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Juneau superintendent removes 4 Native history books from 4th-grade curriculum

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published December 4, 2014

The Juneau School District superintendent on Thursday said he will remove four books from the fourth-grade curriculum that members of the public called into question this year, saying the controversial material distorted Native American history.

The books from McGraw-Hill Education tell stories of Native experiences, presenting topics like boarding school and the Trail of Tears through a fictional lens.

"It was a matter of looking at the material and saying, 'Is this the best we can do or can we do better?' " said Mark Miller, district superintendent. "It's just so important that we leverage every minute we have with our kids."

In May, the district adopted a new language arts curriculum that included the four questioned books -- together, they're considered one week's worth of supplemental material for the fourth-grade students, Miller said. But, he said, back in the spring, the publisher did not include the books in the district's packet for review

The books arrived unexpectedly this fall, he said, and upon opening the material, "one of our teachers said, 'You know, this just doesn't feel right.'" The books were not scheduled to debut in the classroom until spring 2015.

Meanwhile, news of the new reading material spread to others in the community. Paul Berg, a cross-cultural specialist, challenged the books in a written assessment submitted to the district and sponsored by Goldbelt Heritage Foundation, an Alaska Native corporation in Juneau.

In his seven-page critique, Berg analyzed "The Visit," "Our Teacher, The Hero" and "Continuing On," all by Terry Miller Shannon, as well as "History Detectives" by Sandy McKay.

He quoted extensively from the books and poked holes in many of the passages' portrayals of the past, calling some of the text "understated" and other parts "inaccurate."

In response to the "The Visit," an account of a young Native American girl at boarding school during parent visitation day, Berg writes, "The author strives to create the impression that the boarding school experience did not affect the child's internal reality. This is inaccurate. ...The Alaska Native community lives with the fallout from three generations of forced acculturation through the boarding school program."

In early November, at a Native Education Advisory Council meeting in Juneau, the Juneau Empire reported that some in an emotional crowd called for the removal of the books immediately. One woman began to tear up while reading aloud from one of the books.

Lisa Worl, Juneau school board member and liaison between the council and board, said Wednesday there were people at the council meeting close to the history written about in the books and who spoke passionately about misrepresentations.

"My thoughts are," Worl said, "that as difficult as this is, it's good. It's good that it came up because it allows us with the chance to make it better. This is also a good thing in some ways because when I was growing up this type of information wasn't even out there."

As part of the district's process, a committee of staff and parents was charged with reviewing the four books and making a recommendation to the superintendent. In a 7-2 vote, the committee asked in late November that the books be eliminated from the curriculum, Miller said.

In a news release Thursday, Miller wrote that he did not decide to remove the books based on a determination that the curriculum was "racist" or a "revisionist history," but rather that they were not good enough for the students.

"They're pretty superficial. They hit very few points of what, for this area, is a very sensitive and very important topic," Miller told Alaska Dispatch News. "It just doesn't do justice to the topic, as is needed in a community like Juneau."

When asked about the books, Jolie Vigen, west region manager for McGraw-Hill Education, wrote in an email that she was aware of the district's concerns and included a response from Brian Belardi, director of media relations for the company.

Belardi wrote that McGraw-Hill Education was "respectful of the feelings of the Native Alaskan communities and mindful of sensitive issues raised in these books. We are confident they are appropriate at a fourth-grade level as starting points for discussion around the experience of Native Americans."

Miller said he plans to ship most of the books back to McGraw-Hill Education with a letter explaining why they don't meet the needs of the district's students. A few copies, he said, will be stored in the district office, where, with a parent's permission, a student may take the material home along with a companion text -- a copy of Berg's analysis.

To replace the books, the district formed a second committee tasked with developing new material in collaboration with Goldbelt Heritage and nonprofit Sealaska Heritage Institute. He expects that some of the new texts will be based loosely on the lives of Juneau's Alaska Native elders.

As part of the revamped curriculum, he said, he also hopes the elders will come into the classrooms to share their stories directly with Juneau students.

"There is not one 'Native experience,' there are thousands, each one uniquely different,' " Miller wrote in the news release. "I am calling on the community to come together with the school district to document and tell your truth, our students will be the better for it."

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported that Sealaska Corp., not Sealaska Heritage Institute, will work on developing a new curriculum.

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