Sunday, November 05, 2017

Do You Want Trumpanzee In Your Child's Classroom?


When I read Jeff Flake's Enough OpEd for the Washington Post on October 24, I thought it should be mandatory reading material for every civics class in America. Every teacher I suggested it to reminded me there haven't been civics classes in America-- one of the reasons we're stuck with a Trump in the White House-- since I was in grade school. On top of that, regardless of their own partisan positions, none of them thought it was a very good idea or that it would fly with their school's administrators, never mind the kids' parents. Living history is tough to teach. You read though, right? Crucial reading, and, likely, the only thing history will remember Jeff Flake for.

Ever hear of Bright Magazine? Friday Ruben Brosbe, a public school teacher in NYC with a masters from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote his own OpEd, Should Teachers Talk Trump in Class?. He thinks so. "Teachers are told to check their politics at the classroom door. But ultimately, I believe remaining 'neutral' is dangerous for an already polarized country." He sounds like the kind of teacher everyone wished they had. I asked some of my teacher buddies to read it.
One of my most powerful memories in nine years of teaching was January 20, 2009. I was sitting on a gymnasium floor in the Bronx, surrounded by Black and Latinx elementary school students, watching Barack Obama become president of the United States, wearing a black t-shirt I had bought in Chinatown emblazoned with a picture of the new first family. There was electricity in the air. Beyond the history of the moment, it felt like I was watching a giant, invisible barrier to my students’ futures crumble to the ground.

Eight years later, the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration was a profoundly different, but no less emotional, day in my classroom. My students in Harlem were angry, confused, and anxious. One student said, “I’m feeling disappointed, because if Trump is president I won’t have anyone to take care of me because my mom isn’t from this country.” That day I wore my usual work attire, a button-down shirt, tie, and slacks.

As a teacher, I understand the boundaries of professionalism means keeping my political beliefs to myself. And yet, teaching in New York City, in a community that’s considered one of the most Democratic-leaning in the country, I have found it is sometimes easy to blur that line. In New York City, Chancellor’s Regulation C-110 states, “Officials and employees shall not advertise their business, political, or professional activities on Department of Education property.” In keeping with that, I have never told my students whom I voted for, nor have I shared stories of my activism with progressive groups like Showing Up for Racial Justice and others.

The pressure for teachers to remain politically neutral comes at a time when political polarization is worsening and as Americans are segregating themselves into redder and bluer communities. According to the 2017 Cook Political Report Partisan Voter Index, currently there are only 72 districts in the House where the winning candidate won by 5 percent or less. That represents a 56 percent decline from 1997--  and a 20 percent decline from just 2012. A study released June of last year by the Pew Research Center found that Republicans and Democrats have grown more deeply negative toward one another, with more than 40 percent of each group seeing the other as a “threat to the nation’s well-being.”

The threat to teachers who appear to be pushing their own politics goes back at least as far as the 1930s, when anti-Communist hysteria was reaching a peak. As Dana Goldstein wrote in Teacher Wars, tens of thousands of teachers lost their jobs not only because of teaching that was construed as “anti-American,” but also due to out-of-classroom activism.

In The Classroom Wars, Dr. Natalia Petrzela wrote about the battles over bilingual and sex education in California in the 1960s. The stories of liberal San Mateo and conservative Orange County illustrate how different communities may fight against the same topic for different reasons. In Orange County, conservative families pushed back against a moderate sex education proposal. “Families got it in their mind that this was a communist plot to turn kids into anti-American sex slaves who would disobey their parents and disrupt the family unit,” Petrzela told me. Meanwhile in San Mateo, there were arguments about teacher quality and tax dollars.

Today tenure protections are much stronger than the 1960s, and yet there are numerous public examples of teachers who became targets by making choices some would consider political. In June 2015, North Carolina teacher Omar Currie was forced to resign amid controversy after reading an LGBT-friendly children’s book, “King and King,” to his third grade students. His story made national news after the Washington Times wrote about the controversy.

Whether it’s fear of crossing a district regulation, angering a student’s family, or becoming the focus of a cable news story, the end result is that most teachers avoid topics that could result in controversy. And as polarization increases, so does the number of topics to avoid. As Dr. Meira Levinson, founder of the Justice in Schools project, put it via phone, “Arguments in favor of certain forms of gender equality are seen as partisan. Claims that x is racist or anti-democratic are seen as partisan where they weren’t a couple of years ago.”

Curious about how other teachers navigate these questions, I spoke to educators in Amarillo, Texas, located in the most Republican-leaning district in the United States; Pinellas County, Florida, a swing district in a swing state; and the Bronx, in New York. Not surprisingly, I found that I was not alone in feeling strained by today’s hyper-partisan climate. I also found that many teachers struggle to remain neutral, whether their schools are in red, blue, or purple communities.

Shanna Peeples was named the 2015 National Teacher of the Year. Amarillo, where Peeples taught for 14 years, is located in Texas’s 13th congressional district, ranked the “most Republican” district in the United States by Cook’s PVI since 2012.

Peeples made news in her hometown and beyond in October 2016 when she co-signed a letter by a group of National Teachers of the Year opposing Donald Trump’s candidacy. Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post shared the letter under the headline: “Teachers are expected to remain politically neutral. These Teachers of the Year say they can’t.” Peeples’ hometown newspaper, the Amarillo Globe-News wrote, “In getting into the political fray, Peeples, a former Palo Duro High School teacher, breaks with a common expectation that educators remain politically neutral.”

According to Peeples, there was a strong backlash in Texas. “They hated that I expressed an opinion and broke my neutrality,” Peeples said.

In Pinellas County, Donald Trump edged out Hillary Clinton by one percent. According to Pamela Himmel, a middle school science teacher in Palm Harbor, on inauguration morning some teachers came fully dressed in red, white, and blue and had decorated the doors of their rooms. “There wasn’t a lot of mystery of who they supported,” she said. About three-fourths of her students are white. Himmel recalled some of her students of color “would walk up to me [and ask] ‘Can I have a hug today?’ because they just needed some reassurance in the world.”

Teachers I spoke with shared a desire to teach without pushing a particular political agenda. But they also expressed a frustration at feeling silenced from addressing important issues of the day.

Dan Strohofer is an elementary school teacher in Pinellas County. Leading up to the presidential election, his third graders would repeatedly bring up the candidates. When they did, it caused a lot of anxiety for Strohofer, who is in his fifth year in the classroom. “I had a fear of malpractice,” he said. He would tell the students, “We can’t talk about that,” rather than risk running afoul of parents or his administration.

Yolanda Cruz, retired after more than 20 years of teaching elementary school in the Bronx, disagrees. “I think if a topic comes up a teacher should be able to use their judgment and not run from it,” she said.

Ultimately though, treating politics and other controversial topics as taboo does a disservice to kids and to our future democracy. But facilitating these conversations isn’t easy. “Schools need to model and facilitate those discussions but there aren’t any hard and fast rules,” Dr. Levinson said. Teaching young people to engage in, rather than avoid, critical conversations may be a way schools can truly navigate today’s polarized national ecosystem.

Dr. Paula McAvoy, co-author of The Political Classroom with Dr. Diana Hess, sees schools as playing a crucial role in this era of extreme political polarization. “Schools are one of the few places where we might teach young people to go beyond the rhetoric of the campaign and examine evidence and these are the things we need people to do to live in a democracy, particularly a polarized democracy,” she said.

Rather than aspiring for neutrality, McAvoy prefers the term “fairness.”

Not all “controversial” issues are equal, or even appropriate. Discussing the pros and cons of police body cameras, for example, could lead to productive discourse. On the other hand, debating climate change--  a phenomenon with scientific consensus in spite of the surrounding political controversy--  would likely not.

The Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility’s Teachable Moments project provides 10 ways teachers can engage with controversial topics in their classroom. Generally, the strategies mirror recommended pedagogical strategies such as finding out what students already know, making connections to students’ lives and families, and creating space for kids to opt out of conversations that make them uncomfortable.

Still, there are several barriers to implementing teaching that tackles tough topics. To begin with, school districts and principals would have to choose to proactively engage with controversial topics, something they’ve been unwilling to do so far. Furthermore, many controversial issues intersect with race and other forms of identity. The fact that 82% of American teachers are white, despite a “majority minority” student population, exacerbates schools’ reluctance to have these conversations. This, combined with the “sorting” phenomenon --  Americans, including teachers, choosing to live in politically like-minded communities--  decreases the likelihood that more teachers will engage in this type of instruction.

In the end, when we are asking educators to be neutral, we are asking for something that’s unrealistic or at least nonexistent in practically any other public space. “Given how poorly it’s being done, if it’s being done at all, in the larger society it’s hard to expect schools to do it well,” said Dr. Levinson. “They would be extraordinary institutions.”

I asked my sister, an elementary school teacher in New York. She thinks it's important that teachers do discuss uncomfortable subjects-- she named "politics, religion and sexual preference"-- in their classrooms but cautioned that "there are some crazy old teachers out there. I would not want them to give their personal opinions on these matters." I responded so only liberals are allowed to talk and the crazy old teachers have to shut their mouths??? Her first answer was "Yes." But then she sent me an e-mail saying "I don’t know what the answer is but I do know a lot of those teachers are pro-Trump and I wouldn’t want my kids to hear their opinions."

Another very distinguished, award-winning NYC school teacher who I asked for a comment, said "Not into putting anything in print about him ["him" presumably referring to Señor Trumpanzee, who I hadn't mentioned]. Too paranoid. Seriously... Nice anti-Trump-Pence march just passed our building. We opened windows and yelled and clapped in support."

Dan Levitin has been teaching undergraduates at Stanford in Palo Alto and grad students at McGill in Montreal, two of the best schools in North America. I had to check in with him on this as well:
The issue of teachers espousing political beliefs to their students is an important one. This is true for students of any age, whether schoolchildren in K-12, college students, or adult education. I find it conceptually similar to the issue of teachers espousing religious beliefs. The classroom is a place for learning, for opening minds to alternative ways of thinking, but not for badgering and cajoling students to adopt the teacher’s views. The whole point of education is to give people the tools to think for themselves.

In my 25 years of teaching psychology and neuroscience classes, the religion issue has come up more often than the political one, but both come up. The teacher’s job is to help a student sort through the facts of a matter, help them to understand which are validated facts and which are not, and then allow the student to come to their own conclusions.

The case of Trump might seem a bit tricky but it’s not. It is certainly possible to separate politics from pedagogy and education. Left leaning teachers may oppose or even abhor much of what the right has as its platform, regarding climate change, taxation, health care, isolationism, to name just a few. An effective teacher will point out where an administration-- any administration-- is playing loose with facts or logic. This is not a political issue. We need to fact check Trump and relentlessly call out his lies not because he is a republican, but because he is a liar and someone who has no regard for truth or facts. I would say the same thing about a Democrat or anyone who adopted a similar ignorant and uneducated view of the world.

As a practical matter, in the classroom, the teacher needs to be sensitive to the fact that his or her students (and their parents) may disagree about which political party and which individuals will help us reach our goals (which for most people includes health, safety, freedom, and prosperity). How we can best achieve those is a matter of opinion. But that opinion should be informed by facts. Before we can decide whether to spend hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars on a new freeway, we need to know if people will use it. Before we decide on something like the death penalty, we need to know the evidence about whether it helps us to achieve our end goals (deterrence?). We need to agree, as a society, on what the facts are before deciding how best to set public policy. Trump is the first president in my lifetime who, to my knowledge, does not care about facts. Even Nixon cared about facts-- he may have tried to erase them or lie about them, but as a trained lawyer, he respected them. As must we all.
And I couldn't let this question slip by without asking at least one of the Blue America candidates, right? It's obvious why I turned to North Carolina congressional candidate Jenny Marshall:
Goal ThermometerFor the past 4 years I worked at John F Kennedy High School, a high poverty school in the city center of Winston-Salem. The vast majority of my students are hispanic or black and they were very vocal about their dislike of Trump. Students have the freedom of saying what they feel in my classroom as long as they are using facts (we call them primary sources in history) and discuss it in a respectful manner (i.e. no name calling, etc). The day after the election I came back to my 8th and 9th grade social studies classroom and got ready to to teach whatever it was that I had planned for the day. My students were used our discussion format where we tackle the concept or issue of a time period and using point of view, bias, historical context, and other tools we used to find the deeper meaning. It was my job to help them understand not just the date and event, but why and how these issues thread across time. So, as I took my normal position close to the door to greet the students in the halls as they entered my classroom I could tell they were upset. We began class and the questions immediately flowed about what was going to happen now that Trump was President. They felt safe to share their fears of being deported, families being ripped apart because not everyone was documented, and panic about what kinds of future they would have under a President who said so many terrible things on the campaign trail. I scrapped my plans and each period my students and I sat down to talk about the election, both campaign's messaging and how to deal with people who didn't vote for the person they wanted. We talked about the powers of the President and his office. We talked about how to deal with the three teachers in the building who said they were going to vote for Trump and the betrayal they felt toward those teachers. Through it all I remained neutral in both my personal and political positions and even though they asked, I never revealed who I supported to win. I told them it was against the rules what those other teachers did and that as a social studies teacher I was held to an even higher standard because it is my job to be impartial in my teaching. I always stressed that they must make up their own minds based on the factual evidence and critically thinking about the issue. As an educator you wield enormous influence over your students. If you cannot check your bias at the door, well, then perhaps you should leave that topic for someone who can. Your classroom is not a bully pulpit.

Labels: , ,


At 4:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The best advice I got was to teach yourself about what interests you and do just what is expected of you in school until you can leave it. School isn't about education, but is instead about regimentation to prepare you for the military or workplace. The real education you need to know about yo get paid will happen there. The other education will be for yourself and be much more satisfying.

At 5:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

4:35, that is true today. Today, by the time you've gadgeeeated to the workforce or the military, it's already too late to learn and practice critical thinking skills, logic, reason, etc. All they teach you is rote memorization and American propaganda.

When I was in school and the viet nam war was turning into a debacle, we were asked to think about it, make decisions about it and defend our choices. Everyone who bothered to try got an A.

"One of my most powerful memories in nine years of teaching was January 20, 2009. I was sitting on a gymnasium floor in the Bronx, surrounded by Black and Latinx elementary school students, watching Barack Obama become president of the United States, wearing a black t-shirt ... emblazoned with a picture of the new first family. ... Beyond the history of the moment, it felt like I was watching a giant, invisible barrier to my students’ futures crumble to the ground."

I wonder what this one did after it was clear that obamanation was actually among the whitest presidents; after he refused to enact even one part of the mandate of 2009; after he iteratively caved to the demands of the R minority; after he ordered the murders of his first 1000 innocents via drone; after he refused to enforce existing banking and torture laws; after he offered cuts to SSI and Medicare to boner (which boner refused); after the US corporate sponsored neonazi coup in Ukraine succeeded...

Did he still wear that black t-shirt proudly? Did he make sure his students understood the degree of betrayal all that was?

Or was just having ANY melanin-enhanced empty suit enough for him?

At 2:01 PM, Anonymous Hone said...

It is important, even critical to our democracy, for teachers to present facts and issues that may be controversial without fear of repercussions. They can do so and should do so without getting directly into their personal belief system with their students, although of course, the latter would in some ways be reflected in the topics of discussion selected. Especially in high school, where higher level comprehension, critical thinking and analysis should be emphasized, it is important to present controversial topics for students to discuss and debate. Science, for one, is an essential area and climate change should be a frequent topic in science classes. Religion has no place in our educational system as per separation of church and state, although Betsy DeVos would not agree. Hopefully she will resign, and soon.


Post a Comment

<< Home