Independent Curriculum and #BlackLivesMatter

July 12, 2016
by Peter Gow, ICG Executive Director

We aren’t interested in jumping on a bandwagon just because it’s moving in a direction we want to go, too, but re-reading the National Council of Teachers of English statement affirming #BlackLivesMatter has inspired me to add the ICG’s two cents to this critical national conversation.

It might seem like a long way between helping schools build their own capacity in curriculum and assessment design and speaking out on behalf of racial and social injustice, but we don’t see it that way. In creating learning environments and experiences that are responsive to the needs of kids, the ICG has been and will continue to be explicit about the place of equity and justice in this work. Effective curriculum, we know, is also curriculum that students see as relevant, and in 2016 there isn’t anything more relevant, and more urgent, than making sure that schools prepare students to live in a world characterized by both diversities of many kinds and ubiquitous inequity and injustice.

If we can’t provide material restitution for the crimes and depredations of the past, we can provide some cultural and intellectual recompense by teaching about the past in ways that are honest and that do not deny the emotional, social, and economic impact of our history and the attitudes that formed its framework. Nor can we ignore or gloss over the events that shake our society today—or at least capture the attention of the news media, even if change seems slow in coming—when these events represent the world occupied by our students, their families, and ourselves. #BlackLivesMatter in the real world, and they must matter in the classroom as a topic of earnest, open discourse. As educators we have a deep moral obligation in which black lives, and all of the lives underrepresented in our textbooks and in our leadership (political, social, cultural, economic, and —yes—educational), matter as much as the lives of the popular, wealthy, and powerful whose stories still overwhelmingly dominate our textbooks and our curricula in every discipline.

It’s overly simplistic, but the strongest meme I’ve encountered for explaining the significance of #BlackLivesMatter showed up on Facebook. I’ve now seen a couple of different versions, so I’ll just share this one, posted by Ethan Ferrer:

A family sits down for dinner. One of the children, Johnny, has an empty plate. Johnny says ‪#‎johnnydeservesfood. His family looks up, shrugs, and says ‪#‎everyonedeservesfood and then proceeds to munch away happily. The family isn’t wrong. Certainly everyone does deserve food. And Johnny isn’t saying ‪#‎onlyjohnnydeservesfood. He’s saying that he, as well as his family, deserves food, but right now he has no food. And by making statements that #everyonedeservesfood, the family can feel better eating their food so they can ignore the real problem which is: Johnny has no food.

Those who reject #BlackLivesMatter are probably going to reject its purpose no matter how well explained its premise may be, but for those who struggle to articulate or grasp the distinction between the urgency of #BlackLivesMatter and the sanctimonious, self-evident (but not urgent in the same way) nostrum that “all lives matter,” this one seems pretty clear.

Principle VI of the ICG’s Principles of Independent Curriculum states that

Independent curriculum recognizes the variety of students’ cultural perspectives and experiences. It proceeds from the premise that preparation for life and work in a diverse and connected world demands learning experiences that acknowledge and include multiple perspectives in the quest for a future defined by justice and equity.

However, the ICG does not believe that the moral imperatives of “independent curriculum” stop there. Wellness, creativity, and balance also carry, we believe, not just the implication but the mandate that schools must be responsive to the needs and interests of students and must represent and invite thorough exploration of the worlds they occupy. These needs are not defined simply by the lower strata of Maslow’s Hierarchy but encompass, and must be understood as encompassing, the higher strata of love, belonging, self-esteem, and self-actualization—not as feel-good sops but as the central elements of fully developed ethical humanity.

Good teachers and good schools recognize this mandate and create programming accordingly. But in the age of #BlackLivesMatter, endless war, and rampant demagoguery, as educators we need to throw ourselves with greater energy than ever into the battle for social justice as the essential fight for our time. It’s not just about movements; it’s about a future worth living for.

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