By Gail Binkly
Talk of totally revamping the Montezuma-Cortez District Re-1 curriculum and of no longer letting LGBTQ students meet in a lunchtime club has some teachers dismayed.
They worry that the measures being made or considered by the Re-1 school board recently are a move backward from recognizing and valuing the district’s diversity, and that this will worsen the current teacher and staff shortages.
When the school board voted 4-1 on Sept. 21 to pass a resolution “declaring its official opposition to principles of critical race theory” despite an outpouring of comments expressing worries over the resolution, it brought those concerns to a head, according to two teachers in Cortez Middle School.
The current curriculum is “fantastic and well laid out and I think students are learning better than ever,” Lissa Juniper Lycan, the chair of the English Language Arts Department at CMS, told the Four Corners Free Press in a phone interview.
“I think the curriculum should stay. It’s what our students need.”
At the Sept. 21 meeting, the board said a new committee will be established to examine the curriculum in search of anything that constitutes critical race theory, or CRT.
CRT has been defined in numerous ways, but one of its central tenets is that racism is endemic in society rather than only present among scattered individuals.
CRT is considered to be a complex theory taught in graduate school, but sudden fears have emerged that it is being taught somehow in the K-12 levels.
Lycan said she hopes that the passage of the anti-CRT resolution won’t have much impact on the middle school.
“It’s dependent on how they use that resolution,” she said.
“If they follow that and put together a new committee that represents the diversity of the district, I don’t think there will be a problem.”
An existing, informal committee that has met a few times to discuss CRT is made up entirely of Caucasians, she said. If a new committee is formed that better represents the school – with people of different races and different socioeconomic backgrounds, parents of differently-abled students, and so on – the committee could be useful, she said.
Lycan, who was on the first group, also emphasized that it should include a well-thought-out definition of CRT.
Going through the entire curriculum would take an immense amount of time, she said, “but I am willing to work with them on that.”
Brittany Lang, a CMS science teacher as well as a volleyball coach, agreed with Lycan that determining a definition of CRT based on a representation of the community is key to re-examining the curriculum. If a clear and reasonable definition is developed, she told the Free Press, “our department would gladly go through and pull anything” that is problematic.
However, there is a lot of complaining being done by members of the public over elements of the curriculum that should be retained because they show an honest picture of American history, Lang said.
“There is a second-grade book that talks about Martin Luther King and has a picture of people using firehoses on protesters,” she said. “They [critics] felt that was teaching shame and hate, that it will teach others to hate white people. That’s what they felt CRT is.”
Lycan said she would like to see public concerns about the middle-school curriculum separated from concerns about the elementary level.
She is unclear whether people are having problems with elementary texts because of CRT or other things such as worries that some stories are too dark for youngsters to read.
“I think this committee needs to be looking at only CRT. It shouldn’t be a free-for-all of each person’s moral standing and what they’re afraid of,” Lycan said.
A number of citizens at recent school-board meetings – many of whom said they did not actually have children in school – have expressed concern about new directions in teaching that seem to drastically differ from the way things were taught in the past. For instance, people have asked why students don’t diagram sentences to learn grammar, or aren’t learning cursive handwriting, or aren’t focused on memorizing facts.
But new teaching methods are needed in today’s world, Lycan said.
“Teaching the skills of language arts, reading and writing, and listening together is far more effective than teaching in isolation,” she said. “Everything is combined. This semester we have one big question of ‘what is the power of storytelling?’ They read different texts that build understanding of that, and they’re writing to help build understanding. That engages students. We will have them write their own narrative poems and perform them in front of an audience.”
Times have changed, Lycan said. “Thirty or 40 years ago we were still teaching rote memorization, but now there is an Internet. All the information they need is at their fingertips. They need to learn critical thinking and problem-solving, but for parents that is confusing. If your child comes home with ideas you didn’t present to them, parents feel they’re being indoctrinated.
“It’s our job to present kids with multiple perspectives so that critical thinking and problem-solving can take place.”
Lycan said the current curriculum “is following our Colorado language-arts standards to a T.”
“This curriculum puts the work back on the kids. I am never standing in front of my classroom talking because they’d zone out. Kids would be disengaged and disruptive. Instead, they are analyzing, annotating, talking to each other.
“The idea that we would take this curriculum away feels like a crime in a place where kids are already struggling.
“People have to trust the professional educators.”
Lang agreed that grammar and other basics are still being taught, just in different ways.
“They’re still happening but they are embedded in the curriculum to be more meaningful.”
Lang said one book used in middle school is about a kid playing basketball and overcoming challenges. “Students do grammar based on that book,” she said. “Fix a sentence, find the subject, the preposition.
“In science we’re reading about the universe and physics, but I can embed planning and editing through the lens of science. Why do things in isolation? That’s not how our brains work. This is 21st Century education. It’s more interdisciplinary, creative and hands-on. I was trained through college prep to use literacy, reading and writing to teach history and science.”
Parents concerned about dark or negative material should have conversations with their children, she urged. “Kids are so much more resilient and open-minded than we are, but parental support is not necessarily there all the time.
“But it’s possible for someone who has the opposite perspective from me to have conversations with kids. Some people critical of CRT are having conversations with their kids.”
Both teachers said the tone of some remarks by citizens at recent board meetings is troubling, and the discussions over the curriculum and the Lunch Bunch are particularly worrisome.
Lang, who was one of four teachers from the middle school who spoke at the Sept. 21 meeting, said the divides among the community are very sharp.
“I have been in the Cortez school district for 10 years – first at Kemper Elementary, then CMS for the last seven years,” Lang said. “I have never struggled more than I have this year. If it’s not CRT, it’s the teacher shortage. We are so short-staffed. There are five open vacancies in our building. Long-term substitutes are quitting. There are behavior problems among kids – they haven’t been in school for 18 months. It’s the hardest year I’ve ever had.
“We can handle the lack of substitutes, but now we have to deal with the lack of support and the belittling from some in the community. We feel hated, not supported.”
Lycan agreed, saying she had felt hopeful because her language-arts department is now fully staffed and had no turnover from last year. “Previously we had a ton of turnover,” she said.
But if the school board scraps the current curriculum mid-year, she said, “We will have a huge amount of turnover in the English language-arts department, and I’d be one of them. That would be too much for me.”
Lang echoed those sentiments. “I have never wanted to look for another job until this year,” she said. “I love my job. I was offered positions in Mancos, Durango, and Dolores, and I chose Cortez because of the diversity.
“I want to help students to be globally minded, critically thinking individuals.”
Lang said the possibility of the board curtailing the Friday Lunch Bunch – a lunchtime gathering for LGBTQ or any other students to give each other support – is another blow.
“It’s been an ongoing battle over the Lunch Bunch. People think ‘this must be CRT if we are letting kids talk about their identity.’
“All of this makes you not want to fight the good fight. We are fighting for kids. Some of them have had such bad lives. We have high poverty rates. There are a lot of difficulties for some of them.”
The Cortez school district is near the bottom of the state in terms of teacher salaries, increasing the difficulty of finding qualified people to fill vacancies, Lycan noted.
“We are not competitive with the surrounding districts. This is the Four Corners. We lost one person to Utah this year. And we’ve lost lots to Shiprock, Mancos, Dolores and Durango because they pay better. Any teachers coming to this area are going to teach in Durango; they pay $10,000 a year more.
“We have loyal, highly qualified teachers hanging on with their fingertips. If we have a big teacher turnover at the end of the year because the community has not stepped up to help us solve this crisis, we have the option of teaching kids online by unqualified people.
“We have to be willing to pay what teachers should make, not what a babysitter should make.”
Talk of rejecting the current curriculum is worsening teacher morale, the two said. What happens next will decide the outcome for the district.
“It can go two ways,” Lang said. “The board can pull the curriculum. If that happens, teachers will quit, if we cannot teach honoring diversity in our classes.
“But we hope our new superintendent hears our voices and uses her leverage to say no, we can’t go against the wishes of teachers. We are living in a state of fear. Are they going to pull the curriculum because it’s easier to do that? It’s going to be so much harder to find teachers, and some in our district are the best in the state.”
Lycan said the current state of affairs cannot continue.
“The situation we are in is unsustainable due to lots of things that weren’t here 20 years ago,” Lycan said. “You have to deal with school shootings, then you add COVID, then a community that’s not helping but is actively trying to reverse the work we have put in to improve our schools – that is a rough road.
“I’ve been here six years and only a handful of teachers have been here longer then me. The teachers who have stuck it out are really good working with our demographic. You don’t want to lose them. The curriculum committee should be working overtime to help us instead of overtime to change a curriculum that works.”