Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards

By Sarah Lahm

August 25, 2015

Stay with me. In early August, several Minneapolis teachers contacted me about an early literacy training session they had been to. What happened there shocked and offended many of them. I am happy to help tell their stories, which I decided to do in a series of blog posts. The stories center on two teachers–one white, one a teacher of color–and their reactions to the religiously tinged, “Common Core” ready, and all-around offensive training they attended. The teacher of color does not feel comfortable using her real name. Lazy Lucy

PART ONE: Outsider’s imprint 

Roxanne Berger is just the kind of teacher the Minneapolis Public Schools says they want and need: She is bright, young, and devoted to the first graders she teaches in a northside elementary school. And, she is a person of color in a district, city, and country that constantly claims to want to “diversify” its teaching force.

But Roxanne Berger is not her real name. 

“Roxanne” does not feel comfortable going public for this story. She says that, in just under five years on the job, she has already spoken out about the entrenched racism and “white savior” climate she sees at her workplace. She feels she is on thin ice with the district and some of her coworkers.

She wants to lie low and teach but can’t stop herself from speaking out about a district-sponsored training she attended on August 5th and 6th of this year.

The training did not go well.

It was put on by a Utah-based company called Reading Horizons. Earlier this year, the Minneapolis Public Schools entered into a contract with Reading Horizons, said to be worth $500,000, to purchase a phonics curriculum and ongoing coaching services, intended for the city’s K-2 teachers.

Part of the reason for this new curriculum is to bring Minneapolis teachers more in line with the Common Core State Standards. a controversial set of K-12 math and reading standards that 43 states have adopted (Minnesota only brought on the Language Arts guidelines). Making sure all kids receive “foundational skills,” such as explicit phonics instruction, is part of this, as is the focus on getting all kids reading by 3rd grade.

But Berger says the training was flawed and offensive from the moment it started until Berger finally walked out on day two, unable to stand it anymore.

First of all, Berger says, the trainer immediately revealed her bias against the very schools Berger has worked in. “She introduced herself by saying she was from Kansas City, but lived in the suburbs. She said she didn’t go downtown because, ‘Frankly, it’s scary.’” 

Berger says the Reading Horizons trainer then kept referring to “poverty schools,” and how people should not work in them for more than five years. She knew this from personal experience, Berger says, as she told the teachers before her that she herself had made the mistake of working in a “poverty school” for seven years, at which point her “empathy went down.”


Berger says she wrote down everything the trainer said and has a mountain of Post-It notes to prove it. After the first session ended, she went in search of someone to talk to about what she was witnessing.

She found Minneapolis Public Schools employee Amy Jones, who is the director of elementary education for the district’s Teaching and Learning department.

Berger said Jones reminded her that “the Reading Horizons trainer isn’t employed by the Minneapolis Public Schools” and therefore doesn’t represent the district’s views and values.

Berger says Jones also promised to talk with Reading Horizons about the concerns Berger expressed.

Berger walked away, but came back for day two, fully expecting that Jones would have talked with the training employee. But, she says, that employee didn’t acknowledge anything or address the feedback Berger had put in Jones’s hands.

“That’s when I just got disengaged, and started checking my phone and email,” Berger said, noting that the district was paying her–and all teachers at the training–around $25 per hour for being there.

After a lunch break, Berger says the Reading Horizons employee rolled out the books, called “Little Books,” that teachers are to use with their students as a way to reinforce Reading Horizons’ lesson plans.

“We had heard on the first day of the training that MPS had contracted with Reading Horizons, and asked them to make books that were representative of the students we teach, so I was expecting that they would be.”

What she saw instead made her blood boil.

As the trainer handed out the packages of books–there were 54 books, total–Berger lost it.

RH Nieko & Dad

Click for a close-up

“I saw the book called ‘Nieko, the Hunting Girl,’ and I just said, Oh my fucking God. I started taking pictures of what I was seeing, and posting it on Facebook.”  

The cover of “Nieko the Hunting Girl” reveals a Disney-like version of “Indians.” The character Neiko is pictured with her father, and both are wearing simple headbands and indistinguishable “Native” clothing, intended to be reflective of the Stone Age era, it seems. In the story, Nieko and her father set off on a hunting mission. The animal they are seeking is the wooly mammoth, which became extinct thousands of years ago.

RH Nieko Cover RH Nieko Pic

Around her, in the training room, Berger found herself in a surreal scene, where she says her fellow teachers were mostly engaged in complaining about how the books had been packaged, while her own blood pressure was going through the roof. Book after book, she says, was loaded with racist, sexist, “heteronormative” themes and images. The only kings portrayed are white men, for one thing, and the books about Africa seem sloppily done, with an awkward, outsider’s imprint.

Example: A book called “Lazy Lucy” features a 6-year-old girl in an unspecified part of Africa. She is lazy and needs to get better about cleaning out her hut. Then, in another book called “An African Fable,” a man dressed in Western-looking clothing is trying to put a belt and buckle on a dog named “Uncle Chuckle.” African Fable cover

It’s hard to tell what makes the story an African fable.

There’s more. Berger noticed that, out of 54 books, “only one had an Asian character, who appeared to have been adopted by a white family.”  Yet the training was being held at Hmong International Academy, a north Minneapolis magnet school with a specific focus on Hmong culture and language.

Berger says she finally told the group her thoughts. “I told them, ‘I’m so angry, I can’t speak,” and that these books make me sick.”

She says she went through the offending books, giving Shirk each book’s title and the issues within them.

When recalling the last book, Berger becomes choked with emotion.

The book, about Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press (although the book refers to him as “Johann”), tells young readers that in 1492, Christopher Columbus “discovered America” after reading a book about Marco Polo’s own explorations. On the next page, a Christopher Columbus character is pictured standing amongst a globe and a few prominent question marks, with the following query:

“What do you think would have happened if Christopher Columbus had not read that book?” 

Columbus discovers America

Click for close-up

Her voice raw with pain, Berger reflected on Columbus’s complicated legacy: “I think of so much that would not have happened if he hadn’t read that book.”

It should be noted that in 2014 Minneapolis became the fifth city in the United States to declare Columbus Day “Indigenous People’s Day.” At the time, a National Public Radio report featured Lakota activist Bill Means calling the Christopher Columbus story “‘one of the first lies we’re told in public education.’”  

Click here for Part Two: Why teachers of color leave

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19 thoughts on “Phonics or indoctrination? Minneapolis teacher training takes a step backwards

  1. Karen Morrill

    Thanks for documenting this. I feel awful for the teacher(s) who stomached this awful hogwash and feared speaking out knowing that higher ups would probably protect their own ignorant and racist decisions.

  2. Lloyd Lofthouse

    The far right will never stop wanting to control how the rest of us things and lives our lives. They are the continuance of the Catholic Inquisitions and the Protestant-Catholic wars. In other words, “If you aren’t one of us and/or we suspect you aren’t, we are going to eradicate you eventually after doing all we can to brainwash you even if we have to torture you.”

    The evidence: Four in 10 Americans believe God created the Earth and anatomically modern humans, less than 10,000 years ago, according to a new Gallup poll. About half of Americans believe humans evolved over millions of years, with most of those people saying that God guided the process.

    The anti-abortion movement

    The movement to take away a woman’s rights to even use contraceptives of any kind and labeling women who have sex out of marriage as whores—Limbaugh made a big deal out of this on his show recently and it cost him a lot of his sponsors and some radio stations cancelled his show.

    The pressure to rid the country of separation of church and state–It’s obvious that Jeb Bush is up to this unless he is supporting this movement to fool those people and get their votes.

    Teaching the fundamentalist translation of the Bible in the public schools

    Wanting to make Christian school prayers mandatory in the public schools

  3. Lloyd Lofthouse

    I just noticed you are asking for donations to keep this blog rolling. Unless you are paying someone to set up and maintain the blog, it isn’t that expensive. I have four Blogs through WordPress and I pay annual fees for the four domain names through WordPress but my cost is less than $100 a year.

    WordPress makes Blogging so easy, the blogger doesn’t need to hire a programmer to set up and maintain the site and it’s possible to have a Blog and a domain name for less than $20 annually.

    1. Post author

      Hi Lloyd, sorry if my point wasn’t clear. Running the blog is cheap. Doing it with no income or foundation money is not. I want to build this blog up as an independent source of education news, which I think is vital, given the topic of this blog.

  4. Barbara Hackett Cox

    This is incredibly disheartening and yet not surprising given the struggles of MPS for many, many years. Our legislature doesn’t believe teachers need training. Perhaps our educational leadership in districts and within state agencies, including members of the legislature, needs some ongoing, in depth training and professional development surfacing the hidden racial bias and negative cultural stereotypes within program structures, policies, curriculum resources and individuals – particularly those who don’t believe this is a problem. With local resources such as Ancestry Books, Birchbark Books and a growing network of academics, educators, artists, and community based organizations who are working collaboratively to build individual and organizational capacity to recognize, design and implement high quality, culturally relevant resources and programming. There is no excuse for the pervasive systemic racism that persists in Minnesota.

  5. Jeffrey Peyton

    In another world, every teacher would have stood up and walked out. Acting in concert, they would have demanded that the school system allocate the funds spent on this ludicrous material to their budgets and other enhancements. If these teachers were trained to be more creative and resourceful, all they would need to engage kids and create powerful learning experiences is construction paper and other materials that invite kids and teachers to make their own learning pathways. We are a nation of consumers and have lost all sense of the individual’s responsibility to create things—especially when working with young people who desperately need to be shown what creativity and innovation look like. We are victims because in large part we have not stood up to the bullying and force-feeding of teachers and of course our kids. Play-based media is an antidote to the these and a host of toxins and habits, But getting teachers to pick up on Play is yet another challenge. We are our own worst enemy.

  6. Junita G

    “She found Minneapolis Public Schools employee Amy Jones, who is the Director of Elementary Education for the district’s Teaching and Learning department. Berger said Jones told her not to worry about the offensive nature of Shirk’s presentation, and instead reminded her that “the Reading Horizons trainer isn’t employed by the Minneapolis Public Schools and doesn’t represent our views and values.”” So the district spent $500,000 on a curriculum that needed to be overhauled due to racist content, and how much extra does that cost and WHY would they pay a trainer who speaks offensively? Amy Jones needs to take responsibility for this decision. What is Jones’ educational background and experience? How can she effectively represent the district and advocate for students if she’s OK with hiring a trainer who speaks like Eden Shirk and passing on such curriculum? There used to be an authentic curriculum and instruction department full of trained educators in Minneapolis Public Schools before the “Teaching and Learning” department run by a former TFA corps member and McKinsey employee was hired to run the show. Connect the dots to the $$$.

  7. David Greenberg

    Really concerning that the primary value of this organization is articulated as: “Faith – We believe in a higher purpose to life. We seek to do His will and to achieve balance in our lives.”

    Thank you for sharing this information. As a parent of a child in MPS, I will definitely be asking some questions.

    1. Post author

      Yes–I stumbled on that “Core Values” section too. I’ll post about that tomorrow–

  8. Kristen

    They aren’t going to teach this stuff in our schools now that they know it’s terrible are they? Is there something we can do to stop it? We shouldn’t be wasting $500,000 let alone $5 on this. I hope MPLS public schools are attempting to get money back to put it to better use.

  9. Jay

    Did you notify the trainer to see if she wanted her real name used?
    It only seems right to offer her the same as “Roxanne” also
    Donations for your blog seems a little over the top but, if it works,
    More power to you.

    1. Post author

      So…I shouldn’t be expecting a donation from you, I guess. More power to both of us!

  10. joann

    Minneapolis public school wast money,iWork for Minneapolis school for years and when you go to them about something they never do nothing about it one time I unpack some books at a school I worked at some nice books of color never did they pass out or use these books where did they go Minneapolis public school wast money but they will get rid of ppl that work in the school system ppl of color fast and for no reason sad

  11. Joe Wolf

    Hi Sarah – thank you so much for this series of posts, and the blog in general. I’m originally from the Upper Midwest and have a large group of friends in Minneapolis. They’ve all been encouraged to follow and support your efforts here.

    Joe Wolf
    K-12 Planning Coordinator
    Seattle Public Schools


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