Grade 10 English Curriculum Being Evaluated Following Criticism and Indoctrination Accusations


photo courtesy of Erik Anderson

Edina community members attend a school board meeting where parents speak on the Grade 10 English curriculum, Feb. 26.

Isha Konety, staff writer

Over the past few months, Edina High School has faced criticism from parents and various news organizations over the perceived “liberal indoctrination” of students and marginalization of conservative students within the Edina Schools system. This tension culminated most notably in the lawsuit brought against the district by the EHS Young Conservatives Club, but the controversy has also resulted in the creation of various discussion groups to address community concerns. Many members of right wing media—such as Fox News, Breitbart, and the Minnesota think tank the Center of the American Experiment—have condemned the school’s teaching practices, educational outcomes, school culture, and, most specifically, its 10th grade English curriculum.

The Pre-AP 10 English curriculum has come under scrutiny because of its heavy focus on colonization and cultural diversity. The class pushes students to step out of their comfort zone by reading books from multiple genres and analyzing them through various critical lenses relating to race, class, and gender. Although the teachers’ class structures are not identical, many students are required to read books such as Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi, The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow, and Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, many of which focus on the narratives of people of color, immigrants, or colonized peoples. Additionally, students are given the chance to watch movies such as Lagaan, Dakota 38, and Rabbit-Proof Fence; these films focus on race and colonization as well. The curriculum states that the class will cover topics such as “growing in the face of adversity,” “exploring global issues,” “humanity in the face of war,” and “culture and critical thinking.”

Issues surrounding the curriculum appeared to start after the publication of the fall issue of “Thinking Minnesota,” a magazine supported by the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota-based think tank. According to Katherine Kersten, writer of the fall issue’s cover article ‘Whose Values? Educational Excellence threatened by ideology in Edina Schools,’ “The focus [in English classrooms] goes beyond racial issues to an angry, male-bashing feminism and a smorgasbord of left-wing ideological hobby horses. Students hear repeated calls for social justice, activism and resistance from many of their English teachers.” Kersten went on to detail other events that had taken place at the high school, including the Multicultural Show, connecting these events to EHS’ recent drop in school ranking.

According to the US News website, EHS is currently the fourth best public high school in Minnesota; citing previous ranking reports, Kersten’s article attributes EHS’ drop from first to fourth place over the course of four years to the school’s renewed focus on multicultural learning. Although the US News website does not provide evidence to support Kersten’s claim, her article asserts that by teaching students about racism, colonization, and gender inequality, teachers deprive their students of skills such as critical thinking, causing a drop in educational proficiency. Soon after the magazine’s publication, many other news sources picked up Kersten’s commentary. Websites such as Breitbart and Fox News began to report on the supposed liberal indoctrination of EHS students, citing Kersten’s article as evidence. Additionally, a member of the EHS Young Conservatives Club appeared on Fox & Friends, a nation-wide morning show hosted on the Fox Network, to discuss these same topics in connection with a lawsuit being filed against the Edina School District.

Shortly after the controversy surrounding liberal indoctrination began, the Edina Schools Director of Teaching and Learning Randy Smasal organized a forum, alongside other district coordinators, with the goal of revisiting the Pre-AP 10 English curriculum. Smasal selected five students and multiple parents to participate in the forums, two of which have already taken place; some EHS alumni were also invited to takepart, but most were unable to attend. The first meeting was conducted on Dec. 14, 2017 and the second meeting was held on Feb. 6, 2018. According to one male 11th grade participant, at the first meeting the discussion members were given a piece of paper that instructed them to refrain from sharing any information about the forum with people outside of the room. During the meeting, the participants discussed the factors that lead to the creation of the discussion group, including recent news, a tense political climate, and the rigor of the 10th grade English class.

The district has hired external mediators to arbitrate the discussions; the mediators initiate the meetings with ice-breakers that allow for every participant to speak at least once. The preliminary activities are followed by general questions that facilitate conversation. According to another student participant, who wished to remain anonymous, the moderators started the first meeting by asking “What do you want to see in the Edina English program?” In response, the participant said “A diverse selection of literary works, consistency across all teachers, different rigorous options, and more applicable writing skills such as how to write an email or a job application.” In contrast, many of the parent participants advocated for changes that included “less social justice” and “less focus on the cultural aspect and more focus on the literary merit of texts” in their responses. According to two 11th grade members, many student participants disagree with perspectives put forth by parents during the meetings. The anonymous 11th grade participant went on to say, “Obviously we take apart the text to reveal certain literary meanings. If we are reading a book that is written from the perspective of a slave, then we are going to write about the inequalities in America for our essay because that is the best point to argue and a very prominent theme throughout the book. I don’t really define that as social justice; I define that as our history that we have to be exposed to, and I think learning it through novels is the best way to do it.”

With the perspectives of parents and former 10th grade English students clashing, it is difficult to maintain a group focus on the structure of the class rather than the content of the books. “I think that the mediators do a fairly good job of trying to pull us away from [politics] and getting us to focus more on the structure of the class since we don’t get to chose exactly what texts are presented,” the 11th grade student said.

The meetings will continue through second semester, with the next meeting set for late February. After the sessions are complete, any final decisions reached by the assembled committee will need to be ratified by the School Board before being put into action. The committee expects to address concerns by either advising changes in curriculum or ruling in favor of the current curriculum.

Despite the direct effect that these discussions could have on the EHS community, many students and staff members are yet to receive any information on the progress of these meetings. After repeated attempts to reach out to district coordinators, it was made clear that details about the meetings would only be divulged after the sessions had concluded. Unfortunately, this means that the student body and staff will be made aware of changes only as they are being passed into policy by the School Board, and that the sessions will remain closed to the public for now.