*”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,here, here, 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.