Harmful Lessons: How Kentucky classrooms can perpetuate violence and what we can do about it

Curriculum violence can be either intentional or unintentional, but it still negatively impacts students and causes lasting harm.

A school white board is at the front of a classroom. Empty seats at a long desk are in front of it, with backpacks on the backs of chairs and textbooks spread across the desk.

Content warning: this article contains descriptions of curriculum violence.

When most people think about violence in schools, the first idea that might come to mind is horrific physical violence such as school shootings or the physical bullying that occurs to around 19% of all high school students, according to a 2021 report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. And while the word “violence” typically suggests acts of physical harm such as these, that’s not the only kind of violence that occurs in our schools. Oftentimes, verbal and emotional violence are just as prevalent. When embedded within the school’s curriculum, this form of violence becomes even more harmful for students. There’s a term for this: curriculum violence, created by two Black scholars, Erhabor Ighodaro and Greg Wiggan. In their book, America’s New Civil Rights Issue, the authors defined curriculum violence as “academic programming” which “compromises the intellectual or psychological well-being of learners.” Curriculum violence can be either intentional or unintentional, but it still negatively impacts students and causes lasting harm. 

What Can Curriculum Violence Look Like?

What does curriculum violence look like in practice? One example can be seen through an assignment given to students at the Roeper School in Birmingham, Michigan. The assignment instructed elementary science students to pick from a gallery of photos labeled apes, monkeys, and lemurs. Among the pictures of the animals was an image of former President Barack Obama.  This is a clear example of curriculum violence that dehumanizes Black people by equating a Black man to a primate, and risking that those students exposed to it will carry emotional trauma with lasting negative impacts. Another example occurred last school year at a primarily Black middle school in Rochester, New York. In a 7th-grade social studies class, students were told to pick seeds out of cotton and take turns handcuffing each other during a role-playing lesson about slavery. By asking students to reenact the horrors of slavery, the teacher was engaging in precisely what meets Ighodaro and Wiggan’s definition of  curriculum violence.  

Though often not intentional, curriculum violence even describes some of my educational experience here in Kentucky. On February 14, 2019, one year after the school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where a gunman killed 17 people, my school had a remembrance of that tragic shooting called the “National Day of Kindness.” We were instructed to commemorate this day by engaging in 17 acts of kindness, creating an assumption that those acts of kindness would theoretically prevent the types of school shootings that happened in Parkland. Although this event was well-meaning, the “National Day of Kindness” put the emotional burden of preventing school shootings on students and suggested to me that the victims were to blame.This performative attempt of sympathy is what I would describe as curriculum violence. Similarly, my school’s annual elementary Thanksgiving pageant–where students dress up as turkeys, pilgrims, or Native Americans (which were represented as one generic group of people–not diverse tribes and communities with distinct languages and cultures as we know them to be)–shares a sanitized view of Thanksgiving, with misrepresentations and racist tropes in place of true history. The real story of Thanksgiving is one full of conflict, colonization, and pain for many Indigenous children and their families. This gap in the teaching of equitable history is also a form of curriculum violence. 

What’s Not Taught

Curriculum violence expands beyond what is taught in the classroom and encompasses what is not taught as well. For example, an English classroom that focuses on the works of straight, white, male authors or protagonists erases LGBTQ+ and BIPOC voices from the curriculum. This, too, has a lasting negative impact on students. Ash Nordman, a senior at Beechwood High School and the president of the school’s Gay Straight Alliance expresses that the school’s lack of LGBTQ+ representation in reading choices makes them feel invisible: “It’s like we don’t exist.” Nordman argues that “we need to include more books in our curriculum that are by and about LGBTQ+ individuals to show kids that there are people like them who exist in the world and that they’re not alone.” 

The Importance of Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy

Teachers are not typically the problem, especially since they don’t always approve curricula. In Kentucky, Senate Bill 1 passed in 2022 mandates that superintendents, in consultation with their school boards, approve all curricula taught in public schools. Teachers create lessons, but superintendents approve the curriculum. In addition, many teachers have not been trained in culturally sustaining pedagogy (CSP). Effie Fugate, an English teacher at Simon Kenton High School in Independence, Kentucky, shares that she has not been trained in this topic during her 13 years as an educator. However, Fugate strongly believes that “it should be mandatory that all educators should receive formal training in culturally sustaining pedagogy, and it should be mandatory that this is updated each year.” Fugate believes this is necessary for schools to become safe places for all students to learn. 

Similarly, Dr. Damien Sweeney, Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging at the Kentucky Department of Education, told The New Edu that he believes CSP– both in curriculum and instructional practices– “enables students to maintain their cultural integrity while succeeding academically.” Sweeney explains that KDE defines belonging as “the degree to which learners believe, experience, and feel that they are accepted by adults and peers, as well as respected as a valued contributor in their learning and social environment.” We can’t do this without dispelling the myths about CSP. When the topics of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging come up, Sweeney states that “there are people who automatically become defensive and believe that you are going to have a political agenda, which is not the case.” He proposes that we can help bring about positive changes in our classrooms if we remind people of what the terms diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging actually mean. 

To achieve a safe space for all students, we must alleviate curriculum violence in our classrooms. In order to do so, we should advocate for superintendents to adopt curricula that are culturally responsive and advocate for CSP training for all teachers. We also need to pressure teacher preparation programs to integrate these kinds of teaching practices into their curriculum as well. This work is essential in order to allow all students to grow to their full potential in a safe and equitable learning environment.

 For more information, visit the many resources provided by the Kentucky Department of Education, aimed to help school districts and teacher education programs with this important work.


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