Professional Development Opinion

Can Project-Based Learning and Professional Learning Communities Counter Hate Speech?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 29, 2016 5 min read
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A family of four, whose roots are in India lives in the US. The mom, a dad, a son and a daughter, the whole family, are United States citizens. As hard working Americans living the American dream in their jobs, they have also invested in real estate. Recently, they acquired a new property to operate for rental income. A carpenter who was doing some work for them said, “Why are you buying more property? You know you are all going to be deported right?”

Second true story: Three exchange students were at lunch in a college cafeteria three days after the election. Two of the young women were from Greece and one was from China. One was a senior. The other two were freshmen. They had spoken to their parents about the election. Now, they were talking about whether they should register for the spring term or whether they’d be deported before that.

Certainly, the confusion created by the election rhetoric has sent shock waves into America’s immigrant communities. In both of the true cases above, these are not the immigrants about whom the president-elect was talking. Yet, the repercussions are far and wide. Fear is contagious, isn’t it? But, each of these true stories were questions and expressions of worry and of uncertain futures.

In other places, we have heard, informally, from teachers and school leaders that they are noticing a rise in disrespectful behavior by students. Language being used hasn’t been heard in schools for a long time. The response from the adults, for some, is direct; for others, it is stunned silence. The unbridled spread of hate language in the news from some of our nation’s leaders has given flight to a level of permission for dormant biases to be freely shared with no concern for fact or feeling. We cannot imagine a school where hate speech is accepted. But now, simply banning it and disciplining those who engage in it, is not going to be enough. Teachers and their students will need council and support. Attention to this subtle change will prevent an increase in this behavior. We cannot simply hope it will die down on its own. It will not.

NPR has reported that

Michigan middle school students chanting “build a wall” at Latino classmates. A woman speaking a foreign language on a San Francisco Bay Area train being called an “ugly, mean, evil, little pig.” A Los Angeles student reportedly being teased that she was going to be deported...Since the presidential election, reports of intimidating and aggressive incidents toward minorities and women have surfaced across the country.

What is happening in our streets and online is seeping into schools. Are schools prepared to handle to nuance, the subtleties, and the blaring after-effects of the election?

Schools’ Responsibility
Those spewing hate speech seem to have no idea how their behavior is releasing a national phenomenon of resurgent prejudice. If any are still around who lived through the 1950’s and 1960’s, they will tell you that schools were at the center of much of the civil rights agenda. Why? Because schools are publicly funded places where children form multiple, micro communities come together. We tend to worship with those with whom we have much in common, we tend to shop close to home, we tend to have friends from nearby. But, in public schools the many faces of America come together. It makes us the center of the old metaphor of the melting pot or the mosaic.

“Foreigners go home” or graffiti like “Trump Nation Whites only” are a direct result of the presidential campaign. Some think it comes from the economic concern that immigrants take “our jobs”. Others ascribe it to a bias against those who are “different” from “us”. Some believe it is a backlash to the “browning” of America. Others believe it is an issue of socio economic status. No matter the motivation, each community and each school within it may have an assortment of reasons to be understood and addressed.

Leadership Courage
Our society presents itself in public schools. We are already getting reports of diminishing behavior and a rise in expression of bias outside and within the school walls. At a tipping point, schools’ responses can be ones where discipline and conversations and understanding can be maximized. If not, schools may unwittingly become responsible for pushing back at these expressions of bias without investigating their cause and taking the opportunities to offer investigation into the ‘why’s’ the effects, and possibly other ways to think and feel.

PBL and PLC’s Can Help
We have a problem and, as often happens, if we look closely we discover an opportunity. It lies within project based learning and professional learning communities, both of which are found in schools across the country. Many schools have also invested in character education and anti-bullying initiatives. Teaching tolerance, kindness, acceptance, generosity, compassion, and empathy have been part of education on some level in different schools and districts for quite some time.

As schools invest in learning about how to embed PBL (Project Based Learning) into classrooms, we make room for two possible elements to take root. PBL requires students to be able to work together. Under normal circumstances teachers work with students to help them develop the skills to work together in order to solve the problem(s) presented as the learning process. And under normal circumstances leaders work with teachers to help them develop the skills to work together as colleagues in their PLC’s (Professional Learning Communities). Both of those situations call for learning how to maneuver the challenges that exist when humans work with each other, those like them and those with differences. Now, these two valuable vehicles for learning, for children and adults, present an opportunity and a responsibility to confront openly expressed bias and to develop skills to engage those biases when they are encountered. Sometimes, we discover that we are already doing the right thing even when the moment changes. This is one of those times. While, rhetoric and politics and policies swirl, we must provide a solid center. While others debate in the abstract, our work causes us to encounter the reality of children’s lives each day. Those children bring us their families and their homes or lack of homes. They come for safety and with dreams. Our role is to help them grow, to learn and to nurture hope.

In the end
The seeping has begun. Schools are seeing eruptions of the mimicking behavior seen on the campaign trail. Name calling and other painful and more aggressive actions follow. PBL and PLC’s are places where collaboration is essential and respect for differences improve results. Even in these moments, this is part of our work.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.