When Conservatives Attack Good Curriculum

Be wary of collateral damage

Last summer, the Moms for Liberty chapter in Williamson County, TN, made a lot of noise about the English Language Arts curriculum Wit & Wisdom. They claimed that the lessons taught Critical Race Theory and were age-inappropriate for students. Similarly, Chris Rufo recently drew attention to parents in Tennessee disparaging the same curriculum for the same reason.

The common thread amongst the arguments against Wit & Wisdom during public comment during the school board meeting on June 21, 2021, was that the lessons were dark, inappropriate for the ages of the children, and made white students feel bad. One of the examples was an excerpt from the book “The Buffalo Are Back,” which tells the story of how native bison were nearly made extinct in the 19th century as part of a module on the American West. The excerpt explained how the American government broke treaties with the Indians, sold their lands, and drove herds of buffalo off cliffs.

The speaker then went on to explain an activity that goes along with the text in which students identify how different people, including American Indians, the government, settlers, and President Theodore Roosevelt, impacted the prairie in a good and bad way. The Moms for Liberty representative ended her statement by asking “Who do you think will be sorted out as bad out of those choices?”.

This particular comment caught my attention because I teach second grade in Williamson County Schools and had taught this exact lesson arc during the fall of 2020. I was immediately caught off guard at how incomplete the activity was portrayed. In the lessons, the entire story tells of how, yes, the buffalo were nearly brought to extinction, but it doesn’t stop there. When you look at the text as a whole, you see the redemption of the bison, primarily by President Theodore Roosevelt, naturalist W.T. Hornaday, and the government during and after the Dust Bowl. When I taught this lesson, my students were quick to recognize that the government had both a positive and a negative impact on the prairie.

My students responded very well to this text. The story opens with the dismal state of the bison in the mid-1800s. My students immediately were concerned as they were lovers of animals as most kids are. I quickly reassured them that this story has a happy ending. My students recognized the injustice (a word we discussed in detail later in the year) of the treatment of the bison and the American Indians by the American government and the settlers. Concerns of age-appropriateness are completely unfounded with this text. When we limit our students as Moms for Liberty was calling for, we do not open their eyes to the rich knowledge available and stunt their growth as humans.

As the school year progressed, my students and I explored the idea of injustice through our study of the Civil Rights movement. We read books about Ruby Bridges, Martin Luther King, Jr, and the Mendez family. The Wit & Wisdom lessons provided opportunities for class discussions about how wrong it was for people to be treated differently based on the color of their skin. My school is diverse with a true mix of cultural backgrounds from across the world. My students were able to connect to Ruby Bridges and Sylvia Mendez and imagine themselves in their shoes. The lessons were thought-provoking and written in an age-appropriate way. 

Moreover, the Wit & Wisdom curriculum is one of few knowledge-building curriculums available to schools and districts. When combined with strong foundational skills instruction, it can launch the reading abilities of students far above what we are used to seeing (consider the NAEP scores of the last two decades). Tennessee has already seen improvements in reading scores across the state, due in part to the state-wide literacy initiative based on the Science of Reading. 

In raising these concerns, Moms for Liberty alienated people like me who likely share their same values and positions. I have seen what is happening in the education system and believe Moms for Liberty is right to call out CRT propaganda and indoctrination when it actually exists. There are countless examples of propaganda passing as instruction in American schools. Wit and Wisdom is not such an example. In trying to rid schools of political indoctrination, we must be wary of collateral damage, accidentally savaging good instruction and curriculum in our efforts.

Penny Barnes

The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chalkboard Review team.

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