As the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education discussed changes to elementary and middle school social studies curriculum last night, the slave auction and poster incidents of the last school year were at the forefront of many board members and administrators’ minds.
Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum Susan Grierson told board members that District Supervisor of Social Studies Grades 9-12 Chris Preston had worked with five middle school social studies teachers to write the revised curriculum, consulting with Dr. Gayle Griffin of the local NAACP chapter.
The group reviewed the grades 6-8 social studies curriculum to integrate the New Jersey Amistad Curriculum into the course work, “as well as other resources including History Now and Stanford resources.” Grierson also said that revisions were “based on feedback from board members, from staff, from community members and the middle school social studies department.”
[According to the NJ Department of Education, “The Amistad Bill (A1301), which became law in 2002, calls on New Jersey schools to incorporate African-American history into their social studies curriculum. This legislation also created the Amistad Commission, a 23-member body charged with ensuring that African-American history, contributions and experiences are adequately taught in the state’s classrooms.” The Amistad curriculum calls on districts to infuse African-American history into the overall curriculum. More information on the Amistad Commission and the Amistad Curriculum can be found here: www.njamistadcurriculum.net.]
Grierson noted that the topic areas for each grade would remain the same.
Taking to the microphone, Dr. Gayle Griffin of the Oranges & Maplewood NAACP said that the middle school curriculum has now gone from a lack of inclusion of the Amistad Curriculum to now having “extensive references” to the NJ Amistad Curriculum.
“It’s important to note that the new curriculum does not rely on a single text book,” said Griffin. She said that the curriculum now had a greater “depth and breadth of American and world history” as well as “particular attention to dividing content into accurate portrayals of periods” and “analyzing and evaluating multiple texts.” Griffin said that the new 6-8 curriculum also prepares middle school students better for higher level social studies courses in the high school.
Griffin also noted, “Once the Board of Education adopts the curriculum,” the district would need to “ensure that quality teaching occurs. It is so, so critical that the teaching of the curriculum is ensured in every classrooms. If it’s not taught, it’s a waste of paper.”
She assured the board, “You have a quality product.”
Grierson said that the building principals will receive copies of the new curriculum next week to review before teacher professional development takes place the week before school starts. Professional development will also be ongoing throughout the year.
Grierson also said that Amistad Curriculum training had been offered to all staff and that one administrator and two staffers had performed the training this summer. Grierson said she was reaching out for more professional development.
Grierson said that a revamp of the K-5 social studies curriculum would happen this school year for implementation in the 2018/19 school year.
Meanwhile, the new middle school curriculum would be fully rolled out to parents at the as-yet-to-be-scheduled annual curriculum event sometime after back to school night. At that time, “parents [would] have the opportunity to meet the administrators for all the courses but in particular the highlight will be social studies.”
Board member Madhu Pai was particularly concerned about teacher professional development. Grierson agreed that it was paramount, particularly in light of events of 2016/17: “We learned last year the hard way [that] we really need to spell things out for our staff. Everything is very much laid out. I agree with you and Dr. Griffin as well. In the end it’s about lesson planning and implementation.” Grierson said administration will “watch very carefully going forward” concerning professional development.
“Learning the hard way” was a reference to two incidents last year which gained international press attention for the school district: a display of slave auction posters in one elementary school and a mock slave auction led by a substitute teacher in another elementary school.
Board member Johanna Wright expressed concern that the same curriculum in K-5 was in place “that we became international news with.” Wright said, “I’m still concerned about the context.” She called last year’s incidents “unconscionable” and said, “We haven’t addressed that at all. I hope we have made some adjustments.”
Grierson assured Wright that adjustments had been made and that the elementary social studies supervisor was reviewing a unit by unit overview for grades 3-5, paying particular attention to two units — one on slavery and one on immigration. “Emphasizing what not to cover will be very useful,” said Grierson.
Board member Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad also addressed the slave auction issue directly.