'I wanted to know about other ways to see life'
Around the time of a highly publicized walkout last May, as racial and political tensions swirled around Forest Grove High School, different groups of students came up with the same request: make the history of minority groups part of the official school curriculum.
The idea was that better understanding between students of different cultures might improve the school climate. If students couldn't actually step into the heads of their schoolmates and live their lives for a few days, they might at least learn enough to develop some compassion or to challenge long-held negative stereotypes.
Principal Karen O'Neill had the same idea and asked all FGHS teachers to revamp their units over the summer to include more culturally relevant material.
The school's Language Arts teachers embraced that plan.
English 3 teachers switched out some classics and brought in new works more relevant to racial, cultural and other identities. For example, they replaced the play "Our Town" by Thornton Wilder with a unit of short stories and poems written by authors of color, addressing a wide range of topics and experiences, according to English 3 honors teacher Megan Murtaugh.
"Language Arts has been trying to embed culture/gender identity perspectives for the past five years," said O'Neill, by adding culturally relevant short stories, poems, nonfiction, essays and news articles to the standard curriculum.
In addition, classics such as "To Kill a Mockingbird" are being taught in new ways, said teacher Dawn Nelson, who points her English 2 students to look beyond the discrimination in that 56-year-old story and consider what kinds of discrimination people face in today's society. Are some of those injustices still happening? Are there still wrongful convictions of African Americans? Disproportionate stopping and arresting and imprisonment?
Nelson also spent a good part of her summer creating a new, yearlong class: Exploring Culture and Identity.
Learning about other cultures
Nelson offers two sections of the class and both filled up for a total of 75 students, about 80 percent of whom are Latino, with white, black and Asian students filling out the other 20 percent.
"Ms. Nelson is such a great teacher is why I took it," said junior Kasia Heesacker, "but it turned out to be a really cool class."
Heesacker was also interested in learning about other cultures and the fascinating differences between people, an attraction she picked up from her dad.
Junior Marina Aranda took it partly because "I wanted to know about other ways to see life" and partly because she wanted to learn about her own culture, given that her fully assimilated parents haven't taught her much about her own Hispanic background.
The class has shown Aranda "where I come from and what I can celebrate."
One thing the students like is that Nelson lets them choose what books they want to read, providing them with a long list that includes stories featuring Latino, Jewish, African American, Native American, Chinese, Iranian and mixed-race characters.
Aranda is reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran," an autobiography by Azar Nafisi, about a group of Iranian women who read forbidden western classics.
Daniela Moro read "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, about an African-American woman who finds hidden strength after suffering horrible abuses.
Heesacker read "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" by Heidi Durrow about a mixed-race girl who struggles to adjust to her new home in an African-American community and "The Residue Years" by Mitchell Jackson, an autobiography about growing up in Portland's African-American community during the crack cocaine epidemic.
After their second book, they had to choose key quotes and analyze their importance to the overall story, using both drawings and words.
Some stereotypes seem to fit
The colorful literary analysis was one of several creative assignments Nelson has given them.
Another had them form pairs and make up a poem about their own culture, including stereotypes associated with it.
As they researched stereotypes, some seemed totally untrue, such as the notion that white people are smarter than minorities, said Heesacker, who paired up with Moro for the assignment.
Others seemed to fit well, such as a stereotype that Latinos love parties. The two girls laughed about that one.
The class also analyzed news articles about current events, including cases where African Americans have been mistreated by police and the criminal justice system. Aranda said she found it frustrating to read about such injustices.
Their analysis included a critique of the media and how some news outlets might present biased views, using sympathetic words to describe white criminals ("Oh this poor, college-educated, rich guy murdered because he had mental issues") versus a black criminal who is portrayed as an intrinsically bad "thug."
The class has inspired Aranda and Heesacker to start watching and reading the news more — something they never used to do.
Students have also:
n studied Native American legends, history and current events.
n investigated the lack of diversity in children's literature and written their own children's book, featuring their own experiences as a child.
n split into groups based on the gender they identified with and watched different documentaries — "Miss Representation" for the girls and "The Mask You Live In" for the boys — then discussed the different cultural perceptions of women and men, along with other gender issues.
Pride in identity key to success
When the class began last fall, Nelson said, "Nobody, including myself, really knew exactly what this would look like."
She has remained flexible with each session, taking the temperature of the students each day and changing assignments or lessons as necessary.
Sometimes when the class discussed racism, discrimination or how media and advertising play into those problems, the students got so discouraged that Nelson cut the lesson short in order to play videos of speakers who focus on empowerment and solutions, such as the Verna Myers talk on "How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them."
Nelson knows that "a good indicator of student success is having a strong sense of identity — and pride in that identity."
Perhaps even more important, the class gives students from very different backgrounds an opportunity to learn about each other "and to work with students that they may not otherwise work with," Nelson said. "I think it goes a long way to foster understanding, which is something that we desperately need right now."
COMING NEXT: The art of community building and how mandate gets mixed responses.