As a graduating college student, I’m at a time in my life where I am constantly reflecting on my childhood and life thus far. I often am thinking back, grateful for the instilled values of education and learning my parents and life created. I grew up in the upper-middle-class, majority-white town of Farmington, CT, known for its schools and friendliness to families. I never questioned my education. School was easy for me, and I enjoyed it. It was not until I reached college that I wondered to what extent I was the product of Farmington. My education feels like it was incomplete and mislead- ing, as it is in so many schools.
There are countless experiences I now look back on and question. There may not have been any intention to be racist, culturally appropriate, or insensitive, but that was absolutely the outcome. Students learn a hegemonic perspective of Ameri- ca. They learn the good side, the side that white males have written, and we are not taught to question that. Something as simple as a teacher pointing out the author of our textbook would have perhaps led me to have a lightbulb go off about the problematic nature of learning today.
Our world, and specifically the United States, is facing various challenges and crises. Knowing where to start and what to work on is a daunting task that can sometimes feel overwhelming and pessimistic. I started with three interests—the criminal justice system, policing, and education. As I looked further into how these problems can be corrected, I focused on curriculum and creative teaching in schools.
The Criminal Justice System
As of March 2020, the American criminal justice system holds almost 2.3 million people in 1,833 state prisons, 110 federal prisons, 1,772 juvenile correctional facilities, 3,134 local jails, 218 immigration detention centers, and 80 Indian Country jails.1 There are also other places people are detained, like military prisons, civil commitment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and prisons in U.S. territories. The scale of incarceration is now nearly eight times the historical average and the highest in the world.
In addition to the massively high numbers, the prison system has enormous social and economic disparities, and these disparities follow ex-cons throughout their lives. It becomes in- intergenerational, interfamilial, and yet invisible. The invisible—ignored and not discussed—institutionalized inequality has renewed and amplified ace and class disadvantages. As of 2010, African Americans were seven times more likely to be in prison or jail than whites.2 Serving time in prison or jail diminishes social and economic opportunities.
Northampton County jail presents several issues. There are disparities with gender in the jails, with correctional officers, mishaps with medication, misplacements of women, mental health concerns, and lacking reentry programs. Mealtimes for women are incredibly odd—they have breakfast as early as four AM, lunch at 10 AM, and dinner at three PM. Mental health in jails is also a concern because jails are not designed to accommodate or treat mental health problems. Some inmates would be better served in a rehabilitation program, outpatient therapy, or an inpatient psychiatric facility. The United States has been “reforming” the criminal justice system for decades. Yet, there remain widespread racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequities, as well lacking programs and the fulfillment of necessities within jails. According to one person who has worked within the prison, the jail is there to “monitor, not to help or improve” inmates’ mental health. Northampton county jail has no effective trauma-informed practices, and there is an unbelievably tedious process for grants and funding for any mental health programs.
Lehigh and Northampton Counties have implemented programs. In addition, certain programs like Leaving Jail exist. However, they are not being properly executed and are therefore ineffective.
The Lehigh Valley Justice Institute promotes a reimagined criminal justice system, one that is equitable and fair for all. LVJI is a newer organization, which is in the research phase of its three-step process. Over the next two to three years, they will be doing a deep dive study of criminal justice systems in Lehigh Valley and Northampton County. They plan to investigate probation, parole, reentry programs and conduct in-person visits and interviews with incarcerated people. One of their committees is dedicated to researching, developing policy, and advocating for a no cash bail. Cash bails have been compared to the criminalization of poverty.
Schools and Values – Based Learning
High and rising inequality is a pressing economic and societal issue in the United States. Our education system is supposed to compensate for these inequities and provide children with a more lev- el playing field. However, this is not the case. Social class is a predominant factor in determining the educational success of children. Researchers have determined that performance gaps take root in the early years of life and then fail to narrow in the following years.3 Thus far, we have been unable to minimize the social-class-based skills gaps.
What is the fundamental purpose of a school? Is it to create workers? Is it to develop active citizens, build character, and foster personal achievement? Of course, we would hope this is the case; however, schools often have a ranking or tracking system that fosters competition and creates increased amounts of stress and pressure on students. Standardized testing is more in line with a mission to create workers and rank students.
School districts compete with each other as well. Success is based on numbers—who has the best test scores, the most graduates, the most students meet- ing competence standards on state tests, etc. Schools and students are evaluated based on results in math, literacy, and science. This practice—inherently deemphasizes the arts, social studies, mental health, and free time.
Although schools do not often state that their mission is to create successful workers for a capitalist system, their practices often do just that. If a school’s mission is to help students become active citizens and follow their passions, the organization and curriculum would need to change. Unfortunately, the government sets standards and requires students to take standardized tests. The Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to have students tested in reading and math once a year in grades three through eight and once in high school.4 States also have
to publicly report test results and other measures of student achievement and school success. If a school does not meet the state’s standards, penalties are introduced. Ultimately, test scores are measured by scores on tests.
I believe that numbers and politicians have hijacked our education system. Education should help students grow academically and socially. Many argue here that the purpose should be to “help grow American citizens”—however, in today’s society, a citizen is hard to define. What does it mean to be an American citizen? The past decade has shed light on the ugly side of America—racist and uneducated on our nation’s history—and its deeply embedded roots. What do we want for our children?
This is where a values-based education becomes that much more critical. A school’s values should be based around growing educated, anti-racist, kind, hard-working, thoughtful, empathetic human beings. Of course, this list is not all-inclusive. Ask not “how successful is this student/school” and instead, “how is this student/school successful?”
Bethlehem Area School District
I chose to look at this school district due to my proximity to it and its unique demographics, with minority enrollment in the high schools of 55%. The Bethlehem Area School District [BASD] includes two high schools – Liberty and Freedom.
BASD’s mission statement states:
“The Bethlehem Area School District, in partnership with the home and community, is committed to providing a safe and supportive environment in which each student will attain the knowledge, skills, and attitudes necessary to become a productive citizen and life-long learner in our technologically demanding and culturally diverse society.”
It goes on to say:
“The job of the Bethlehem Area School District is to graduate students who are college and career-ready… The 21st Century high school is about more than just the acquisition of credits. Students should begin planning for their post-secondary success even before they enter high school.”
These two statements seem to contradict each other. BASD recognizes the value of building productive citizens, but they continue to place a considerable emphasis on numerical values and success rates. Many students graduating college still do not have a clear career pathway, and that is okay—career paths can be nonlinear. However, the idea that students should be planning for their future before they are 14 years old seems extreme and privileged.
According to the BASD program of studies, they are working hard to move beyond standardized test scores. At this point, however, they still hold great importance. This document lists six factors to measure success:
- % Proficient / Advanced on PSSA/ Keystone Exams
- Meeting Annual growth Expectations ( P VA A S )
- English Language Proficiency
- Graduation Rate
- Career Standards / Readiness
- Chronic Absenteeism
This document goes over extensive information, from course description to community service requirements
and career exploration timelines. BASD has excellent ideas, but implementing anything new can take a long time. The United States’ culture needs a change, which of course, is a sweeping statement. It is hard to say how that can happen and who needs to do what; however, I believe that one way this can begin is through education and a change in curriculum. The curriculum is one way to spearhead a generational shift in people’s thinking and feel about various topics. Currently, despite building productive citizens, public schools are failing their students and the global world. Even a forward-thinking district like Bethlehem is still tied to those six factors that are supposed to measure success.
Proposal for Change
In an ideal world, the education system in the United States would be completely reworked. However, in a realistic world, we can start fixing our schools from the inside out. Administrators, school boards, and communities all play crucial roles in the development of their schools. The hiring process for teachers, the expectations and goals for teachers, the accepted curriculum, and the lack of creativity are all changeable factors.
Where can we start? How can we implement change for our children? Creativity in the classroom is vital. With-
in the existing curriculum standards, teachers can use various pose questions, raise awareness, and help their students grow into global citizens with an understanding of inequities, privilege, and the need for a cultural shift. For example, in an art class teachers can propose a project involving social justice, directing their students to create a work depicting an important historical (or contemporary) figure and write an artist statement reflecting their research and thoughts. In English classes, teachers can have students read and reflect on books on thought-provoking topics instead of the common Of Mice and Men and Lord of the Flies. Independent reading and re- ports could focus on social justice topics. In history classes, use books that are not from hegemonic perspectives. Geography courses could trace First American history and the impacts of colonialism. Music classes can intentionally choose to use arrangements and instruments from other cultures. Gym classes can teach more than just the box step, and instead, go through dance in a cultural manner, learning its origins and meaning. This could be done in various ways: videos, bringing a local community member to demonstrate, or using students from other cultures.
“In an ideal world, the education system in the United States would be completely reworked. However, in a realistic world, we can start fixing our schools from the inside out.”ADD CITATION
There are countless ways
different subjects can honor different cultures and teach students from a global perspective. In addition, there are ways to teach within the standards if we just employ creativity and a bit more effort.
Based on my public school education, I know that there are gaps and places that creative curriculum can fit into. There were independent research projects, days where we watched movies, homeroom periods, and service projects, to name just a few. School districts, ad- administrators, and teachers can implement creativity into the classroom to enrich the education of their students. Why aren’t more of them doing this today?
Implentation of Ideas
As I thought about my experiences in education, I began to wonder how to open up questions about historical narratives, curriculum, and students’ education. The education system has seen many changes in the last 50 years — but not much has changed in terms of what they teach. Although I cannot change the curriculum or change the way we approach education as a nation, I can question and start small. I can present a problem to students outside of their curriculum mandates and see how they respond. A project can open their eyes to experiential learning, al- lowing them to craft their ideas and way to learn. I have created several project proposals for high school students, all formed around an effort to promote and campaign for change, social or political.
My ultimate goal and vision would be to have every high school student complete projects such as these. Howev- er, it may start as a couple of passionate students. In public schools, there is usually time towards the end of the year. AP exams typically are given in early May, and other exams are generally closer to the end of the year. Either way, there is some flexibility. These last few weeks are usually filled with movies, final projects, and teachers have to create something for the students to do. The projects I have designed are aimed to get students to think about their learning, why they are learning- ing it, and how it is constructed. They are examples, and students and teachers can use them as a guide to create their own.
Project #1 – Designed for Activisim
As a high school student, you’ve most likely learned some history of the United States, how to solve for x, and how to write a solid essay. Your teachers most likely dictated this, and their teachers, and federal standards. In this project, you will determine your learning. Choose what you want to learn more about, and then create a service project dedicated to a local social justice issue. For example, you could look into a problematic monument that’s still standing, gentrification, food deserts, access to community sports fields, and more—find something that you are passionate about and work to create a solution. The goal is to help you understand your position in your community, raise awareness, and make a change. The final project could be an art project, a piece of writing in any form, music, a short film—your choice. Be creative!
Essential Understanding: What steps can help resolve a current social issue in your community?
Project #2: Focus on US History
Have you ever wondered about the historical narrative you were taught and who constructed the class, determined the textbooks to use, the movies to watch, etc.? Why did you learn about the Marshall Plan, but not the Tulsa massacre or the United States government’s coups orchestrated throughout Latin Ameri- ca? This project is designed to help you determine what your course did not cover in US History, and then and think about what you learned that wasn’t taught in the regular class? Then create a presentation for the Board of Education explain- ing the event’s history, who was affected, the main players (i.e., countries, political leaders), the aftermath, and why it may not have been included in the curriculum. What was the role of the Implementation of Ideas 5 US government? What steps did US actors take at the time? How has the government responded to or mitigated the situation since? How has this affected communities and people?
Essential Understanding: How is your historical narrative of the United States distorted? Why are things the way they are?
Project #3: Incorporating the Criminal Justice System
Many Lehigh Valley students are affected by the criminal justice system, whether directly or indirectly. In this project, you’ll have the opportunity to learn about the experiences of formerly incarcerated women through a film about inmates in Northampton County jail and a program called The Journey Home that gathers their stories, their writing, and their art. At the end of the program, you will create a reflection piece to convey what you have learned, what you are still interested in, and questions you may have.
Proposal #4: An Ideal World With Infinite Resources
There is more to the United States than most people realize. We often think we have to travel outside our country to experience other cultures and their languages and art. However, there are 350 languages spoken in the US,6 11 distinct cultures (which function as their nations) in North America, and five regions.7 As defined by author and journalist Colin Woodward, the nations of North America are the left coast, the far west, el Norte, the Midlands, the Greater Appalachia, the deep south, Tidewater, New Netherland, Yankeedom, First Nation, and New France.
In a one to two-week program, high school students will have the opportunity to work with Borderlands Produce Rescue, an organization dedicated to reducing food waste on the Arizona-Mexico border. While students are there, they will see the town’s intersection with the bordering country of Mexico. They will also have the opportunity to visit the border, seeing the juxtaposition of barbed wire intertwined with handmade paper airplanes. This opportunity is most likely only possible in a private institution or with grant and scholarship possibilities.
To make this project more realistic and accessible, it could be done without traveling to Borderlands. Instead, students could raise money for the organization, zoom with the leaders, and learn about the project through a research project.
Resources for High School Classrooms
In addition to the work Sarah Bender completed in the Summer of 2020,8
I have compiled additional resources specifically for high school students. Below is a list of books, movies, and other resources that helped me educate myself and grow—not only as a student but also as a human being. I chose these books and movies because they directly confront history. In addition, they offer various perspectives that deal with several critical issues—race and equity matters, civil rights and justice issues, and mental health concerns. Although not all-encompassing, I believe these resources provide a solid jumping-off point for educators, students, administrators, and readers.
Keep in mind that some of these resources have been criticized in different ways. As a learner, read and watch with
a critical eye. Ask why they are created and for whom, and try to understand the multiple perspectives in each.
- ADD LINK TO RESOURCES