Chautauqua works to teach about racism and other sensitive topics
By Mead Gill, Copy & Online Editor
The debate over young children’s exposure to topics of racism, sexism, and homophobia has only become more heated in the past year. Parents, teachers, and community members alike have expressed their own opinions on the matter, arguing over how much their elementary school students should be exposed to the darker sides of society through their schooling. How is Chautauqua Elementary School educating its pupils on such heavy topics?
The current administration at Chautauqua has worked to adopt a new curriculum, integrating discussions on race into the classroom setting.
“[The curriculum] is very intentional about the books that our students are reading and the reflective questions they ask,” Chautauqua principal Rebecca Goertzel said. “We chose to… adopt a curriculum with a racial equity lens with that intent.”
CONVERSE. The high school’s original equity team poses during a meeting last year. Chautauqua adopts a new curriculum to teach young students about racism and inequality.
Like many members of the district, Goertzel recognizes that the current curriculum covering racism leaves much to be desired.
“I think there’s work to be done in our school in terms of how we integrate racial justice, social justice, and equity into our curriculum intentionally,” Goertzel said. “We need to look at it from a lens of more intentional teaching throughout the grades. And that has not been done thoroughly enough.”
What has made the discussion of racism and the BLM movement increasingly difficult to have in classrooms is the debate over whether or not race is a political issue. District employees are discouraged to express personal political ideologies to students. However, the line is blurred between expressing political opinions and supporting fundamental human rights.
“Black lives do matter― that’s a fact. All lives matter is also a fact. The problem is that the statements have become political,” Goertzel said.
“I have worn a Black Lives Matter t-shirt myself [during] material pick-up when parents were coming by. But that’s on my own body. I can wear a political statement on my own clothing.”
From the teaching perspective, fifth grade teacher Jen Lindsay has done her best to integrate Black authors and racial discussion into her classroom experience. Lindsay is also leader of the equity team at Chautauqua, which is working to expand the current curriculum covering racism and race in general.
“I think it’s important when [students] have stuff on their mind to be able to talk about it. And then to… explain how they crossed the line and why,” Lindsay said. “It’s not a taboo topic in my class.”
It is difficult to know what needs to be taught at the fifth grade level. Every family exposes their children differently on sensitive topics, so every student seems to have a different perspective.
“We’ve had the Black Lives Matter protests all summer, and some kids in fifth grade are really tuned into that [while] others are not at all. What am I supposed to talk about? What am I not supposed to talk about?” Lindsay said.
Lindsay, among other teachers, have had to address parental concerns over racial education at Chautauqua. Island writer, activist, and mother of two Shauna Ahern has her own opinions on her children being taught “taboo” topics.
“If there is any kind of conversation about racism, it’s very milk washed.” Ahern said. “There’s the feeling that as long as we say Martin Luther King is great, we’re talking about racism as if it existed in the past.”
Both of Ahern’s children are a part of the Vashon School District; her 12-year-old daughter is white, while her six-year-old son is Black. Her experiences parenting a young African-American child has given her first-hand perspective on how racism should be taught.
“We definitely need to start talking to kids really early about racism, because anyone who is Black, Asian, Latino, Latinx, Native American… they are learning about it from the time they’re able to be aware,” Ahern said.
Ahern, among other parents, has involved herself with the racial equity team at Chautauqua. Many members are concerned that having a majority-white student body makes students of color feel like outsiders and shelters students from the reality of racism.
A recent editorial published in The Beachcomber has sparked a conversation over Vashon’s privilege as a low-diversity community. The editorial was written by Chautauqua student Jaqueline Webely, protesting the recent removal of macaroni and cheese from the Hardware Store’s menu, vowing to protest outside the restaurant if the meal was not readded to the menu. Many viewed the editorial as cute, while others as an example of Vashon’s over sheltered youth.
“Look at it both ways. You’re wasting time advocating for mac and cheese, but on the other hand… you’re raising activists. Maybe it’s macaroni cheese today, but tomorrow it’s… social justice.” Goertzel said.
With much work to do, Chautauqua’s teachers and parents are working hard to improve upon the teaching of racism and other sensitive topics at school.
“Do we have an anti-racist pre-K through five curriculum? No, we don’t. Do I think we should? Yeah, because I think it would… develop a better lens for teaching.” Lindsay said.