Social Studies

How Teachers Are Addressing the ‘Take the Knee’ Controversy in Class

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 27, 2017 5 min read
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After a weekend of news dominated by President Donald Trump’s call to fire professional athletes who protest when the national anthem is being played, Tracy Gamache tossed out her original plan for Monday’s lesson—a critical review of a popular new movie—and instead picked a different text for her high school seniors to analyze: singer John Legend’s editorial in the magazine Slate.

The piece, which argues that the protests are patriotic—a contrast to Trump’s and some lawmakers’ criticism—is a good example of what she wants her students to learn in her expository reading and writing class: how an argumentative essay is put together. With each example of persuasive writing, she and students try to understand the audience behind it and analyze how the piece works, including how its craftsmanship—features like word choice and syntax—contribute to its meaning.

“I said to my students: Protest is a text. It has a beginning, middle, and end. It has a very specific audience. It has a purpose, and it has a message it is attempting to send,” said Gamache, a teacher in the Corona-Norco district in Riverside, Calif. “That’s how we decided to look at the protest.”

Writing and argumentation are a good place to start, thanks to the legion of op-eds and analytical articles that have been written since the controversy was reignited on Saturday. Some of them include the perspectives of athletes who have decided to follow in the footsteps of Colin Kaepernick, the former pro quarterback who began kneeling during the national anthem at games in 2016 and inspired other athletes to do the same.

But, as my colleague Evie wrote in a terrific post, this is a current event that deserves to be discussed across the curriculum. There are opportunities for civics teachers covering the First Amendment of the Constitution, for social science teachers discussing the state of law enforcement and race in the United States, and history teachers covering the nature of protest and public influence. And many of them are taking up the challenge.

Bringing the Constitution to Life

Ashley Johnson, a U.S. History, government, and economics high school teacher in the Wharton school district in Texas, said she’d just finished a unit on the Constitution’s Bill of Rights with her government students last week. But after this weekend’s news, she decided to extend the discussion another day.

“The big thing we’ve been trying to discover is what limits there are on the amendment to free speech, and I wanted them to think about that with something they can relate to,” she said. “My biggest thing in this class is to get students to develop their opinions—without their friends, or their parents, or Twitter.”

She wanted students to debate the topic using well-crafted arguments. So she had students review a packet with news articles on Saturday’s protests and on Kaepernick, and with summaries of four U.S. Supreme Court rulings that have laid out current free-speech parameters, including Texas v. Johnson, which invalidated state laws on flag-burning, and West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which ruled that students couldn’t be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance.

Her question for students: To what extent should national symbols be protected from actions that some deem disrespectful? She gave students free reign to craft their arguments, “but I told them every argument you make has to be supported by something in this packet,” she said.

Teachers do have to be aware about how to conduct these lessons sensitively and constructively, given the racial context underpinning the protests, Johnson added. She noted that her classes have students whose parents are veterans. (Some veterans view the protests as disrespectful of the military.) And in one of her classes, the groups of students arguing the various viewpoints broke down largely along racial lines.

“When you start talking about the injustices that are going on, it can get very emotional,” she said.

Both teachers said that a successful lesson depends on enforcing norms in the class about discussion and respect. (It can be difficult, for example, to separate current Constitutional lawl on free-speech limitations versus what people think the limits on free speech ought to be.) As Evie noted in her blog post, even many school administrators are unclear about students’ own free-speech rights.

And while teachers need to help students to teasing out all of these issues, both Gamache and Johnson warned that they avoid offering their own personal beliefs in class for fear of stifling debate or making students uncomfortable.

“I keep my perspective out of it, unless I’m directly asked,” Gamache said. “And I’m very clear that we can disagree through arguments, but we do not attack people in our classroom.”

Teachers on Twitter had a lot of other ideas to share. Several said they’d use nonfiction articles to anchor “Socratic circle” discussions, where students take the lead in discussing and critiquing a text and a teacher asks open-ended questions to prompt them.

Photo: Members of the Oakland, Calif. district band kneel while performing the national anthem prior to a baseball game on Sept. 25. — Ben Margot/AP

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.