about the world and its people, including global and local politics, civil rights, and social justice, your children are doing the same. This is because a healthy curriculum evolves and challenges students to understand both the past and its connection to the present. Even when this is uncomfortable, it ultimately leads to a well-informed understanding that allows each student to develop their own personal point of view. Your children may use familiar terms, like racist and anti-racist, in unfamiliar ways. Rather than a cause for alarm, this is something to explore. Ask them to explain their thinking. Gently challenge them where you see things differently, and leave room for them to form their own beliefs.
While some view these recent shifts as indoctrination, we see them as opportunities for engagement. That is, we are not telling students what to think, but rather guiding them to be critical thinkers. This is evident when, after a reading, a teacher has each student go to an individual breakout room for a few minutes to gather their own thoughts before hearing from others. It is also evident when a teacher sets up a discussion in class for students to express various and opposing points of view and then steps back into the role of observer. In both instances students are asked to go deeper to discover what they actually think and believe about a subject, and why. These are essential academic and life skills.
One of the more thoughtful aspects of our Brentwood curriculum is how it is laid out over the years. Therefore, when you look at what your student is studying and learning this year be sure to glimpse ahead to see what types of learning are around the corner. It is the curriculum as a whole, over many years, that helps us to develop the flexible thinking that is distinctive of Brentwood graduates.
In my experience, we have some of the best teachers I have ever had the honor of working with teaching your children. They are artists, and their medium is the curriculum. If you have questions about what we are teaching please ask. Our responsibility is to provide you with the context and the why behind our decisions. And know that as we hear your questions we do reflect upon them in light of what we as educators see as in the best interests of our students' overall educational experience. As noted earlier, the curriculum is always evolving and at times we make adjustments, at other times we do not. Whatever the outcome, please respect these decisions.