Warren County Public Schools is implementing a new English language arts curriculum that explores social justice themes, including human rights and how students can affect societal change, a move that has drawn praise from some parents and questions from others.
The new Expeditionary Learning curriculum is being used in some capacity in several of the district’s elementary schools, including Warren, Lost River, Rich Pond, Jody Richards, Plano, Natcher, Alvaton, North Warren, Oakland, Bristow and Richardsville elementary schools.
For fifth grade students, as an example, the curriculum features academic modules that ask students to “consider the factors that contribute to the success of professional athletes as leaders of social change,” according to its website. Recommended fifth-grade texts include Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “Esperanza Rising,” an award-winning novel that centers on the experience of a migrant Mexican girl who moves to California during the Great Depression.
Laura Hudson, who directs instruction for the district’s secondary schools, said the curriculum is not just aligned with Kentucky’s evolving state academic standards but also aims to build solidarity and empathy among students as a focus.
“It’s completely tuned into the research that shows us that social-emotional learning and development is intrinsically tied to academic development,” Hudson told the Daily News in an interview earlier this month. “ … When you do that, kids feel safer around each other to voice their opinions, to make mistakes, which is so important to learning.”
The curriculum stresses critical thinking and writing, as well as the leadership values needed to foster respectful, inclusive cultures.
Expeditionary Learning Education was formed in 1991 out of a partnership between the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Outward Bound, a nonprofit that aims to build leadership skills, environmental and social responsibility among students, according to the organization’s stated outcomes.
“I think the inclusivity of the text choices is what has probably drawn parents’ attention,” Hudson said of the curriculum.
During a school board meeting in November, two WCPS parents praised the rigor and inclusivity of the curriculum. Taiwanna Bradford said she appreciated that her fifth grade student was being challenged with complex reading assignments and was “learning how to critically think.”
“My son is learning how to read a complex text, meaning one read may not be enough … Each read might have a different purpose for the reading, and because he’s re-reading text, he’s becoming much more attentive to details. He’s learning how to write thorough responses to open-ended questions,” using textual evidence and analysis, Bradford told the Warren County Board of Education Nov. 19. “He’s learning how to discuss texts with his classmates and how to respectfully agree and disagree with them. He’s also learning that it’s OK to change his mind when presented with new information. He is learning that, even while reading fiction, historical context is important in order to truly understand a character’s plight.”
Her son’s experience reading “Esperanza Rising” has spurred conversations that are “rich and go beyond simply restating the plot,” Bradford said.
Dectric Jones, the parent of a fifth grade student, echoed Bradford’s comments.
“I’m in total agreement with the EL curriculum and what it has provided for my child,” Jones said, adding it has instilled an excitement for reading in his daughter.
It also had provided her with insights into other cultural backgrounds, he said.
“My daughter runs in and that’s the first thing that she wants to talk about, what she’s learning in this classroom setting, which includes engagement and sharing thoughts and things about other people’s lives,” Jones said. “She’s learned so much.”
Along with positive reviews, the new curriculum addition has also raised questions or concerns among some parents.
Hudson said WCPS has welcomed parent engagement.
“I think it’s because the students are exposed to more current events, and so they’re asking questions about current events,” Hudson said. “They’re asking questions about current events, and in this current climate, then parents are like ‘Why are you asking that question? What’s coming up? What will become of this curriculum? Where is it headed?’ ”
Hudson said some parents have asked about students studying the Universal Declaration of Human Rights over the American Bill of Rights or a module that prompts students to explore how athletes have often been at the forefront of social change, using baseball player Jackie Robinson as a given example.
Hudson said WCPS has used those questions as opportunities to provide more context (that the curriculum does, in fact, incorporate the American Bill of Rights) or to modify assignment prompts (allowing students to research any person who led social change, not just an athlete).
For their part, Bradford and Jones encouraged critics to keep an open mind.
“There are concerns I guess in regards to materials used, the content being taught,” Bradford said. “I believe it’s important that all voices are heard in this matter.”
Of “Esperanza Rising” and any critics the novel might have, Jones said: “I think that they really should read the book before they just make assumptions.”