Educators: Racial incidents spur change in Wilton classrooms
WILTON — A protest this spring against police brutality following the death of George Floyd and a letter signed by hundreds of Wilton High School students and alumni has made an impact on how the district handles the topic of race in the classrooms.
“The homogeneity of Wilton unintentionally but systematically discourages students from exploring their racial and ethnic identities by depriving them of information and resources,” the students and former students who identified themselves as either minorities or people of color wrote in their letter.
“The lack of nuanced classroom discussion surrounding race, gender, and sexuality produces well-intentioned ignorance,” the letter continued, and urged administrators to take steps, including “changes in curriculum, hiring excellent diverse educators, and holding students who make publicly racist remarks accountable.”
Now the school district is on the brink of doing just that with a new high school course presented Thursday to the Board of Education. The course is called “Voices for Change: America in the 21st Century” and it was introduced by high school English teachers Heather DeLude and Michelle Cota. If approved, it would be offered next fall.
Students taking the course would explore social issues through literature, social-emotional learning, and student advocacy. The course, Cota said, has been in development for two years, but the letter from students and alumni moved it to the front burner.
“This is an opportunity for students to engage in very immediate events — things happening every day or every week,” Cota said.
Aspects of the course include examining protests as essential to a functional democracy, the historical nature of injustice, the role of mass media, and the power of symbols. The course, the teachers said, would encourage students to address the social climate of their school, community and country while exploring how to become “agents of change.”
The district, they pointed out, has struggled with incidents of prejudice and bigotry, including the drawing of swastikas on school property and chants perceived as racist at athletic events.
The course would also address how the COVID-19 pandemic affects people of color, the disabled and those economically at risk.
“We see it as a course that’s fairly fluid depending on what’s happening in the world and the country that can engage students in that discussion,” Cota said. Many other schools in Wilton’s District Reference Group and colleges offer similar courses, she said.
Proposed reading material includes books such as “Just Mercy” and “The Hate U Give” for a unit on “Being Black in America;” “Maid,” for a unit on economic disenfranchisement; and “The 57 Bus” and “The Laramie Project” for a unit on acceptance of religion, ethnicity and sexual orientation in America.
DeLude said students have said they want relevant and new literature. “Everything is 21st century,” she said. “It’s highly relevant.”
Board member Glenn Hemmerle was an enthusiastic supporter of the course, but said, “If I have a concern it’s to keep it incredibly broad. We need to offer all perspectives, we have to give it a broad enough base to cover all different views and let the students decide for themselves what direction they want to go in. It’s got to be the full spectrum of what’s going on in the world.”
Cota said the course is intended to give students the opportunity to engage in civil discourse.
“It’s important for students to learn how to engage in conversations where they listen to each other with differing opinions and not discredit them,” she said.
“We’re not preparing children for only a life in Wilton,” she added. From immigration, religious and economic diversity “we want to prepare them for life that goes beyond the ZIP code in which they live,” he said.
The course will be taught according to standards set by the nonprofit organization Teaching Tolerance for Social Justice that emphasize identity, diversity, justice and action.
Although the board did not vote on approving the course, the consensus appeared positive. Further discussion and a vote were reserved for the board’s next meeting.