Updated: Parents Question the Inclusion of “Intercultural Dialogue” in High School Curriculum

Friday, February 17, 2017, 8:34 am
Karessa Wheeler

Above: Participants in Intercultural Dialogue, 2015. Photo Credit: Michigan State University’s Residential College in the Arts and Humanities

[Editor's Note: an explanation of the Intercultural Dialogue curriculum was submitted after this story was published; in the interest of balance we have updated the article to include that information.]

Four parents spoke at Monday’s East Lansing Public Schools Board meeting to ask that the administration immediately halt and review a program the parents call “value-laden” and inappropriate for high school.

Intercultural Dialogue is an eight-week workshop between students at East Lansing High School and Michigan State University's Residential College of Arts & Letters. It culminates in a reception in which students show that they have learned about different cultures.

[Edited to add] According to one of the Program's founders, Dr. Donna Rich Kaplowitz, "The goal of the program is to deepen students' ability to understand across racial identities and and to learn strategies to support one another...The ELHS English Department has focused the program primarily on English 1 and English 2 classes where students read books like March (John Lewis), A Raisin in the Sun, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

To supplement the curriculum, trained MSU facilitators in collaboration with classroom teachers work with students on developing skills to dialogue across racial identities. The program is built upon other similar university - high school programs developed across the country and in Michigan. Students learn about the difference between dialogue and debate and are invited to practice dialogue skills where participants are trying to add to the common pool of knowledge and listen deeply to others rather than try to debate one another. Kaplowitz also explains that "Students are invited to participate but nobody is ever required to share publicly in any part of the curriculum."

Parents were sent home information about the program stating that their child could opt out of the program. However, some parents worry that if a child opts out, he or she will face repercussions from the teachers and peers. And if they do take part, they risk being labeled and judged, said mother Tina Awokuse.

“I’ve worked hard to socialize my kids. This curriculum undermines all I’ve taught them,” she told the Board. “They are devaluing our perspective and our wisdom to our students.”

One mother said some of the lessons taught go against her religious beliefs.

“It is value- and ideologically -laden, and some of these values are in conflict with Christian-Judeo values,” said parent Karen Bonnell at the meeting. “Whether we agree or not, is it appropriate to have a values-laden course taught by an outside group?”

And mother Joanie Brogan said the communication between the schools and parents was inadequate.

“I really think communication needs to be sent by email or something stronger than handing a kid a note,” she said.

But Acting Superintendent Dori Leyko told the parents that, while her administration will undertake a thorough review of the program, they were going to allow it to continue this year.

“The project is already underway. The MSU students have been in classrooms. I have met with [High School Principal Coby] Fletcher and we have made a commitment with MSU and have a number of students and parents in support of this,” Leyko said. “It has run in the past. Before any further implementation, we will have a full curriculum review through the high school curriculum chairs, then the full curriculum council and then bring our recommendation to the Board.”

Board Trustee Yasmina Bouraoui defended the Intercultural Dialogue as a way for students to examine inherent biases and perspectives through which they view the world, and as a way to question whether other students maybe see things differently.

“This is not an imposition of an outside value. It is thinking about how you come at life every day,” Bouraoui said. “It is not imposing an external view on their religion or anything else. I actually like the curriculum because in the long term it makes the world a safer place for all students.”

Trustee Nichole Martin supports a full review of the program and questions whether it can put pressure on a student to conform or suffer “repercussions” that “can be detrimental.”