Principal Ben Clausnitzer sent a message to the MVHS community on June 9 about action items that the school, district and city would be taking to actively become an anti-racist school. This message was also in response to the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement following the death of George Floyd in May.
In his message, Clausnitzer explained that the school and the district would be taking action to address anti-blackness in Cupertino and at MVHS with the establishment of “professional development for our staff. Facilitated by our own MV Equity Task Force, it would include topics such as self-awareness, identity, implicit bias, an equity framework with a focus on inclusiveness, and time for our teacher teams to reflect on their practices and curriculum.” It would also provide for the creation of a framework for social emotional learning to “start to hold conversations with students that explicitly include scenarios with anti-bias themes.”
This mini-package explores these action items and the impacts they have on students, staff, parents, alumni and the broader community.
While the recent resurgence of BLM may have appeared to be the driving force behind several of the changes established this year — from the creation of an advisory period to the Schoology modules on anti racism and sexual harassment — several of these changes have been in the works since last school year.
Principal Ben Clausnitzer started receiving feedback from the MVHS community about anti-Blackness present at MVHS almost immediately after the death of George Floyd and the subsequent resurgence of the BLM movement. Clausnitzer recognized that these issues were not only relevant at a national level, but at a city, district and school level as well.
“I think [sending out that email] was probably the time where, for me as a principal, it became really clear [that] we need to be proactive,” Clausnitzer said. “We need to figure out what it means to be anti-racist educators, which [will] help us [determine] what it means to be an anti-racist school.”
Professional development consisted of several parts, the most significant of which was a teacher module over Zoom in which teachers discussed anti-racist topics as well as their own experiences with race. Prior to the module, teachers were asked to listen to and read specific texts selected by Cupertino and Homestead High School principals Kami Tomberlain and Greg Giglio to prepare teachers for the discourse during the Zoom meeting. These conversations included analysis of those texts, dialogue about staff’s first-hand experiences with race and lessons on understanding different types of racism.
Literature teacher Vanessa Otto appreciated how staff got the chance to delve into how the material related to their personal experiences with race. Otto felt that this discussion allowed her to reflect on how race affected how she viewed herself and others in society.
“We talked about how [our first experiences with race] connect to the whole idea of anti-racism and how we can apply [anti-racism] to our teaching,” Otto said. “I think [the teacher module] was a great starting point for beginning these conversations and we learned quite a bit, [but] there’s still a lot more to learn for sure.”
Along with the teacher module, another change being instituted this year is an advisory period for all students. However, advisory is not a new development – teachers and students have been discussing the creation of an advisory period to help them hold more explicit conversations in the classroom. These conversations would include anti-racist, anti-violent and sexual harassment themes, and would help staff and students further their social-emotional learning, as well as overall well-being.
“Our conversation when we were starting to dialogue [in] July was that as a school district we would hold an orientation to start the school year, and we started talking about advisories as a place to have these important conversations,” Clausnitzer said. “It was interesting because we knew we couldn’t go too far in depth because [it was] only day two and community hasn’t been built in the classroom. So the conversation has got to be enough, but not too much, and we tried to find that balance.”
Literature teacher Monica Jariwala felt some of the anticipated awkwardness during her advisory period, but she appreciated how the district gave teachers resources like a student-created video and a Schoology module. These resources helped ensure that all students and staff were on the same page about a collective commitment to having difficult conversations about anti-racism.
“It’s very early in the year for there to be dialogue, but I’m hoping that as the year goes [on], we will revisit these topics,” Jariwala said. “I know it was probably uncomfortable to have the lesson, but I feel like if we continue to [have lessons] like this throughout the year, our [conversations] will only become stronger.”
Along with the advisory periods being held every week for the remainder of the year to give students and teachers the opportunity to foster a sense of community, another significant and year-long change is a reevaluation and replacement of certain parts of the English curriculum. Replacing curriculum is a complex process, made especially challenging this year by the transition to distance learning. Teachers and students decided to focus on replacing “To Kill a Mockingbird” with either “Born a Crime”, an biographical account about living under apartheid in South Africa by Trevor Noah or “The Water Dancer”, a novel by Ta-Nehisi Coates that follows a young black man who discovers that his memories trigger a mysterious power of teleportation that can help escaped slaves flee.
District English Curriculum Lead and CHS literature teacher Greg Merrick explains that the district has been trying to introduce ideas that center around teaching for equity and social justice in English classrooms long before this summer. One of Merrick’s main goals for the English department is to shift away from the current male, Euro-centric dominated curriculum and increase the representation of the authors and stories. He hopes to incorporate authors and stories that are more representative of the student population – not just an increase of black voices, but an increase of Asian-American and Latinx voices as well.
“I know when we get to [the new] “To Kill a Mockingbird” unit, we’re going to help students see that it’s not just about individual racism, [but also] about systemic racism [and] understanding the biases that are present in our criminal justice systems and understanding the real truth about things rather than the whitewashed narrative that’s persisted for a long time,” Merrick said.
Several groups of teachers have been essential in the district-wide changes to the English curriculum. One of these is the FUHSD Advocates for Change, a group of teachers focused on making positive change by encouraging open dialogue, anti-racist teaching and incorporating more diverse texts in the classroom. At MVHS, the Equity Task Force – a group of administrators and teachers led by Jariwala – focused on gathering anti-racism resources and developing staff training to better educate staff on ways to conduct their classes.
“The Equity Task Force started to hear about the student lesson, and as a team, figured out who would present this to the staff,” Jariwala said. “[Principal Ben] Clausnitzer was working with [other principals] from the district as well as the group of current and former students that helped actually plan what was going to be presented [at the student and teacher modules].”
As important as anti-racism education is, Merrick acknowledges that open dialogue and educational resources are not enough to create the ideal environment. Upon learning about these issues, he believes teachers must take action to make changes in their classrooms to foster classroom cultures free from implicit biases and everyday lives to exhibit active anti-racist tendencies.
“I need to model things for my students – be honest and open about some of my implicit biases, tell the stories of the ways in which I was wrong at times and have changed over time and [am] striving to do better,” Merrick said.
Ultimately, each of the components of professional development is aimed at a singular goal – becoming an anti-racist school, district, community and nation. Clausnitzer hopes that by providing these resources and education, students and teachers will be empowered to engage in more difficult conversations and will increase overall awareness about the importance of anti-racism.
“You’ve got to be able to empower others,” Clausnitzer said. “So I suppose that’s listening, making sure people understand this is important and we’re going to do it together. It’s going to be a focus and it’s going to be ongoing, and we got to start somewhere.”
After George Floyd’s death in May, junior Riya Ranjan was active in signing petitions, sending emails to legislators and attending protests. After receiving Principal Ben Clausnitzer’s email on June 9 that detailed changes the district planned to make, Ranjan realized there were issues with how FUHSD handled addressing race-related issues through the lens of education.
She then decided to reach out to superintendent Polly Bove with her concerns about race education, who then contacted Clausnitzer. Clausnitzer started working with her and two other members from an organization dedicated to demanding diverse, anti-racist texts in USA high schools called Diversify Our Narrative. The organization was introduced by seniors Nitya Yerraguntla and Janya Budaraju, whose goals are to start implementing more diverse texts in English and history curriculum.
Along with working on increasing diversity in curriculum, Ranjan, Yerraguntla and Budaraju worked with UC Berkeley African American Studies Professor Lindsey Villarreal to compile a “Tier List” of anti-racism resources for teachers. This, along with the professional development Zoom call, was intended to help teachers foster an anti-racist culture in their classrooms, specifically during the advisory period.
Ranjan was personally disappointed with the lack of teacher engagement in the asynchronous student module. She felt that in order to gain a deeper understanding of the prevalence of racist behaviors and micro-aggressions in the MVHS community, students needed to have the opportunity to connect with their teacher and classmates.
“In understanding a topic as complex as this, I feel like it’s super integral that you’re able to have someone telling you, and having a face there instead of just text on paper and something you can just look up a definition for,” Ranjan said.
Ranjan’s concerns were echoed by the teachers and administrators responsible for organizing the student module, especially Jariwala and Clausnitzer. Despite the fact that they felt students and teachers needed to dive into deep dialogue, they understood that holding those difficult conversations would be challenging without first developing a sense of community in the classroom. However, administrators emphasized that this first module was just the tip of the iceberg for many upcoming discussions.
Along with the asynchronous Schoology student module, students were shown a video made by current students and alumni at all five FUHSD sites. The video addressed the prevalence of racial slurs being used at schools, how many students remained unaware of the consequences of their words and the idea of actively being anti-racist. Lynbrook High School Principal Maria Jackson and Clausnitzer had initially thought of the video as a medium to give students the tools to address racial slurs being said by their peers.
“[The use of racial slurs] happens at all five schools, so let’s give [students] some tools to be able to counter that speech,” Clausnitzer said. “We reached out to some of the students and principals who were interested, and they led the charge [and] some of the students connected with alumni. We wanted to give them a lot of creative freedom and we didn’t want to micromanage, and they did what I felt was a pretty amazing job in terms of developing a video.”
One major takeaway that Ranjan, who worked on the video, hoped students would gain from it was the concept of criticizing with compassion. She hoped that students would learn how to intervene when racist things were said by their friends, but with kindness and understanding as opposed to aggression and confrontation.
“We wanted to emphasize that empathy is extremely important because you’re not going to move forward with anything by just calling people out in a rude way and making them feel bad,” Ranjan said. “You have to be able to make them understand why you’re calling them out and why it’s important that their behaviors are remedied.”
Ranjan explains that one of the main reasons for including so many alumni in the video was to stress that the impacts of using those words outside of school can have far reaching consequences. Because Black students remain a minority at all of the sites, using racial slurs in our community can feel irrelevant, but the consequences that this can lead to are often not understood by students until after they graduate and experience environments with more diverse demographics.
Sophomore Greyson Mobley has often heard non-Black students say the n-word — once even directly to his face — even though many of his peers avoid saying it around him because he is Black. Mobley tries to confront racist behavior when he sees it to try and help people around him better understand the impacts of their words.
“I feel like [anti-racism education] is definitely important because if we don’t educate students, they could end up getting in a bad situation when they’re older,” Mobley said. “Ignorance can really hurt you in the future [because] if you don’t know that certain things are offensive, you say something that offends someone and then you could get in really big trouble for that.”
In order to make a permanent change, Ranjan believes that every student must play their part, and not settle for being a bystander. She also believes that students are the ones who need to raise their voices and fight against injustices because they are the ones who may be victims.
“My responsibility is the same as every other student,” Ranjan said, “which is to make sure that every single person at the school has the knowledge to be a good person going forward and actively work against inequities that exist in our world, our society and within our district.”