Student Well-Being Opinion

How Does Silencing Talk About Current Events Educate Students?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 14, 2017 5 min read
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Do public schools have a responsibility to stay politically neutral? If so, how do teachers balance that with their responsibility to have students problem solve, discover facts and develop theories? The issues of free speech for students and faculty, alike, seem to settle and then get kicked up again like dust. Tightly woven into that issue is the discussion of the current political moment.

Why can’t we talk about it?
Teachers are being told by principals and superintendents not to talk about the election or its unfolding aftermath. We noticed an article published November in EdWeek that noted this was happening. Now, we continue to hear from teachers that students are misinformed, confused, and upset about what they are hearing or catching snippets of on the news or in social media. Not surprising because many adults are also confused and because “alternative facts” and misinformation abound.

The clear and safe path is to avoid classroom discussions around the swirling events. That way no questions or concerns will arise from parents or board members or community leaders or media. But, they will arise anyway. Last week, the new Secretary of Education is blocked from entering a public school in DC. The Wall Street Journal reports today that the new Attorney General is considering a rollback of the Obama administration’s policy around transgender students. And, immigrant children are increasingly afraid that a knock on their door may be immigration officers coming for their parents.

This Is Public Education
This is a moment in our history when educators must show up and demonstrate what public education is about. It is not about quieting voices. It is about creating safe space for all voices to be heard, for perspectives to be shared, and for minds to be opened. Public schools are supposed to be places that lack bias and that serve all. Isn’t that one of the reasons for concern about public dollars going to religious schools through vouchers?

Perhaps we aren’t good at multiple perspective teaching. It is difficult when each person holds strong personal beliefs about policy and politics and religion and values. How can one allow space to explore if the opposite view has merit? It has been the practice to teach one perspective. This practice is reinforced by textbooks and curriculum. But the rubber meets the road when current events unfold rapidly and student lives present themselves with daily disruptions or misinformation. Then, we are on our own. The yearning for simplicity overrides the desire for understanding of actual complexity. And, fear infiltrates everything and complicates rationality and clarity of thought.

We, now, see Mexican immigrants, being carted off, away from their families here and returned to Mexico. Who didn’t see the mother in the bus while her American children watched? Images take up residence in our minds. They become snapshots that don’t go away. Can’t we all bring up the KKK images of men in white hoods destroying lives and property and instilling fear as an image of our racist past? As we write this we wonder why hate was hidden under white sheets. But other images exist too. Can’t we all pull up the image of Sully landing the plane on the Hudson River and the passengers lining up on the wings? Cowards and courage...visuals capture it all. They create a mental picture. And, without adult led discussions, new images of Mexican immigrants, of Syrian refuges, and black boys and men are tainted in the minds of those who are not paying attention.

Make The Difference
Public education can make a difference. That takes courage, conversation, and information and our own work to hear and hold both sides of the debate. It is not easy when we live in a right and wrong world. But, silenced voices is not a good answer. Courageous voices are needed and respectful disagreements can happen. Civility of discourse, we hope, has not become a 20th century artifact.

There are schools with many Hispanic students, and those with few or none. There are schools with many African American students and those with few or none. There are schools with many Middle Eastern students and some with few or none. Should efforts be made to comfort the frightened Hispanic child who is afraid of being deported or of a family member being deported? How can a child in the grips of fear learn? We know he/she can’t. Shouldn’t we educate all students about the complexities of these events and examine the other moments in our history and the world’s history where similar moments happened? Certainly the age of the children is a factor. But for leaders, now, an educated and courageous and sensitive faculty and staff is central.

This is not only a factor interfering with the learning of these three groups of students, it is a factor in the learning of all students. This is a student achievement challenge as much as it is a citizenship challenge. This is a teacher effectiveness problem at the very least and it is a student success problem at the most. Student success, we have all argued is not measured on standardized tests alone. Student success, when educators are asked, involves developing independent learners who can investigate problems, determine creative solutions, communicate well, collaborate, and demonstrate their learning.

There is a plethora of information flying around beyond school walls that is misinforming and that is not being addressed or investigated. Have you seen the new apps that allow one to exchange faces in a photo or to morph children into animals? Facts and truth are becoming more and more difficult to determine. This is a 21st century challenge for schools. This is a real world moment for a true education in citizenship that will be missed if teachers are silenced. It is not an easy move...because discussions about what the adults know and think and believe take time. Agreement on how things will be handled and where takes time. But silence is not the answer.

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.

SALOM NEIGHBOR, a documentary shot in a Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan.

13th (as we mentioned in a previous post on race) is a documentary about the 13th Amendment and the unfolding purposeful incarceration movement that followed.

The recent news for reports and photos of towns in Syria that have been leveled and for Mexicans being rounded up and sent back to Mexico.

Photo by janeb13 courtesy of Pixabay

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.