When Seattle Public Schools superintendent José Banda sent out a letter last Friday that ordered the temporarily suspended race and gender curricula at the Center School to be reinstated, he offered four specific recommendations that were to be implemented "as soon as possible."
The first was to stop using a part of the curriculum called "Courageous Conversations," which had been adapted by the teacher of the class, Jon Greenberg, from a staff training. The training was convened and paid for by the district and led by Glenn Singleton, who is the author of this model for discussion and teaches it nationwide. It's not just a lesson or two, but a sort of framework for how to have difficult discussions about race, and it sets out rules to keep the discussion fair and honest and helpful. Participants are asked to agree to stay engaged with the discussion, to expect to experience some discomfort, to "speak your truth," and to expect and accept a lack of closure on such a complex and charged topic.
At the Seattle Education Association's representative assembly meeting last night, they voted "overwhelmingly," according to union president Jonathan Knapp, to encourage the district to remove that particular restriction. "Academic freedom is an important consideration," says Knapp, and teachers need to be allowed to "make professional judgments about what they should be teaching." He also said the union's position isn't actually that far from the district's—the district says this training was aimed at adults and is therefore age inappropriate. But the Center School is "not teaching it to kids, they’re teaching it to seniors," Knapp says—some of them are legal adults, some of them are just months away. They're expected to be preparing for the adult world of college and work. He says he understands "it's tough for the district" when they get a parent complaint, but that there haven't been complaints in the past, and that with any challenging curriculum, "eventually you’re gonna come up with a complaint or two."
I asked him if he thought it was funny that in the same set of recommendations, Banda said the syllabus had to be resubmitted to the College Board for AP approval—to make sure it was being taught at the college level. "We grasped that irony," laughed Knapp. The district thinks the discussions on race shouldn't be taught at an adult level, but the English lessons should be.
Greenberg, for his part, says he "objects" to the ban on lessons using the Courageous Conversations framework. "They are age-appropriate for seniors in a college-prep school," he says. Students I spoke with on Friday were of the same mind. School district spokeswoman Teresa Wippel maintains, via e-mail: "The Courageous Conversations model was intended for staff training. The specific intent of that training was not to use the model for students in the classroom."