"We call them ‘social justice warriors’,” says Princeton High School Principal Jessica Baxter of the students who have taken the school’s racial literacy course, an elective taught by Joy Barnes-Johnson and Patricia Manhart. “Nobody leaves the course as they enter it. They want to do more.”
For junior Faria Majeed, doing more meant working with fellow students to found a social justice club called C.A.R.E., for Cultural and Racial Equity. CARE gives students opportunities to discuss and advance perspectives gleaned from the class and from students’ own research. “Our goal is to educate within the PHS community,” Faria says. “Being racially literate is an essential skill that is so important for, not only present day America, but future America.”
The course offers a chance to explore “the deeper meaning of the word ‘race’,” says senior Alicia Livingston. “Being an African American female, the lessons taught are very helpful in my life,” she adds.
Dr. Barnes-Johnson, a science teacher, and Ms. Manhart, a social studies teacher, originated the racial literacy course in spring 2018 in part as a response to student advocacy.
“Just like any youth movement, the students were looking at what was going on close to them, looking at what was going on in the world and saying, ‘Can we do something?’” Dr. Barnes-Johnson remembers.
Among teachers, the antecedents for the course went three or four years further back, to conversations led by Spanish teacher Martha Hayden, “who imagined a Socratic or discussion-based exploration that she called ‘transformative pedagogy’.”
The conversation grew to include teachers across disciplines and explored topics including race, ethnicity, language, sociology, technology, and science. Lenora Keel engaged students through the Minority Student Achievement Network. By the time students were making their voices heard about addressing racial equity in the curriculum, there were teachers who had prepared the ground through their own teaching and advising. The high school was able to respond quickly.
Like Ms. Hayden’s transformative pedagogy, the racial literacy course features an interdisciplinary conversation about intersecting topics, including race in the 21st century, history, the invention of race, politics, economics, housing, education, aesthetics, and crime and punishment, says Ms. Manhart. The course culminates with a capstone project the teachers call a transfer product, in which students take what they have learned and “present it outward into the community in order to move other people on their own journeys toward racial literacy,” Ms. Manhart notes.
The racial literacy course has become a linchpin, as the district has begun to expand its curricular offerings for students at all levels. A racial literacy course was implemented this year for pupils in Princeton’s pre-kindergarten through first grade classes. The next step will be to extend that framework into a full revision reaching pre-kindergarten through eighth grade students via social studies and English language arts/literacy. That program is slated to begin in September 2021.
In the meantime, Dr. Barnes-Johnson and Ms. Manhart are pleased to see teachers and staff districtwide receiving racial literacy training, both in person and online.
Ms. Manhart works with a team led by Supervisor of Humanities Keisha Smith-Carrington that provides a professional development module called Equity Model 1: Foundational Skills, Knowledge and Dispositions.
This training is a prerequisite for the Princeton Introduction to Racial Literacy, an online course that eventually will be available to students, as well. “We believe there’s a cursory knowledge that every person in our community should have,” says Dr. Barnes-Johnson.
“We hope that students will go from the required class into the elective and from the elective to apply those understandings to their other coursework,” she adds. “Eventually, they will have the ability to use critical race theory as a basis in all of their study.” -- Justin Harmon
- Princeton High School