“Our school needs to do a better job with exposing people to diversity and teaching them that history in America isn’t all rosy,” said a high school student recently, in a Zoom call with his peers and Darien school teachers.

The 30-minute call, which included teens and teachers from the Darien schools’ history and English departments, was initiated by Class of 2020 graduate Gray Roedel, 18, in an effort to expose young people in town to more diverse cultures and backgrounds.

Teachers on the call were: Keith Keeler, social studies department coordinator for 6-12 grade; Francis Janosco, 6-12 English department coordinator; Mark Stepsis, history; and Jennifer Ladd, history teacher.

Students were Charlotte Domittner; Darien High School graduate; Iyanna Green, rising senior; Karys Webb, rising junior; and Osaru Uwa-Omede, rising junior.

On the call, a teacher said the American history curriculum at Darien High School “is ripe for a re-examination.”

Black History Month

Many topics were addressed on the call, one of which is Black History Month. One student said Black history shouldn’t just be talked about in one month.

“This year, we talked about black history for only a week,” the student said. “It’s upsetting. Infusing black history into the year-round curriculum is very important, and students should learn about the accomplishments and experiences of Black people all year.”

A teacher said every year Black History Month happens a little bit differently at the high school.

“This year, the entire school basically did one thing on one day and had one lesson, and that was pretty much it,” the teacher said.

A student suggested an effective way to celebrate Black History month is to acknowledge it throughout the year with reading books by Black authors and reading the works of black historical figures.

Also, another student said to take Black History Month a step further and “Do extra things, like events and special presentations.”

Modern day

Many students on the call expressed a preference to cover modern day Black figures as opposed to ones from the past.

There are a number of ways to address that, said a teacher, one of which is to move the curriculum “a little bit so that you’re not starting at the very beginning,” the teacher said.

“When we are starting so far back in American history, it takes us that much longer to step forward,” the teacher said.

One suggestion was when teachers cover a topic in history, such as slavery, the civil rights movement or reconstruction, they should pause and spend a week talking about what racism looks like today.

A teacher said eighth graders should already have learned American history. “Why are we going over that same ground again? If you spend time on the history you’re never going to get to the modern day stuff,” the teacher said.

However, another teacher pointed out that American history is still important to know and understand.

“There are many groups in American history that systemically have been put down and oppressed,” the teacher said. “It’s a very difficult dilemma because you’re trying to bring the past alive. You’re trying to show how the modern situation is derived from events in the past, so it would be a shame to push all of history aside so do contemporary events.”

The Black experience

One student said the school doesn’t assign a lot of books or articles that are written from Black peoples’ perspectives, telling their experience.

Another student said within the high school curriculum, there is a lot of focus a lot on classics like Jane Eyre, Black Beauty or Lord of the Flies, “but I think that we could incorporate more literature written by the black community. That would give us a different perspective on the world. We should read literary criticism from different lenses.”

Additionally, a student said while speaking about authors like Frederick Douglas is OK, “it’s more important to talk about Malcolm X and the Black Panthers Party, and all these other civil rights activists.”

Uncomfortable conversations

A teacher asked how often do teachers delve into uncomfortable, controversial topics as opposed to “the safe stuff?”

“If something happened 150 years ago, it’s probably pretty safe to talk about, but things that are in the news today are not going to have universal agreement,” the teacher said. “So do we avoid those things just to play it safe? If so, is that really good education?

A teacher spoke about author Toni Morrison, and said all of her books include scenes that lead to very uncomfortable conversations.

However, the teacher said while some of Morrison’s work puts the black experience “front and center,” there is a great deal of focus on her language, which might get in the way of interpreting her themes.

“Sometimes the unit is so focused on the artistry of her language that maybe we don’t get at some of the bigger issues that lie behind it,” the teacher said.

Additionally, according to a student, there should be more of a focus on those in the Black community doing positive things.

“I want to shy away from books that are really negative,” said a student. “I really just want more positivity in the Black community and about black history in general because it’s not always negative.”

The big picture

When teaching racial diversity, a teacher said that teachers in general need to be looking at how they’re pulling “different threads of experiences and understandings of what life is like at different times in American history and making it relevant.”

They thanked the students on the call for giving their feedback and sharing their thoughts.

“Your voices are certainly important in that, and I appreciate you doing this and raising these issues for us to wrestle with and to try to improve and make sure that we give students the best quality experience they can as they go through the school system,” a teacher said.