What Happens When a Slogan Becomes the Curriculum

Photo illustration of a student waving a Black Lives Matter banner in a classroon
Adam Maida / Bettmann / Getty / The Atlantic

Last month, a public-school district that serves mostly elementary and middle-school students in Evanston, Illinois, held its third annual Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action—using a curriculum, created in collaboration with Black Lives Matter activists and the local teachers’ union, that introduces children as young as 4 and 5 to some of America’s most complex and controversial subjects. For example, parents of kindergartners in District 65 were asked to spend time at home discussing a book on race that teachers had read aloud to their children.

Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, by Anastasia Higginbotham, begins with a white mother turning off a television set to prevent her little daughter from seeing footage of a white policeman shooting a Black man. “You don’t need to worry about this,” the mother says. “You’re safe. Understand? Our family is kind to everyone. We don’t see color.” The book corrects the mother: “Deep down, we all know color matters,” it states. “Skin color makes a difference in how the world sees you and in how you see the world … It makes a difference in how much trouble seems to find you or let you be.” The book teaches that the truth about “your own people, your own family” can be painful. Next to an illustration of the mother locking her car door and grasping her wallet while driving in a neighborhood where Black children are standing on the street, the narrator notes, “Even people you love might behave in ways that show they think they are the good ones.” Later, the little girl castigates her mother for trying to hide the police shooting and other racism. “Why didn’t anyone teach me real history?” she yells. “I do see color … You can’t hide what’s right in front of me. I know that what that police officer did was wrong!”

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The book instructs a young white reader that she doesn’t need to “defend” racism, and it presents her with a stark decision. An illustration depicts a devil holding a “contract binding you to whiteness.” It reads:

You get:

✓stolen land

✓stolen riches

✓special favors†

WHITENESS gets:

✓to mess endlessly with the lives of your friends, neighbors, loved ones, and all fellow humans of COLOR

✓your soul

Sign below:

_____________

†Land, riches, and favors may be revoked at any time, for any reason.

In Evanston, parents are asked to quiz their kids on whiteness and give them approachable examples of “how whiteness shows up in school or in the community.” In its focus on “whiteness” and its invitation to readers to challenge racism by interrogating and rejecting it, the worldview of Not My Idea is similar to that of Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility, now a staple of diversity-and-inclusion programs and anti-racism training. Not My Idea is also a jarringly didactic assignment for kindergartners.

The BLM at School movement is gaining momentum in Democratic strongholds around the country, where millions have felt impelled to respond to the high-profile police killings of Black Americans and the inequities that such incidents expose. Parents and educators in these enclaves are largely united in believing that Black lives matter, and that schools should encourage students of all ages to reject racism and remedy its injustices, much as previous generations of schoolchildren were taught to “Just Say No to Drugs” and to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

In all such campaigns, a distinction can be drawn between the galvanizing slogan, which by design is popular and difficult to oppose, and the ideological and policy goals of the people promoting it. In other words, people might believe deeply that Black lives matter while disagreeing with Black Lives Matter organizers about specific claims. But for the BLM at School movement, agreeing with the broad slogan implies a particular approach to anti-racist activism—one that draws on academic approaches such as critical race theory and intersectionality; rejects individualism and aspirational color-blindness; and acts in solidarity with projects including decoloniality, anti-capitalism, and queer liberation.

Indeed, with the educational resources it creates and curates, the national BLM at School coalition unapologetically aims to create a new generation of allied activists. And that influence shows in Evanston, where, starting in the spring of 2019, the District 65 Educators’ Council––the local teachers’ union––proposed to work with administrators to develop a local BLM at School curriculum. By autumn, the school board had approved a week of lessons. The curriculum—which district leaders say aligns with Illinois social-studies standards and guidelines—draws on the materials and guiding principles of the national initiative while also adding texts such as Not My Idea, which doesn’t appear on the national BLM at School’s current list of recommended books.

Both in the material recommended by the national movement and in uniquely local lessons, some prompts to think critically are presented alongside other material that crosses a line from education into indoctrination. Educators should inform students and teach them how to think for themselves about how to improve the world, not inculcate any particular faction’s agenda or viewpoints as if they were presumptively good and true. The flaws in BLM at School curricula in Evanston and elsewhere aren’t a failure of activism––national and local Black Lives Matter advocates have promoted their worldview quite effectively. They are failures of the public-school system—albeit failures that would require extraordinary effort and skill to avoid, given a curriculum built atop an activist movement.

I say that as a strong proponent of significant ideas dear to Black Lives Matter activists. My prior reporting and commentary on BLM has focused on its many interventions in the police-reform debate. I have praised the sophisticated reform agenda set forth under the auspices of its Campaign Zero faction. More recently, I’ve watched the ascendance of a separate BLM faction that wants to “defund the police.” Although I prefer the police-reform approach, activists of all sorts should get a hearing when they put forth ideas that might improve public policy or the public-education curriculum. And after I reviewed District 65’s BLM at School curriculum, my impression was that educators aligned with the movement had recommended some valuable material, including lessons about restorative justice and the underappreciated benefits of living in households where members of three or more generations are all in routine contact with one another.

Much of the curriculum is an easy fit with community values in Evanston. The overwhelming majority of the city’s roughly 75,000 residents are liberal and progressive. Joe Biden won 91 percent of the vote there in November. (One of the 18 schools in District 65 is in neighboring Skokie, another strongly Democratic-leaning Chicago suburb.) Yet even in a resolutely Democratic area, some self-described liberals and progressives, who are happy to have their children taught that Black lives matter, have misgivings about public schools encouraging their children to adopt the expansive agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“There’s a lot of things to love in this BLM week—such as teaching empathy and tolerance, helping students recognize bias,” one parent told me in an email. “I know the district, and the people behind this are well intentioned. They want to build a better, more just world. But this curriculum crosses a line that public school educators, regardless of political views, need to respect.” He continued,

They present every issue with such moral certainty—like there is no other viewpoint. And we’re definitely seeing this in my daughter. She can make the case for defunding the police, but when I tried to explain to her why someone might have a Blue Lives Matter sign, why some families support the police, she wasn’t open to considering that view. She had a blinding certainty that troubled me. She thinks that even raising the question is racist. If she even hears a squeak of criticism of BLM, or of an idea that’s presented as supporting equity, she’s quick to call out racism.

This parent requested anonymity because he fears the potential career repercussions of publicly criticizing an initiative touted as combatting racism. In his telling, his school district’s leadership frames any criticism of its “equity” curricula as “white supremacist thinking.” Superintendent Devon Horton declined my requests for an interview, but District 65 put me in touch with Stacy Beardsley, the assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction. Parent feedback, she told me, is one of the factors that will inform the review of the entire District 65 social-studies curriculum currently under way. Beardsley also argued that the district wants students to think critically about what they’re taught. “We are not in the business of telling kids what to think and to feel,” she said. “We want to put out information and give kids the skill to interrogate those sources, to drive inquiry, to ask questions, and ultimately to be critically conscious.”

The idea that became Black Lives Matter at School dates back to October 19, 2016, when thousands of Seattle educators went to school in Black Lives Matter T-shirts. That news reached a group of educators in Philadelphia, who were inspired to develop a week-long curriculum grounded in their understanding of the principles of the decentralized activist movement. Soon, educators and schools in more than 20 cities from Los Angeles to Boston participated in what the BLM at School website calls a “national uprising” involving “lessons about structural racism, intersectional black identities, black history, and anti-racist movements.” The initiative has been spreading ever since.

The committee that formulated the current national BLM at School classroom resources is chaired by Christopher Rogers, a veteran of organizing work in the Philadelphia public-education system who is now pursuing a doctoral degree in literacy studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Rogers grew up in nearby Chester, a city of 34,000 that frequently ranks as one of Pennsylvania’s poorest and most crime-plagued, and he attended public schools still shaped by the segregation of bygone eras. “We went through every type of educational reform that the state threw at our schools,” he told me in a phone interview. “There was a lot of local corruption, the schools were a part of the dysfunction, and we never really recovered.” As he watched a series of state-appointed private contractors fail to improve local schools, he began to feel that forces beyond the control of his community were keeping it down. When he moved to Philadelphia in 2012, those failures made him wary of efforts driven by education consultants to close troubled public schools in the city. “This was hitting Black and brown communities,” he said, “and it’s where my inroads into organizing began.”

Today, he wants kids to be taught about housing rights, eviction, redlining, police abuses, urban pollution, and all of the other systems that harm the lives of Black people, in the hope that theirs will be the generation that fixes those problems. “When we say Black lives matter,” he said, “how are we articulating that in rooms and institutions that govern people’s lives?”

To help educators shape their lessons about such wide-ranging matters, the BLM at School website lists 13 “guiding principles.” They include values such as empathy and diversity, an embrace of restorative justice, a rejection of ageism, and commitments to lift up LGBTQ people, Black women, and Black families. The “Black villages” principle declares that “we are committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another, and especially ‘our’ children to the degree that mothers, parents and children are comfortable.”

The national curriculum itself is expansive, broken down by grade level, from kindergarten through adult education. “It accumulates year over year,” Rogers told me. “We’re inviting educators from all across the country to think about resources they’ve utilized in the past within their own classrooms and thinking about how to share those ideas, lessons, and suggestions.” An all-volunteer committee has the final say on what makes the cut. Local districts and individual teachers can then adapt those recommendations to their own classrooms. They can and do add unapproved material too. Rogers described the BLM at School curriculum as a starting point. “We know this isn’t the full package, so to speak,” he said, “but it can give a trajectory that moves educators in a proper direction toward finding content that can teach the legacies of Black resistance.”

Although the version of BLM at School adopted by Evanston’s District 65 is too expansive to discuss exhaustively here, zeroing in on particular lessons underscores the difficulty of casting complex historical and social issues in doctrinaire terms.

Not My Idea, for example, seems to teach children with white parents that they should not count on their goodness or trustworthiness. And as someone whose profession requires watching awful videos of police killings, I would strongly urge parents to switch off a TV rather than let their young child see one—a choice that the book seems to criticize. Many parents will also find the book’s subject matter too mature for kids not yet in the first grade. Denisha Jones, a Sarah Lawrence College scholar active in the BLM at School movement, articulated a related concern in a 2020 Zoom discussion with other educators. Teachers must be careful about exposing young kids to horrific material, she said, because the movement’s goal is “to affirm Blackness in children, especially young children,” and “that needs to happen before we even get to America’s history of slavery … It is not appropriate for really young children that they only hear about Black history through a lens of slavery and civil rights.”

Some books chosen for the Evanston BLM at School curriculum are inspired responses to the question of how to introduce sensitive subjects to young children. When developing an explicitly queer- and trans-affirming curriculum, per the BLM at School guiding principles, for instance, what does one teach kindergartners? A book in the national and Evanston curricula, Julián Is a Mermaid, makes its point gently, with gorgeous watercolor illustrations and storytelling that casts the title character’s identity in positive, nondogmatic terms. The publisher’s plot summary captures the gist:

While riding the subway home from the pool with his abuela one day, Julián notices three women spectacularly dressed up. Their hair billows in brilliant hues, their dresses end in fishtails, and their joy fills the train car. When Julián gets home, daydreaming of the magic he’s seen, all he can think about is dressing up just like the ladies in his own fabulous mermaid costume: a butter-yellow curtain for his tail, the fronds of a potted fern for his headdress. But what will Abuela think about the mess he makes—and even more importantly, what will she think about how Julián sees himself?

The story would be a blessing in a home with a gender-nonconforming child or parent, and just as useful for children who feel different from their peers in any other way.

More heavy-handed is a lesson called “Empathy, Loving Engagement, and Restorative Justice,” included in a slide deck from Evanston’s third-grade curriculum. The lesson begins with a “teaching point” that states, “Today I’m going to teach you about what the Black Lives Matter movement is and why it’s necessary.” Later slides show photographs of local Black Lives Matter protests. A leading question near the end of the lesson asks students, “Why is it important to learn about Black Lives Matter in school?” In most circumstances, public schools should help students understand significant protest movements that are shaping their world, and Black Lives Matter easily crosses that threshold. But flatly describing the movement as “necessary” is a value judgment.

Americans pursue racial justice through a variety of political ideologies, policy agendas, and tactics. Kids should know that a “correct” approach cannot be identified objectively. One might agree that Black lives matter and that Black people have been unfairly harmed by historical racism without also endorsing, say, “Black villages” or other distinct ideas embraced by activists. The Evanston curriculum elides that distinction. The only critique of the Black Lives Matter approach to social-justice activism that students get is literally a caricature. In the first panel of a cartoon included in the lesson materials, a person says, “Well I think that all lives matter.” In panel two, while holding a fire hose, he says, “We should care exactly equally at all times about everything.” In panel three, he stands in front of two houses, one that’s burning, one that isn’t, and sprays water on the house that isn't on fire. “All houses matter,” he says.

This reference to “all lives matter” is included only to tee up a rejection of it. Students shown just that cartoon wouldn’t understand why the San Francisco 49ers player Richard Sherman, who is Black, used the phrase “all lives matter” and expressed some discomfort with BLM. But they should.

Another lesson, taught to seventh graders, even more clearly illustrates the shortcomings of operating within the ideological confines of the Black Lives Matter movement rather than combining insights from it and other sources. The lesson asks, “Why is it important to recognize that black women and girls matter?” This slide follows:

A slide showing #SAYHERNAME
(School District 65 instructional materials)

The lesson goes on to introduce the concept of intersectionality—defined as a system of “oppressions and privileges that overlap and reinforce each other”—then moves on to a list of Black women who have been killed by police. In an accompanying video, the legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw says, “Police violence against Black women is very real. Why is it that their lost lives don’t generate the same amount of media attention and communal outcry as the lost lives of their fallen brothers?” By asking that question, activists help draw attention to some police killings that warranted close press scrutiny.

Cases in which police officers violate the civil rights of Black women are indeed worthy of study. But sitting through the slideshow, which asserts that to be Black and female is to be “the most unprotected person in America,” many students might come away with the impression that Black women are the demographic group most likely to be killed by police in America. That is false.

According to a 2019 paper published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the lifetime risk is highest for Black males: About 96 in 100,000 are killed by police. Latino men have an estimated lifetime risk of 53 per 100,000; white men, 39 per 100,000. For Black women, the authors find, the lifetime risk of being killed by police is 2.4 to 5.4 per 100,000. That’s higher than the comparable figure for Latina and white women (2 per 100,000), but much lower than the rate for men.

The Black Lives Matter movement is within its rights to focus exclusively on Black people killed by police—regardless of whether one believes, as I do, that Americans should also know names such as Daniel Shaver, a white man killed by police in 2016. Speeches by Black Lives Matter activists need not include the disclaimer that white men are far more likely to be killed by police than Black women are. But the public-school system should tell the whole truth to those in its care, even if it undermines a narrative that activists champion.

“I believe in the importance of every school district, including my own, moving away from a traditionally white-centric voice to a broader and more truthful view of history that acknowledges the wrongs of both past and present, recognizes white privilege and honors the black experience and the experience of other minority groups,” one Evanston parent told me in an email. “I think we’ve come to the point, however, where our children (all children) are being used as pawns … I feel we can and should work together for a more just, equitable world,” the parent continued, “but don’t believe that one political organization with its own idea of how to get there should be the arbiter of that progress.” This parent, too, requested anonymity, writing, “There is no room for that position right now in this town.”

I emailed all seven members of the District 65 school board for comment. One member, Joseph Hailpern, replied, emphasizing that he spoke only for himself. On the matter of parental unease, he wrote, in part,

As a white man I’d be lying if I said there were not parts that made me feel uneasy. It is hard to have your child come home and point out to you a privilege you have long held, but never noticed. I feel so good knowing that my children are learning the value of community, respect, and fairness in a way I was never discretely taught in school. Equity is a journey for some, a fight for others, and a distance hope for too many. If this makes the long term goals in our community more attainable, a bit of unease on my white part is acceptable and necessary to me.

To concerns that parts of the curriculum look like indoctrination by activists, he responded that teachers know how to “passionately bring about the next generation of great citizens” without imposing any viewpoints of their own. Some people understand a curriculum as a textbook or set of materials, he wrote, while for others, “it is the sequence of big ideas, enduring understandings, and essential questions” that guide learners. “This week is filled with huge questions for children and teachers about what kind of world we want to share together,” he continued. “It is current social studies rather than what parents are used to. In that it is very different, but highly relevant and necessary.”

As in any school district, the best teachers in Evanston likely improved on many of the prepared lessons. (The worst, of course, might have degraded them.) But one cannot simply presume that all teachers want to approach this material without imposing their own views. Indeed, many teachers aligned with Black Lives Matter explicitly reject a neutral posture. This issue was the subject of a 2020 webinar titled “Black Lives Matter at School: A Discussion With Educators on the Intersections of Activism and Pedagogy.” As one participant asked, “How do you talk and teach about the historical moment, massive Black Lives Matter protests, and uprising and rebellion with your students? How do you do that in a way where you’re wearing the educator hat and also an activist hat?”

Answers varied, but most participants seemed to reject the model of the neutral educator. Typical of the discussion were comments by Matthew Vaughn-Smith, a Baltimore-area assistant principal, who said, “I don’t believe in a neutral educator … You, as an anti-racist educator, have to take a stance.”

As an alumnus of 14 years of Catholic education, I know that a few dogmatic teachers do not reliably yield lifelong believers. And I happen to agree that, on certain basic questions, educators should not be evenhanded. Do the lives of all of their students have value? Yes. Should students be acculturated to participate in civic life to improve the world? Yes. Should they be discriminated against because of their race or religion or gender or disability status? No. The list goes on. But educators should be neutral as to the question “Should my students embrace the narrative and policy agenda of the Black Lives Matter movement and become activists on its behalf?”

And educators should not be neutral as to the question “Should my students be taught what to think, or how to think?” Schools should do the latter. They should promote truth seeking and diversity of thought. They should recognize the imperative in a pluralistic democracy of understanding others’ beliefs and the importance of subjecting one’s own beliefs to scrutiny, given society’s complexity and the fallibility of well-intentioned judgments. And they should understand the folly of treating profound disagreements as if they foreclosed the possibility of cooperation.

Those goals could conceivably be advanced with an improved BLM at School Week of Action curriculum in future years, but they would be easier to achieve if District 65 broadened its focus and dedicated a week to all the contrasting civil-rights approaches taken by other people who believe that Black lives matter.

Students could learn, as they do now, about the activism practiced by Martin Luther King Jr., by the Black Power movement, and by adherents of critical-race-theory traditions. But lessons could also discuss the present-day approaches of Black churches; Barack Obama’s criticism of “wokeness” and his embrace of democratic persuasion; the Black conservatism of Thomas Sowell and Shelby Steele; the aspirational color blindness advocated by Ward Connerly; Barbara and Karen Fields’s critique of “racecraft”; the entrepreneurial successs of Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan, and Jay-Z; and many more besides.

In fact, while curricula and teachers will always warrant scrutiny, perhaps the quality of Evanston students’ education during the district’s three Black Lives Matter at School action weeks is best measured by parents asking whether their kids can now accurately explain not only the values and beliefs of Black Lives Matter but also the strongest criticisms of the movement’s approach. Can children describe how it compares with other forms of civil-rights activism, why many anti-racists embrace it, and why other anti-racists partly or wholly reject it? In persuading Evanston educators to adopt a BLM at School curriculum, Black Lives Matter activists did their job. Did the District 65 public schools do theirs?

If you’re a parent or educator with thoughts on this article, or concerns about public or private schooling in your community, I’d love to hear them, regardless of your perspective. Email conor@theatlantic.com.