Companion texts from the Juneau School District’s new Reading Wonders curriculum that were criticized for their sugarcoated portrayal of Native experiences have been replaced, the school district announced.
Teacher Shgen George had an emotional reaction when she discovered new books in her classroom depicting a young Native American girl at a boarding school and a young Native American boy removed from his home, walking the Trail of Tears.
“My immediate reaction was I just felt so trivialized,” George said last year during a meeting of a challenge committee tasked with forwarding a recommendation to the superintendent.
After a number of charged meetings, Superintendent Mark Miller announced on Nov. 21 that JSD would remove the challenged texts: “The Visit,” “History Detectives,” “Our Teacher the Hero” and “Continuing On.”
“It is my belief that we can do better,” Miller told a crowd of concerned citizens and teachers who met at Zach Gordon Youth Center. “The time that a teacher has with his or her students is limited and needs to be honored, respected and leveraged. … Our students deserve better.”
The school district partnered with local Alaska Native heritage organizations to replace the texts. A committee was formed of JSD teachers and administrators, as well as representatives of Goldbelt Heritage Foundation and the Sealaska Heritage Institute.
Goldbelt Heritage Foundation has commissioned the writing and publication of localized texts with storylines similar to the replaced texts.
In the meantime, the resource committee has recommended the use of Nicola I. Campbell’s “Shin-Chi’s Canoe,” which tells the story of a young First Nations boy in Canada and his boarding school experience, a narrative committee members agreed came closest to Alaska Native experiences, told in a manner appropriate for fourth-grade readers.
“I want to thank everyone who served on the committee,” said Ted Wilson, Director of Teaching and Learning Support, who facilitated the challenge to the Reading Wonders texts. “Members were very thoughtful in their study of the books and in their debate regarding appropriateness of each text for a fourth grade audience. Classroom teachers and students will soon have a new cultural resource in ‘Shin-Chi’s Canoe’ to use during their regular reading lesson.”
In addition to “Shin-Chi’s Canoe,” the committee considered other texts and will add three items to school libraries: “Not My Girl” and “When I Was Eight” by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton and “My Name is SEEPEETZA” by Shirley Sterling.
“The district has the opportunity to stand up for the Native community,” George said in the final challenge committee meeting, and the steps the district has made in replacing the texts have been well received by the teachers and community members who expressed concern.
Additionally, Superintendent Miller said in November that the school district has “put pieces in place for newer adoptions, to make sure we use the equity rubric, to make sure we look at all materials before we order (curriculum) and put it in the classrooms,” indicating such situations may be avoided in the future.
• Contact reporter Melissa Griffiths at firstname.lastname@example.org.