2 Ottoson students support change

The following letter to the editor was written by Juliette Ortiz and Maya Krishnan, both students at the Ottoson Middle School, 810 cluster:

colonial peirceColonial Days at Peirce in 2010. / Patch photo

Hello Members of the Arlington Community:

As the student leaders of the Arlington Regional Model United Nations & Civic Engagement Clubs (ARMUN) Middle School Team, we would like to add our voices to the discussion about Colonial Day. 

We would like to state clearly that we are very supportive of the action the administration of the Arlington Public Schools has taken to remove the wearing of costumes for Colonial Day.

To many in the Arlington population, dressing up in costumes reminiscent of Colonial times is considered an interactive learning experience for children.

However, we believe this tradition is insensitive to the students and families who have voiced concerns that period costuming subjects them to pain and distress. To force students to choose between being excluded from the celebration or to wear a costume that celebrates the white colonial power structure which persecuted their ancestors is no choice at all.

Just as Colonial Day was set up to ignore the persecuted experience of minorities during Colonial times by failing to represent costumes depicting oppressed populations, so today we see that there is a refusal to acknowledge the reality of the experience of the minority population that is harmed by this event. 

As a community, we should value respecting everybody and everybody's history, including the difficulties they faced.  We invite other students who attend Arlington Public Schools who agree with the positions that we have put forward in this letter to add their signatures.

For students who do not feel safe going public with their name, please list your school and grade or for Ottosen students, please list your cluster. Add your name here >>

This letter to the editor was published Monday, April 23, 2018.

Reconsider the decision

April 15 letter to School Committee and Superintendent Kathleen Bodie from 26 residents:

We are Arlington parents from several elementary school communities who request that you review the process used to arrive at the new, district-wide policy on the celebration of Colonial Day, and reconsider the outcome.

The new policy includes the prohibition of previously optional period costumes, and has led to the cancellation of Colonial Day in at least one school.

Not every elementary school community in Arlington chooses to celebrate Colonial Day. In those that do, however, it is more than a cherished tradition. It is one of the few immersive learning experiences available to our children. Many of us have volunteered at Colonial Day and can attest that students are engaged and enthralled to learn what daily life was like in Arlington (Menotomy at the time) hundreds of years ago.

Administrators' opposition

Much of the opposition to Colonial Day seems to be from administrators and parents who have never observed or experienced it. Children have enjoyed activities, such as changing their names for the day to those typical of the period (for example, Obediah or Charity), learning a school lesson that students at the time might have learned in a one-room schoolhouse, making butter or candles, and witnessing a mock "trial" in the Colonial-era justice system. They have eaten (and helped to prepare) apple crisp or Johnny cakes and participated in egg and spoon races, as well as other games of the time period.

Some students have chosen to wear costumes; others have not. It was not required. Many costumes were provided free of charge by the schools, and exchanged among families. Parents -- many of us with full-time jobs, who used vacation time to be there -- ran the activities. Those of us with older children have noted that 5th graders, when asked in their commemorative graduation books to list favorite memories of elementary school, often name the science trip and Colonial Day as the two highlights of their K-5 experience. 

Some of the discomfort with Colonial Day seems to be with the name itself, and a false impression that the day is a glorification of colonialism. But one of the definitions of "colonial," according to Merriam- Webster, is "made or prevailing in America during the colonial period." The colonial period is considered, in this region, to be roughly 1607 to 1783. Colonial Day is about recreating a day in the life of a Menotomy child in the mid-18th century.

Some argue that Colonial Day is an outdated, offensive tradition clung to by lifelong Arlingtonians. While many Arlington adults have fond memories of Colonial Day, most of us were not born in Arlington, or even in Massachusetts, and some of us were born outside the U.S. We advocate for maintaining this educational experience because we have watched our children learn and grow from it, and believe that teaching history in this hands-on way, with parental involvement and cooperation, has value.

Legitimate questions

Those who object to Colonial Day have raised legitimate questions, such as whether a different name (Menotomy Day? Living History Day?) would be more appropriate, and whether or not students are given a sanitized version of history. They have expressed concern that dressing in costumes is uncomfortable for some students, for a variety of reasons. These are points worthy of discussion, and we showed up, when invited by our School Council reps, ready to discuss them.

But, despite many recommendations that the administration engage the community and hold a public, open forum, the process that led to issuing the new policy did not allow for this discussion, and did not take into account all points of view. The process, frankly, has been unfair, and very far from transparent.

Dr. Bodie, last spring, you wrote to parents: "Next fall, we will convene a committee of parents, teachers, and administrators to examine Colonial Day as an event - how it fits into the social studies curriculum and how it can be meaningful, relevant, and inclusive for all students."

No response until March

This did not happen in the fall. Not until March 2018 were some of us invited to share our thoughts with School Council representatives. We did so, yet we were not given the option of attending the forum that apparently included district administrators, teachers and a select group of parents (not all from school councils).

According to a letter to parents from one of the elementary school principals:

"... In March, parents from our different school councils were invited to share their perspectives with district administration. The event was facilitated by an Arlington cultural competency consultant, Dr. Carlos Hoyt. I was able to attend the event, along with a handful of other teachers and principals. In small groups, we discussed the different perspectives around Colonial Day. Some of the exchanges were very powerful. Parents shared personal experiences with colonialism in other countries and the traumatic effects on their families."

None of us were given the opportunity to attend this session, despite the fact that many of us had repeatedly reached out to administrators to share our perspectives. Yet vehement opponents of Colonial Day, mostly people who have never participated in it, and were not School Council members, were invited to attend. How were attendees selected?

And why did the district do nothing to deal with this issue until March? If, as promised, the process had begun in the fall, all parties could have been heard, and schools would have had time to plan for this year. The fact that it was put off until March, along with the fact that the new policy was only emailed to K-3 parents, not to parents whose children have already experienced Colonial Day, implies that the administration made the decision without hearing all views, and kept it as quiet as possible.

We are deeply distressed that Arlington children will be deprived of a hugely rewarding educational experience, and concerned that the new policy will have the opposite effect of what the administration intended. It will breed resentment and create more division in Arlington, rather than encouraging inclusion and diversity, which we all want. We feel betrayed by the process, which was not conducted in a public, honest manner. 

We urge the School Committee to direct the superintendent to reconsider this decision, review the process that was used to make it, and to allow for more public input. It is not lost on us that everything we are asking for -– transparency from our leaders, a voice in our town activities, public participation –- is rooted in the tradition of the Colonial period. 

Christine Thielman
Mark Baranoff
Lauren and John Boyle 
Heather Crowley
Janine DiTore
Nora Frank
Jennifer Firneno
Carol Francis
Chris and Julie Hall
Melissa and Todd Hinck
Alena Hornakova
Inae Hwang 
Brett and Kate Loosian
Chad and Kate Mikkelson
Kerry Murphy
Katie Schneller
Doug and Molly Sanford
Deb Savage
Mary Wagner

[One name was deleted at the signer's request]

Opposing Colonial Days 

May 2017 letter from Erik Pohl of Arlington:

The ease of expressing support for a change, the difficulty of expressing opposition: 

The most outspoken in public forums are, naturally, those who support Colonial Days. I'd like to add to those voices in opposition of the costume portion of history education. I've seen the public comments of teachers who believe this is an effective educational tool, of parents of ethnic minorities who believe it supported their family's understanding of history without shame, and of concerned citizens who think listening to shamed family members is too big an expense if it costs kids the ability to wear costumes to school. What I haven't seen, understandably in this atmosphere, are the public comments of families who are not privileged enough [or fit in well enough] in Arlington to express their opposition publicly. 

The Underbelly of Some of the Support

After having turned the rock over to see the underbelly of some of those supporting Colonial Days, I can see why voices of opposition would be afraid. Some of the proponents of Colonial Days are, behind the scenes, cheering a site which, if I were to be charitable in describing it, is bigoted commentary. It also lists your number/email address, photo, as well as that of Paul Schlichtman's, for folks inside and outside of Arlington to contact you. I'm carbon-copying Arlington Human Rights Commission on this email so they can be aware of commentary, which includes the following comments about Arlington:

So ... then it's not really Colonial Day anymore. It's multicultural day. Latino kids have to come dressed in sombreros, Irish kids come with kilts and lice, Italians come with meatballs and gravy, and black kids come dressed for Kwanzaa. Because what better way to learn about different cultures than to pretend like no other cultures exist besides your own? What do you think this is, some sort of melting pot??

My personal stand is this:

I am privileged, my ancestors were not

I am a privileged white man. Half of my ancestry is a mixture of Cherokee, Catawba, and Creek Native Americans with the Scotch-Irish who migrated into the Appalachians. The Cherokee who form part of my ancestors were the ones who escaped Andrew Jackson's Trail of Tears, who managed to maintain an Eastern Band of Cherokee in the face of the genocidal actions which forced the other Cherokee west. Were I asked, as a kid, to dress up as someone from that time [not the colonial period, granted] -- I'd have a choice: dress as an oppressor ethnicity or dress as an oppressed ethnicity [my ancestry]. I'd rather not have that choice, nor for kids to be offered that choice.

My Cherokee ancestors would not be pleased if aware I were dressing as someone who drove them from their lands. Due to the way Native cultures were systemically deleted from history and suppressed from their practices, I might not even know how to represent them, and, even if a kid did, they would be acting out defeat, even if noble defeat, in the face of other classmates who acted out oppression. History is ugly. It is not kids in bonnets churning butter or "noble savages", the whitewashed picture of Natives which make people the most comfortable. To normalize this whitewashed view in the minds of 3rd graders does a disservice to those who have oppressed ancestors or are uncomfortable acting out this power dynamic.

The shame of being poor

What I do know of shame is being poor. My parents were public school teachers in a rural community. In middle school, we had Shakespeare Costume day. Shakespeare, as much as I love the language, really doesn't offer much in the way of opportunities for people of color or Jewish people. Not surprisingly, from that costume day, I didn't pick up much Shakespeare. There was a costume contest. My parents were broke, working a couple of jobs to keep us afloat. They tried to hide the shame of not being able to afford a nice costume for me and not having the time to craft one. I'd imagine in an affluent community like Arlington that the wage-gap could be even more extreme. A costume day just highlights the income and leisure discrepancies in our communities.

The educational value

I didn't grow up here. I realize your school system is probably much better than the one I came from. Like I said, I didn't learn much from Shakespeare Costume Day at school. As much as the idea behind acting out roles sounds like a good way to inspire historical learning, I'm concerned it normalizes a whitewashed interpretation of history, even if countered by frank discussions, and that the overall value is more entertainment than education. Heck, some parents sure sound like they love crafting costumes for their kids. I just don't support this as a mandatory activity for schoolkids, as I find the costs [literally and figuratively] to outweigh the educational value of the costume portion. The teaching of history in all its complexity is valuable, but the costumes seem to enforce a dilution of that history down to a lowest common denominator of commonly accepted stereotypes of what people looked like and how we wished they acted.

Arlington itself

It doesn't take much digging at all to see that Arlington was the beneficiary of the destruction of the Massachusetts people. This, along with the origin of Arlington as Menotomy, is well-known. Acting this out during Colonial Days would be forcing kids into an oppressor/oppressed power dynamic -- in costume -- without adequate guidance on how to do this in a historically accurate or respectful manner. Not acting it out whitewashes history and denies our community its actual past.

"1639 – Squaw Sachem and Webcowit deed to the people of Charlestown a large tract of land that includes part of present-day Arlington for the sum of 21 coats, 19 fathom of wampum, and 3 bushels of corn. She reserves a large parcel of land bordering the west side of the Mystic Lakes for her use until her death, and also for the use of the Indians for planting, hunting, and fishing, 'while the Squaw liveth.'

"Sadly, severe oppression forced the  Massachuset language and customs underground and eventually into extinction. Descendants of the  Massachuset do live on, however. But that same oppression tore great swaths of information from our history books and there are few records on Massachuset genealogy." 

Source >> 

The difficulty of standing up to oppression

My father tutored after school. Kids who acted out in his tutoring were clients, some the kids of doctors and attorneys. He'd tell me not to get angry as they mistreated him or his home. This lesson of how important wealth and status was stuck with me outside of his home small business, into school itself. It is difficult to stand up for things you are uncomfortable with. Therefore, those who feel Colonial Days is wrong for them and their families need allies and supporters.

I am one. 

Thank you for your patience with this email. 

Let me know how I can help be an ally.

Best Regards,

Erik Pohl

Letter seeking support for public schools' decision (deadline Thursday)

Posted to Arlington Progressives Facebook group:

The APS shelved the costumed part of Colonial Day, which was problematic for reasons of racial insensitivity. I know there is an effort to repeal/reverse the decision. 

Please if you feel inclined, take the time to sign this letter commending and offering support to the Arlington Public Schools' decision >> (Deadline is Thursday)

These letters were published with the authors' permissions Tuesday, April 17, 2018, and updated April 19 and 23, to emphasize the headline immediately above.