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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10 Comments

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10 responses to “Teaching in the Trump Years (Part 2)

  1. Discussion based lessons are certainly free to start off with a controversial statement to garner participation and encourage focussed debate. Whether such statements should be fact based or not probably depends on the level of professionality and skill of the teacher.

    Opinion based presumptions portrayed as fact are likely to polarize rather than unify. Thus stated lesson goals like, empowerment, hope, safety, contextualization of American racism, would seem counter-productive (depending on how many of the ~49% of Trump supporters are in the class).

    That a teacher union would endorse such polarization is worrisome. Understanding others seems tied to institutional education morality. Justifying a “no-quarter” attitude for dissent or nuance based of factionalization seems……rather odd. However, the institution of education is subject to multi-level selection tensions. The formation of splinter groups based on self-interest (ideologically grouped self interest here) is inevitable. Will the legitimization of polarization get clawed back like most all institutional level reform? Probably. If not, the country is in danger of losing a major source of societal coherence.

    Like Peter Turchin’s Structural Demographic theory suggests, societal de-coherence leading to civil war is a very real risk for the US (and many European countries). Whether the ends justify the means would seem to depend on one’s level of identity fusion. This itself signals the degree of quasi-religious dynamics one expresses or embraces. To me the question is “would I say this about a particular religion”? If not, why assume quasi-religious politics is any different? Have people forgotten church-state separation and the bounds of proselytization?

  2. I’d also add Jonathan’s Haidt’s work on two competing telos in post-secondary is probably relevant for the organizational / societal trends the Union’s actions portends.

    Relevant to Trump specific racism claims, Scott Alexander’s post on the same is probably one of the few sane pieces out there.

  3. Marc

    Broadly generalizing half the US population is not teaching, its indoctrination. True teaching presents both points of views and guides students to form their own opinions. Teachers should welcome differing points of views and provide counter arguments, regardless of what their personal opinions are.

  4. I think you might enjoy participating in our (Edchat Interactive) discussion on the politics of education, online on March 15, and you might enjoy our strategies for teaching argumentation this Thursday: http://www.edchatinteractive.org/upcoming-seminars/strategies-for-teaching-argumentation

    They are free.

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