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Changes to Curriculum to Promote Racial Equity

For a class project on “The Hate U Give,” Juniors Morgan Neill, Grant Thompson, Thea Chastain, Sam Howe and Jude Black painted this panel of a mural that honors George Floyd. Photo: Jamie Kornheiser

Following this summer’s protests over racial justice and police violence that have continued into this fall, Pace published its Plan for Racial Equity in order to promote “a diverse, equitable and inclusive learning environment.” One of the components that the plan calls for is an evaluation of the curriculum across all divisions of the school.

Over the summer, English department chair Marsha Durlin and Head of Upper School Michael Gannon changed the summer reading assignment for all high schoolers to “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas. “We want to emphasize narratives that are broadly representative of our school community,” said Mr. Gannon. “We shifted our summer reading to try to work toward preparing our children for the world we inhabit.”

In addition to the summer reading change, the English department decided to no longer teach Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” This decision, however, was made back in April when they were putting together book orders. “Huck Finn was taught for years as the great American novel with a strong anti-racist message, even in a time where the country was very racist,” said Mrs. Durlin. “But now, it seems to have come to a place where the virtues don’t outweigh the drawbacks.” 

This is a similar conversation English teacher Robert Kaufman is having with his 11th grade American Literature class with the novel “The Great Gatsby.” “Mrs. [Joanne] Brown encouraged all faculty to become anti-racist, which is to say we have to speak out when we see, hear or read things that are insensitive to members of our community,” he said. “Fitzgerald does write some really beautiful sentences. There is a really interesting ethical dilemma that manifests in many great works of art: is the work or art worth it for those beautiful sentences even though it is insensitive to Black and Jewish people? And for me, the answer is no.” 

With a subject whose primary purpose is to educate its students about the past, the history department looks forward to continuing to foster an inclusive environment that strives to teach its students from all perspectives. “We are redoubling on that curriculum of asking questions that really provoke people to live outside of themselves, with other people’s experiences and identities,” said history department chair Tim Hornor.

In Mr. Hornor’s eyes, the way to teaching an anti-racist history curriculum is to be honest. “We have to live with our history, which is not always heroic, and in fact can be awful,” he said. “We have to start by being blunt and not try to work the edges of a topic.”

Teaching an anti-racist curriculum can be a bit more abstract in terms of math and science. Math department chair Heather McCloskey and science department chair John Pearson are working hand in hand in order to ensure that their curriculums encompass all of the perspectives of the Pace community. They have devised a two step process, the first being “trying to see where the implicit bias is in any word problems,” according to Dr. McCloskey.

The second step in this process is learning a variety of teaching approaches. The science department is observing how women’s colleges or historically Black colleges may differ in the ways they teach their students. “What we are trying to see is if there is something that is different that comes out, and is there a way for us to foster that in our curriculum,” said Dr. Pearson.

The science department is not the only one that is learning from sources beyond Pace. As called for in the Plan for Racial Equity, all departments will have an outside expert review their curriculum with the hopes of attaining Pace’s anti-racist goal. “We are going to get an external review from an Emory professor so that she can make sure our curriculum meets our aspirations, both in terms of delivery but also in terms of subject matter,” said Mr. Hornor.

Within the world language curriculum, department chair Cappy Lewis believes foreign language is itself a way to promote anti-racist thinking. “Actively learning another language opens your perspective to how people express things differently and have different experiences in the world,” she said.

Spanish teacher Paula Pontes along with Upper School Diversity and Inclusion Coordinator Omar López Thismón inspired conversations regarding identity centered around choosing a Hispanic name while taking a Spanish course. At Pace, if you took Spanish in middle school, you probably picked a Hispanic name off a list. “There is very little thought given to whatever name you get, and there were even names that were essentially jokes,” said Mr. López Thismón. 

“If your name represents your identity, is the idea of giving a person a Hispanic name, in the context of race, like a costume?” said Dra. Pontes. “If people are struggling with their identity and their names, why are we assigning them new ones?”

At the forefront of these changes is the aim of delivering an anti-racist curriculum. “Anti-racist means actively making choices and thinking about ways that, in daily interaction, racism is being identified, called out and worked against,” said Mrs. Durlin.


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