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Alongside tall tales about lumberjack Paul Bunyan and cowboy Pecos Bill, new reading lessons for Denver second graders will include the story of Doña Flor, a giant woman living in the American Southwest.  

What students won’t get in those literacy lessons are books about Columbus, the first Thanksgiving, or Lewis and Clark.

That’s because Denver district officials have made a series of changes to the new reading curriculum rolling out in kindergarten through second grade at nearly 90 schools this year. In addition to stripping out units they felt perpetuated a whitewashed version of American history, they added several books in each grade intended to add a wider variety of voices.

The idea was to take a curriculum that had earned high marks for teaching kids to read and expanding their knowledge of the world and make it more culturally responsive. That is, to ensure it reflects the diverse histories and identities of students in Denver classrooms and the wider world. 

Denver students will still learn about dropped history topics like Columbus through social studies coursework in various grades. 

The decision to modify the new curriculum stems, in large part, from a recent student-driven effort to make lessons more inclusive of Black, Latino, and Indigenous history. The result of that effort — the “Know Justice Know Peace” resolution approved in 2020 — builds on previous efforts to revise curriculum that focused on Eurocentric perspectives. 

Experts say culturally responsive education is good for all kinds of students, creating a more complete picture of the world and helping schools engage students.

“If our students see themselves valued and reflected and honored in that space, they’re more likely to learn,” said Casie Wise, who holds a doctorate in education and is senior program director at the National Indian Education Association.  

Denver Public Schools is the largest school district in Colorado and one of the most diverse. Half of the district’s students are Hispanic and three-quarters are students of color. 

The district’s efforts at greater inclusivity unfold at a time when many schools around the nation are being pressured to move in the opposite direction, with conservative parents or community members seeking to ban books that they say raise divisive topics, cover difficult subjects too early, or make white students feel anxious or ashamed. Schools in 138 districts removed or limited students’ access to books during the 2020-21 school year, according to the free speech advocacy group, PEN America.

Even in Denver, a progressive district where leaders frequently talk about equity and inclusion, there are signs recent events have had a chilling effect.

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The district shared only eight of 30 book titles that district staff recommended be added to the new curriculum. District officials refused a Chalkbeat public records request for the full list, first saying they didn’t know if vendors would have all the titles, then citing deliberative privilege, an exemption invoked “if the material is so candid or personal that public disclosure is likely to stifle honest and frank discussion within the government.”

Leah Q. Peoples, who leads Transformative Research, a research firm that prioritizes educational equity, said the Denver district’s efforts to boost cultural responsiveness in its reading curriculum sound promising. She said between the demands put on educators and the political climate, such work can be hard to do. 

It’s important for the district “to not let that first step be their last step,” she said. 

Read more on Chalkbeat.org.

Ann Schimke

Senior reporter — Chalkbeat Colorado. Email: aschimke@chalkbeat.org Twitter: @annschimke