Maine’s Largest City Fully Implementing Wabanaki and Black Studies Curriculums

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Full implementation of new curriculums on local indigenous peoples’ culture and on black studies is occurring in kindergarten and grades 1, 3, and 7 this school year in public schools in Portland, Maine, a school official said.

Come the 2024-2025 school year, full implementation is expected pre-kindergarten through fifth grade and grades 7 through 11.

The Portland Board of Education heard a presentation on the curriculums Tuesday, September 19.

In 2001, the Maine state legislature approved a bill (signed into law by then-governor Angus King) requiring “Maine Native American history and culture” to be included in “the areas of social studies and modern and classical languages.”

That hasn’t happened in most places in the state.

As for black studies, in June 2021, Maine Governor Janet Mills signed a bill into law requiring (as of July 1, 2023) African-American studies “to be included in the review of content standards and performance indicators of the system of learning results” that are required by state law.

In the black studies curriculum in Portland, all of the textbooks are written by African-American authors or African authors, said Fiona Hopper, the school district’s social studies and Wabanaki studies coordinator, who guided the building of the Wabanaki curriculum and is leading development of the black history curriculum.

Jared Lank, who teaches Wabanaki culture at the University of Southern Maine in Portland, told school board members that members of the Wabanaki are coming up with a collection of books on the subject they consider legitimate.

Lank said:

“It takes, it’s an intergenerational, multi-generational approach to create intellectuals of unoppressed people, right? And it takes efforts like this to create that capacity and that workforce. We just now as Wabanaki people are creating our own intellectual canon, where we are able to create our own research that is vetted and proven legitimate by other experts that are indigenous. Right? That is a very new thing. Until previously, most of these efforts were done by white academics that were not part of the culture and they were vetted by non-indigenous people. So this is a new phenomenon where you’re creating a canonical literary source, and efforts like this, like the Wabanaki curriculum and the black history curriculum equip students in the future to be able to create that canon for themselves, culturally, and represent themselves and stand up when curriculums are incorrect.”

Hopper, who identifies as white, wrote an article in 2021 about developing the Wabanaki curriculum for the John Dewey Society’s Journal of School & Society.

In it, she says that the dams built in Maine by European settlers during colonial times to power mills and assist logging, which harmed fishing for indigenous people, say a lot about present-day America.

“White supremacy and settler colonialism are structures that shape contemporary American society, just as dams shape habitat,” Hopper’s article states.

Julianne Opperman, a school board member who said she taught science for 40 years, praised the new Wabanaki and black studies curriculums during the meeting Tuesday night.

She also noted the problem of covering disparate historical material in limited time.

“I went to high school in the ‘60s and I didn’t get World War I and II because last quarter we did black history,” Opperman said.

Earlier in the meeting, a school administrator said the new curriculums fit well with what Portland school officials are trying to accomplish.

“It’s really based in inquiry that our social studies instruction gives students the opportunity to explore relationships, to deepen their cultural humility, to develop critical thinking skills, and then to really use all of that to take civic responsibility and action about relevant issues in their lives and to deepen their own identities within an understanding sort of larger systems,” said Jesse Robinson, the Portland school district’s director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment. “So again, really cool amazing stuff. This is happening pre-K to 12.”


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