Let’s Plan A Unit! (Peter ​Anderson)

For policymakers, journalists, parents, and pundits a daily lesson is easy to understand. The teacher has a 45- to 90-minute period and covers certain content and skills. There are objectives and activities that unfold before an observer’s eyes. There is a beginning, middle,and end of a lesson that a typical observer–who had once been a child and youth sitting a few feet away from his or her teacher–can parse easily enough.

But not a unit. A unit is a collection of lessons lasting one to four or more weeks that has overall goals and an arsenal of activities. The various lessons connect daily objectives and tasks to unit goals. Few policymakers, school reformers, parents, and journalists have a sense of how much planning occurs before a teacher crosses the threshold of her classroom to introduce a new unit to her charges. Searching for resources, constructing engaging activities, getting feedback from students, assessing what students learn, all of these soak up a large chunk of a teacher’s time before, after school,at nights and during holidays. Here is one teacher’s description of a unit he created for his middle school students.

Peter Anderson teaches 7th grade English Language Arts in Northern Virginia. He is a National Writing Project teacher-consultant. This post appeared on his blog December 2,2016.

Just like pretty much everything else in teaching, planning for a unit is equal parts exhaustion and exuberance. A new unit is daunting. In one sense it’s sort of like the bags of holding from Dungeons & Dragons, capacious receptacles able to store and accommodate pretty much anything. But just because you can cram every formative assessment, common text, and standard into a unit doesn’t mean you should. As one of my old bosses used to say, if everything’s an emergency, nothing is.

The difference between a successful unit and a bundle of lessons cobbled together comes down to skill and preparation. As a perfectionist, I typically go overboard with the latter to make up for the former. Unfortunately, the planning process places a lot of stress on my holy trinity of anxiety, ADHD, and perfectionism. If I had to graph my stress level throughout a unit, it would resemble what Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher, told me is a sine wave.

The middle of the unit is always the least stressful; I’m teaching and students are at least going through the motions of learning. The end of the unit is when I have to face the results of what I’ve just spent the past few weeks trying to accomplish. It’s also when the machinery described throughout this post gets going again.

Planning a unit is like going food shopping. Or, I imagine it should be. I would never be tasked with such an important job because me + grocery stores = stupefaction. The volume of products found at any half-decent grocery store, to say nothing about the impact of music, fluorescent lighting, or signage, bogs my brain’s processor down. I lock up. (This is why my weekly trips to Trader Joe’s have to be as fool-proof as possible. I go every Saturday morning at 8:00 AM and navigate the aisles in the same order and purchase the same products in the same quantities. And even then I routinely space out and forget something or end up with a cart full of miscellaneous desserts.)

This year, after reading the outstanding Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell, I committed myself to a mentor text-based vision of the English classroom. The authors refer to mentor-based planning as “planning forward,” a clever nod to backward design. Instead of starting with the finished product, planning forward begins with a quality mentor text. Since all direct instruction and mini-lessons arise from the mentor texts, selecting the right mentors is pivotal.

Before I located mentor texts, I had to settle on the unit’s focus. After finishing up their memoirs, I asked each class what they wanted to work on next. A surprising number of them told me that they wanted to learn more about poetry. I don’t really like poetry (yeah, yeah), but who cares because the students wanted to do it, their enthusiasm is always infectious, and I didn’t want to burn them out with another ‘writing heavy’ unit. Found poetry was the first thing that popped into my head.

Over the summer I had watched a wonderful presentation on using found poetry in the English classroom. With the lesson still on my brain, I scoured the internet for examples of found poetry. What I found, while exciting and artistic and certainly representative of higher level thinking, felt a little meager to be the cornerstone of a full on unit. Confused, I emailed Allison Marchetti. She confirmed my concerns about found poetry and suggested reframing the unit around word choice. How do authors pick just the right words? Allison helped me see that starting with word choice would allow me to teach mini-lessons on denotation/connotation, syntax, vivid verbs/specific nouns, tone and mood, etc.

With the unit focus set in place, it was time to find mentor texts. I started out by picking the brains of my middle school teacher friends. What poems do middle school students enjoy? They have to be accessible but not simplistic, engaging but not vapid, written by diverse authors, be emblematic of a variety of perspectives, and they must pass the highlighter test. Oh, and they have to relate in some way to the larger theme of belonging. And be free verse. The hunt was on.

This is where the aforementioned stress comes in. I threw myself into the internet. I clicked, read, and copied, saving a dozen potential poems to my Google Drive from websites like Split This Rock, Poetry Soup, Poets.org, Poetry 180, and the Poetry Foundation. Since this was my first round of gathering, I erred on the side of quantity instead of quality. (This is also how I tend to write. Type up a whole bunch of words, remove 50%, rewrite 25%, and leave the final quarter untouched. Then repeat.)

Following along with Writing with Mentors, I next read through and annotated each poem, looking specifically for potential mini-lessons and teaching points. After a couple hours, I emailed Allison asking her to review my annotations and poem selections. I was in a holding pattern until I received her response, so I closed the laptop and did some chores. By the time Outlook received her reply I had refreshed my mailbox more times than I care to admit.

I’ve learned that my overwhelming need for instructional validation, certainly not one of my best qualities, is an important check against my tendency to plow forward without thinking. It’s tough to find someone willing to put up with my ceaseless flow of communications, so I try to change up who I pester every few months so as to avoid burning them out. Allison has been an amazing resource and I’m beyond fortunate to learn from her.

Allison’s reply (which, as always, came mercifully quick) confirmed my fear that the mentor texts I chose were might be too difficult. The students I teach are awesome, but I didn’t want to shoot myself in the foot by throwing poems at them that were developmentally inappropriate. By now I’ve learned that a poorly chosen text can derail even the best of lessons. So I clicked-and-dragged all of my annotated poems into a new Google Drive folder, went to the bathroom, and started again. This time I decided to ask my PLN for help. I queried Twitter and received a few solid recommendations.

Over the course of ninety minutes, the amount of tabs open in my internet browser bloomed from the five to twenty-five and then back again, each successive closing representing a successful find or a hasty refusal. Half a pack of gum later and I’d found and annotated a new set of mentor texts. The next two days were spent writing and rewriting lessons for the first week. But that’s for another post.

The beginning of a unit in many ways sets the stage for what follows. This is one of the reasons I hem and haw so much about finding the right texts and planning the right introductory reading like a reader/writer activities. All of the previously described activity took place over Thanksgiving break. I spent as many hours as my marriage would allow hunkered down behind my dusty school Dell. What a privilege it is to be able to spend so much time devoted to making minute pedagogical tweaks that, in all honesty, probably have very little effect on anything.


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Cartoons on the Politics of Schooling

For this month, I have gathered a bunch of cartoons that get at the fact that schools are political institutions. They are wholly dependent upon taxpayers and voters for resources to operate schools. Thus, parents, lobbyists, civic and business leaders, the courts, media, and community groups push, shove, and caress school board members, district administrators and faculties to cut costs while maintaining academic excellence, and embracing the changes they seek. Furthermore, because schools are political, shifts in government, social, and economic changes inexorably spill over to classroom. Enjoy!















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The Importance of Asking the Right Policy Question: Technology in Schools

About a century ago, electronic technologies entered the classroom. Initially  as the film (1920s), radio (1930s), and instructional television (1960s), these devices derived from the entertainment business. The hype surrounding each promised that teachers would have access to the world beyond the classroom and the library. Teachers would have engaging tools that turn on students to what had to be learned. And students would be able to learn more, faster, and better.

The policy question driving these entertainment-oriented devices was: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

Both teacher and student access to these electronic devices, however, was limited by costs of film projectors, classroom radio sets, and television wiring and equipment. Districts parceled out equipment to schools and established audiovisual departments. Consider further that finding the best film for a unit took much time as teachers scoured public libraries and district audiovisual departments. Teachers competed for the projectors, available films,radio sets, and television monitors so classroom use was seldom regular but occasional or none at all. Limited access for teachers and students–say once a month–kept this question front and center.

Now enter the desktop computer in the early 1980s. The hoopla surrounding its launching in schools (who recalls the TRS-80, and Apple II?) when teachers would get one computer for their classrooms and the school would have a set of devices for a lab.

As competitors entered the education market and the price of these desktops fell, what became clear was that these devices were far more powerful in teaching the young about both academic subjects and the world than earlier generations of film, radio, and instructional TV. These devices were interactive, drawing students into responding to what was on the screen. The entry of these devices and subsequent generations of more powerful and sophisticated hardware and software occurred simultaneous with the push by  federal and state officials to raise graduation requirements, install higher academic standards, and improve student test scores in reading, math and science on international and state tests. Access for teachers and students grew, albeit with “digital divides,”and regular use in classrooms expanded. Using technology became a rallying cry complete with cries of astonishment over how engaged students are with new technologies. This was the “Golly,Gee Whiz” stage when computers were in the foreground.

By the early 2000s, No Child Left Behind had become law and higher standards, testing, and accountability had become the mantra of school reformers. In the section of NCLB devoted to technology, it  said: “The primary goal  is to improve student academic achievement through the use of technology in elementary schools and secondary schools.” 

The emerging policy question about these new technologies that now arose from the intersection of the spread of less expensive devices and the press for higher test scores was: can these new electronic devices and their software improve students’ academic performance?

This question shifted the center of gravity from the earlier one that concentrated on how the new electronic devices a century ago could help the teacher do what she had to do to a concentration on the machines and their software. The software on desktops (and later laptops) would do all of the work of teaching. And students would learn more, faster, and better from the new technologies. Of course, there were always some teachers and principals who kept asking the older policy question as they trudged into their classrooms and schools integrating these new devices into daily lessons. But they were a distinct minority.

Computers were now in the foreground of more and more classrooms as districts and schools chased contributions of devices from companies, foundation funding, and eventually local monies from community referenda and school board budgets. Media reported story after story of students of all ages sitting in front of screens as the “new” education.

As student access and use of computers spread, research studies piled up and educator experiences accumulated into the growing realization that these new technologies (remember MS-DOS on PCs and CD-ROMs?) were powerfully entrancing to students at first but fell far short of improving student academic performance in of themselves. Improved teaching and learning, policymakers and practitioners learned, were far more complex in the many home and school interacting variables that come into play in determining student academic performance.

In the past decade, however, access to computer devices and software has become nearly ubiquitous giving each teacher and her students opportunities to “integrate” these new technologies into daily lessons. Most technology vendors and promoters have shifted from touting their devices as ending the white/minority achievement gap or raising test scores to speaking of student engagement and the ease of using software and hardware in daily lessons.

Many more individual teachers, schools, and districts across the country–still far from a majority of teachers or schools–have seamlessly (OK, a few stitches here and there may have been dropped) integrated the technologies into classroom routines. Software use has become as familiar as paper, pencils, and notebooks.  In these places, devices and software have become the background–white noise– and are no longer in the foreground. And as more integration occurs at the school and district levels, the older and more grounded policy question is re-emerging: How can these new media help teachers do better what they ordinarily do in conveying to students new knowledge and skills?

The slow but steady movement of new technologies from the foreground to background in a minority of classrooms, schools, and districts has resurrected this all-important policy question asked nearly a century ago that top decision-makers, practitioners, administrators, parents and voters now need to ask anew.


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Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 4)

The following lesson was posted on a blog written by Ed Realist, “a teacher at a Title I high school who usually teaches math, but every so often jumps at the opportunity to teach US history. Ed has credentials in math, social science, and English.”

I have kicked off my planned US History curriculum and on one day’s experience, it’s going gangbusters. I decided the students would best grasp the significance of the electoral college if we began with the recent election–give them a frame of reference as we then look back.

First, I gave them a copy of Article II, section 1 and the Twelfth Amendment, explaining that the elections we’d be reviewing would use both the original and amended text. But the big takeaway I wanted them to get for the first go-round was:  Each state shall appoint, in such manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of electors, equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress: but no Senator or Representative, or person holding an office of trust or profit under the United States, shall be appointed an elector.

This was new information–well, more accurately, it was relevant information, something they’d clearly been wondering about. When we got to the text about the electors meeting to elect the president, I played that Martin Sheen et al video.

“These actors were trying to change the electors’ minds. As we just read, if no candidate receives more than half the electoral vote, the House of Representatives elects the president. So you can see they didn’t have to change everyone’s minds, just enough to push the vote below the halfway mark.”

“And they’re Democrats?”

“No. The House is controlled by Republicans. I have to say I never quite understood the logic of this effort.”

“Why do they keep repeating everything?” Elian asked.

“They must think we’re stupid.” Bart observed.

“I think they did it for artistic effect. But let’s move on. That’s how the president is actually elected. So now lets see how many electors each state gets. Who knows how many Senators we have?”

The guesses were all over the place until I asked for the names of our senators. Then they all figured out it was two.

“Right. Two for each state. Each state, no matter how big or small, gets two senators. And since we have 50 states, we have a total of…..” (I always wait. Are they paying attention? I get 100 back pretty quickly.) “House of Representatives works differently. The House, for reasons we’ll discuss later, assigns representatives based on population. But about a century ago, Congress froze the number of seats at 435.”


“Good question. We’ll explore that later. For now, I just want you guys to get an understanding of the rules on the ground.”

“So every state gets two electors, no matter what, right?” asks Pippa. “Because they have two Senators.”

“Yes, good. They actually get three, no matter what. They elected two senators and one representative, so three electoral votes.”

“That sucks,” Eddie observed. “They only get three people to represent the state.”

“Actually, that three is a good deal. Let’s just take two states: Montana, with a population of about a million, and New York, with a population of 20 million. So New York is twenty times bigger than Montana. Montana gets 3 electoral votes. Any guesses as to how many New York gets?”

“Well, if it’s twenty times bigger, they should get sixty.” Anita.

“That can’t be right, though,” observed Priya.  “New York isn’t the biggest state, and if it has 60, then how many does Texas or California have?”

“Very good.” and I passed out the worksheet I’d cobbled up. One side was an image of the country with electoral votes by state,  the other was a table looking something like this.

“Wait. New York only has 29 electoral votes? Holy crap.”

“Yeah. Now you’re starting to see. New York only gets nine times as many electoral votes, despite having twenty times as many people.”

“That’s not fair to the big states!”

“It might feel that way. However, there was a lot of reasoning that went into that decision. We’ll be talking about it later, and you can judge. For now, here’s a simple task. I want you to mark the map with the winners, as many as you remember or want to guess. Then, on the back, put your guess and then the electoral vote total in each column. I don’t expect everyone to know all of them. I just think it will be a good discussion, get you seeing how much you know or remember. Then I’ll help you fill it in.”

I was pleased to see kids filled in a good bit of the map based on their own knowledge. Many knew the South was mostly Republican. They all, without exception, called Florida for Trump. A cheering number was aware that the Rust Belt states had flipped. After ten minutes or so, I brought up the same map on my Promethean [interactive white board] and marked it up with their results, correcting for reality as needed. During the conversation, I added in some tidbits–what the polls in each state had showed, what states Hillary never saw coming, demographic voting patterns, DC’s three electoral votes, and so on.

When we finished marking the map up, Kevin mused, “Jesus. Trump won a lot of states.”

“He did indeed.”

On instinct, I went to a browser and brought up the 2016 electoral results map.


It was a good instinct. The class literally gasped.

“Holy sh**! He won all those states?” Eduardo was aghast.

“Huh.” Eddie, as dedicated a Trump hater as ever existed, had bitterly snarked about borders in an inequalities lesson immediately after the election. I’m hoping he’ll  feel less hardly done by in the future.

Here is something I learned: the kids had been told many times that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. They understood what that meant. But not until this moment had they ever genuinely grasped the visuals of Trump’s win. What Trump’s win looked like. The map was a huge reveal. Minds weren’t changed, but perspectives were.

“Our Constitution gives voice to all citizens, but through the states. It’s a balance. It’s not always perfect. But it exists for a reason. Maybe this map gives you a sense of why.”

I had an extra fifteen minutes, so again on impulse, I brought up the classic youtube compilation of famous and influential people saying, with confidence, that Donald Trump could never win. I pointed out the lesser known ones, but they got the drift and loved it. I will note they were shocked (and not in a good way) at Seth Meyers’ disrespect. Loud applause at the end. I hit pause and got their attention.

“Here’s what I want you to know: not a single person in that compilation lost their jobs. Well. Except Obama, but his term was up. Every person on TV, acting as an expert. Every comedian. Every politician. You just saw pretty much every famous person in America laughing hysterically at the very idea that Trump might win. And none of them were held accountable. None of the media people who confidently predicted Trump had no chance of winning got fired. If you supported Hillary Clinton, you could easily have assumed you could stay home. Why bother voting? Trump couldn’t win. And when Trump won, these same media folk were all aghast. Then they ran all these stories about  devastated people, heartbroken by Trump’s victory. Rarely did you see stories on people who voted for Trump, who were thrilled at his win.”


“I want you to go home tonight, turn on cable news–well, except Fox–and you’ll see all those people you just saw and more, talking about the demonstrations against Trump’s new immigration policy. Trump’s naming a new justice, maybe there’ll be more demonstrations. All the people on TV, many of them who are newspaper reporters talking about their own print stories, will talk about how big the demonstrations are, how meaningful they are, how important they are, how the people are speaking.”

“And when they sound certain. When they sound like experts. When they talk to experts who sound certain. I want you to remember that video. Because then it might not come as much of a shock to learn that 49% of Americans polled support Trump’s immigration E[xecutive] O[rder].”

“Yeah. I get it.” Omar nodded. “It’s like the media only shows people who agree with them.”

“It’s like they don’t even realize people don’t agree with them.” said Amy.

” So if all the cool people hating on Trump, maybe no one will want to, you know, be a d*** who likes Trump.”

“But I do hate Trump!” said Eddie.

“Well, I’d like you to think about using a different word than ‘hate’. But sure. LOTS of people disagreed with Trump. More people voted who wanted Clinton, remember? That’s where we started. ”

“It’s like, don’t be fooled. Don’t think that just because all the famous people think the way you do, that everyone does.” Omar again.

” If you surround yourself with people who think just like you do and never associate with people who don’t, you might lose track of what’s normal. It’s called ‘living in a bubble’.”

“You know,” observed Pippa, “I’ve always thought it was kind of cool that Trump won.”

“WHAT???” Eddie, outraged.

“No, I hate him. I mean, I disagree with him. But now that I see that video, I think it’s even cooler. All these famous people were laughing at him.”

“Yeah, mocking him. Nasty stuff.” agreed Lennie.

“And he went out there and ignored them and took his ideas to the people. And won!”

“I swear to you, Pippa, that’s exactly what I love about this election. I said that verbatim to my advisory. I truly believe that only in America, only with our rules, could someone go out and speak to the country and get the votes needed to win the presidency.”

The bell rang.

Good first day.


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Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 3)

Brett Meteyer, a fourth grade teacher at Explorer Elementary School in Williamston (MI), wrote the following letter to parents of the 10 year-olds in his class just before Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States.

Dear Parents,

Because I am concerned about my students and your children being exposed to language and behavior that is not in concert with the most conservative social and family values, I have decided to show the inauguration of Donald Trump this Friday, but we will not view Mr. Trump’s inauguration speech.

Because every peaceful transition of power is a historic moment, I put in a request to the Trump team to preview the speech, but I have not heard back from them.

I showed the speeches of Presidents Obama and Bush in 2009 and 2005, respectively, but I am anxious about showing Mr. Trump’s inaugural address, given his past inflammatory and degrading comments about minorities, women, and the disabled. I am also uneasy about Mr. Trump’s casual use of profanity, so I sought an assurance that as their teacher, I would not be exposing children to language that would not appear in G- or PG-rated movies.

I do not know if Mr. Trump’s speech is something that would be provided to the press or

concerned citizens beforehand, but these plans may change if I hear back from them.


Brett Meteyer

The district of four schools is located just east of Lansing, the state capitol and home to Michigan State University. There are just over 1800 students in the district. District enrollment is predominately white and has 15 percent of its students eligible for free and reduced price lunch.

Did he get blow-back from allowing his students to see the Inauguration but and not listen to the President’s speech? Yes, he did. One article said:

The email was forwarded to [Steve] Gruber, [a local radio host] who also has children within the same district, by a parent who was listening to his program, The Steve Gruber Show.

“As the son of a fifth grade teacher, it infuriates me when those in charge of our kids are trying to train them instead of teaching them,” Gruber told Watchdog.org. “I found the letter to be outrageous!”

Gruber also posted Meteyer’s letter on Facebook.

“Facebook immediately exploded,” Gruber told Watchdog. “What kind of message does this send to kids? ‘This president is a bad guy and kids should not watch him’? This is a piece of history, and the kids should be allowed to watch.”

Gruber said he called Meteyer at his home on Tuesday to ask about his stance and that the teacher replied, “I don’t need to justify what I did to you.” Gruber said Meteyer also told him, “I feel good about what I’ve done,” and that he stands by his letter.

A Fox News outlet had reactions from other Michigan parents:

Several parents across Mid-Michigan felt Meteyer is cheating his students.

“Any child that’s curious about the inaugural address, I think should be allowed to watch it,” said Henry Lussier, Imlay City resident.

Kyle Welch, from Detroit, said he wasn’t interested in presidential addresses when he was a kid, but he doesn’t believe students should be censored.

“You don’t have to agree with him, but I think they have the right to see the speech,” Welch said.

And the fourth grade teacher’s boss? What were reactions of district administrators?

Narda Murphy, superintendent of Williamston Community Schools, wrote a letter to families explaining that teachers are expected to teach the curriculum in a balanced manner and “demonstrate good judgment in their communications with families.” The letter also noted that the district won’t comment on specific employee issues.

“Each teacher determines classroom instruction, and we encourage parents to contact them if they have concerns,” she said.

Individual teachers, not the administration, make the decision to show students the presidential inauguration ceremonies, Murphy said.

Here, then, is a teacher who made a decision about a civic lesson for 10 year-olds on the Presidential Inauguration. In managing the dilemma of being being both autonomous to make classroom decisions yet obligated to adhere to professional and community norms, he made a choice. Of the four choices available, according to Diana Hess’s framework (denial, privilege, avoidance, and balance) which did he make?


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Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 2)

Tax-supported public schools require all children between the ages of five or six to 16 to 18 to attend school. State compulsory attendance laws mean that the state has a legitimate interest in seeing that children and youth become literate, active, and engaged citizens prepared for the work force and contributing to the community. Schools are expected to be non-partisan, committed to socializing  all children to community norms, teaching all students the difference between fact and fiction and honoring the importance of evidence in taking positions and making decisions.

Those are expectations for public schools. School boards, superintendents, principals, and teachers are committed to fulfilling those expectations yet in a society divided by race, ethnicity, religion, and social class satisfying those expectations with limited resources, has become a tangle of difficulties past and present. Efforts by U.S. Presidents, federal and state officials to bend schools to one or another direction has been common in the past half-century creating conflict time and again. And that is the case now with the election of Donald Trump to the presidency and his new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.

In Part 1, I laid out the core dilemma that teachers face when deciding what to do about  issues roiling the larger society that inexorably enter schools and classrooms labeled as “controversial” (e.g., banning immigrants from predominately Muslim countries, climate change, creationism). Those four choices are denial, privilege, avoidance, and balance.

In this post, I offer an example of a teacher’s lesson taught recently in a largely minority and poor San Francisco high school that went city wide in social and mainstream media in the following days (see here and here).

Which of the four choices did this teacher make in managing the dilemma of obligation and autonomy?

San Francisco’s public schools have been offered a classroom lesson plan that calls President-elect Donald Trump a racist, sexist man who became president “by pandering to a huge racist and sexist base.”

The union that represents city teachers posted the plan on its website and distributed it via an email newsletter to its more than 6,000 members. The school district has more than 57,000 students.

It is unclear how many teachers have used the plan outlined by a Mission High School teacher, but it appears to have the tacit support of city education officials.

School district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe said the plan is optional and not part of the official curriculum.

“Educators are entrusted to create lessons that reflect the California standards, support students’ social and emotional well-being and foster inclusive and safe school communities,” she said in a statement that neither praised nor rebuked the lesson plan. San Francisco schools serve diverse populations and teachers are encouraged to include multiple perspectives in lessons, she said.

The Republican Party in San Francisco reacted sharply.

“It’s inappropriate on every level,” said Harmeet Dhillon, an RNC committeewoman from California. She called it “inappropriate propaganda that unfairly demonizes not only the campaign that Donald Trump, the winner, ran, but also all of the people who voted for him.”

The lesson plan was written by social studies teacher Fakhra Shah, who said she hadn’t planned for it to spread citywide — that was a step taken by the teacher’s union. She wrote it at 2 a.m. Nov. 9, just hours after results came in, to help teachers at her school struggling with how to answer students’ questions and concerns about Trump becoming president.

“I think a lot of people were lost for words, wondering, ‘What do we say? What do we do?’ ” said Shah, whose Latino, African American, white, Muslim and LGBTQ students are worried about a surge in hate crimes since the election.

“We’re calling him out,” she said. “If he’s our president, I have the right to hold him accountable and ask him to take a stance that is anti-hate and anti-racist.”

The plan encourages teachers to let students express their concerns and to offer them hope and tell students that they can keep fighting. “We can uplift ourselves (and) fight oppression here at school even if we cannot control the rest of the country,” she said.

San Francisco is diverse, with many students whose families are in the country illegally and who are worried by Trump’s calls for deportation. She warned teachers that some students may use inappropriate words to express their fear and anger.

“I know that they might curse and swear, but you would too if you have suffered under the constructs of white supremacy or experienced sexism, or any isms or lack of privilege,” she wrote.

About 2,000 San Francisco students walked out of class last week to protest the new president. On Monday, Mayor Ed Lee declared that San Francisco would continue to provide sanctuary for all immigrants, religious minorities and gays and lesbians.

The union that represents teachers, the United Educators of San Francisco, defended the plan.

Union President Lita Blanc said that even House Speaker Paul Ryan had called Trump’s campaign racist and sexist.

“There is a time and a place for using words that match action,” Blanc said. She praised the plan’s advice for students — “to stand up and defend themselves, and speak out for themselves and make a difference.”


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Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 1)

*”A kindergarten teacher in Tennessee says that a Latino child asks every day, ‘Is the wall here yet?’ He was told by classmates that he will be deported and blocked from returning home by the wall proposed by presidential candidate Donald Trump.”

*A high school principal suspended a history teacher after students and parent complained that the teacher in a discussion of Nazism compared Trump to Hitler. The superintendent reinstated the teacher a day later.

* At a walkout of Latino, Asian, and African American  high school students,  protesting the election of Trump, the principal led the protestors to the school stadium and they  aired their concerns about the newly-elected President. At the end of the protest that morphed into a rally against President Trump, the principal said “F*** Trump.” The district superintendent immediately suspended the principal. Two days later, after the principal apologized for his remark to the entire school community, he returned to the school.

The divisions, fears, and epithets unleashed by the year-long primaries and the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency reverberate in mainstream and social media daily. Because schools are political (but not partisan) institutions vulnerable to the cross-currents in the larger society spilling into classrooms, it is (and was) inevitable that those fears get voiced in and out of school.

Protests over the Vietnam War in the late-1960s and early 1970s, President Nixon’s illegal activities in the Watergate break-in, pro-life and abortion rallies,  teaching the Adventures of Huck Finn in middle school, climate change, policing minority communities,  teaching evolution–to name a few–have been controversial issues that entered classrooms over the past half-century. Parents and students bring those issues into classrooms and the question of teachers airing these issues dispassionately and abiding by norms of critical thinking and impartiality, and students listening to one another arises again and again, then and now. Not a new issue at all.

But  with Donald Trump, his precedent-breaking actions and language (not to mention tweets) as Republican nominee and now sitting in the White House raise anew the issue of handling controversial topics within elementary and secondary classrooms (be they lessons in math, foreign language, science, English, and social studies) such as banning immigrants from predominately Muslim nations and building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.

What should teachers do?

The history of teachers dealing with disputed issues has been pock-marked with incidents of teacher firings, censorship, and fear of school board and community retaliation for lessons that take up contentious questions (see here,herehere, and here). Historically, there are teachers who skirt such questions and censor themselves for fear of blow-back from administrators and groups of parents who do not want their sons and daughters to take up, read, or discuss topics that conflict with their values. So teachers are often stuck.

Here’s the dilemma.

Teachers know they are obligated to have students–who are compelled to attend school–think and talk through volatile issues roiling the community that go to the very core of schooling in a democracy where diverse opinions and values are debated and decided. Teachers know that learning the rules of evidence and distinguishing between facts, opinions, and untruths are required tools for children and youth to navigate daily life. Such knowledge and action is non-partisan. It is the very core of schooling.

Yet, teachers also prize their autonomy. They relish the simple and powerful fact that they can close their classroom door and choose what to teach for the next hour as long as it is consistent with district and state curricula.  Managing controversial topics in elementary and secondary classrooms, then, in a polarized political climate is hardly a walk in the park.

So how do teachers manage this dilemma?

University of Wisconsin (Madison) scholar Diana Hess has laid out choices that teachers can and do make to manage this dilemma in coming to grips with controversial issues in their classrooms.

Four Approaches to Controversial Issues in the Curriculum


It is not a controversial political issue: “Some people may say it is controversial, but I think they are wrong. There is a right answer to this question. So I will teach as if it were not controversial to ensure that students develop that answer.”


Teach toward a particular perspective on the controversial political issue: “It is controversial, but I think there is a clearly right answer and will try to get my students to adopt that position.”


Avoid the controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial, but my personal views are so strong that I do not think I can teach it fairly, or I do not want to do so.”


Teach the matter as genuine controversial political issue: “The issue is controversial and I will aim toward balance and try to ensure that various positions get a best case, fair hearing.”

In subsequent posts, I will offer classroom examples of how teachers fit into these different categories in how they deal with controversial issues since Donald Trump was elected President.


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