TOPSHAM — Teachers at Mt. Ararat High School for months have been taking a closer look at how to discuss  diversity and equity since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the spring.

That includes English teacher Emily Vail, who received permission from the Maine School Administrative District 75 school board last week to add a play that deals with racism to her Advanced Placement Literature curriculum.

Vail, who grew up in a predominately white community, sought to include the play in an effort to make the curriculum more diverse.

“I feel it’s my responsibility to help students, especially those in our predominately white community, understand the ongoing dilemma of racism and how it affects everyone in our society,” Vail wrote in her proposal to the MSAD 75 school board. “Reading and discussing literature gives us the opportunity to examine diverse perspectives, develop empathy for others, and imagine alternative possibilities. It helps us see and understand the world in ways we can’t within the limited realm of our own experience.”

The push to make MSAD 75’s curriculum more diverse comes after the death of 46-year-old George Floyd. Floyd, a Black man, died while in police custody after Derek Chauvin, then a Minneapolis police officer, kneeled on the back of Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes.

Vail said she researched anti-racism instruction over the summer as part of her graduate work. Those materials and resources suddenly a priority for educators.

The second act of the 2011 play, “Clybourne Park,” includes raw and explicit language, Vail said. The first act, set in 1959, focuses on a white family selling their suburban home to buyers they were dismayed to learn are African American. In the second act, set in 2009, a white couple is buying the same home that is now in a largely African American neighborhood.

Junior Anya Bachor, a student in Vail’s AP Literature class of mostly seniors, also said it’s important for students to have exposure to texts that explore issues of racism and bias.

“I think it’s important because in a lot of situations people don’t talk about (racism) as much, especially in Maine where it’s not a very diverse community,” Bachor said Friday.

Bachor has served on the Civil Rights Team since seventh grade. While she doesn’t believe there is “outright explicit racism” taking place in the school, she said there could be a lack of diversity.

According to the Maine Department of Education’s most recent data for MSAD 75, only 0.8% of the 2,406 students in MSAD 75 in 2018-19 were black or African American; 1.2% were Asian, 2.3% were Hispanic or Latino, 0.1% were Native American and 3.2% were of two races or more.

Bachor said while racism isn’t something she looks forward to discussing, it’s not a conversation she shies away from.

“It’s just an uncomfortable conversation because people don’t listen and they’re in a mindset,” she said.

A small English class can have a deeper discussion of a text dealing with racism as they learn about diction and syntax, Bachor said.

School Board member Holly Kopp, a member of the board’s Curriculum Instruction Assessment Committee which discussed the play with Vail, said this is the only text that requires parents to consistently sign off on allowing their child to read the play.

“I trust Ms. Vail is going to bring something that is thought providing to the class,” said school board member Tyler Washburn. “I do think that having parents have the ability to opt-out if they want to — this is a senior AP class, these kids are almost adults — I think that to me, this is pretty straightforward.”

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