Tag Archives: early literacy training

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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