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Teaching Controversial and Sensitive Subjects is a Policy School Districts Need: Part 2

Although HB22-1066, Public Education Curriculum and Professional Development Information failed to move past committee, the provision that school districts may have a policy pertaining to teaching controversial and sensitive subjects was important. If districts do not have a policy such as this (Policy IMB ) they need to get one. And here is why…

Last spring, a parent raised concerns to a teacher and administrator, saying that his son was kicked out of class because he disagreed with the teacher. Additionally, he did not like the resource being used in the class. The 11th grade English class was using “Stamped,” by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi. It is a very controversial text, which fits in perfectly with the standards. It is not required reading and there is an alternative that students can choose, though they rarely do. The parent became so heated in the initial meeting with the teacher and administrator that he was asked to leave and the School Resource Officer was notified. The student was not present for the meeting. The issue was then deferred to me as the Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction.

I met with the parent, student, and administrator. I specifically let the teacher know they did not need to be in attendance as the administrator had already taken their statement and I did not feel they needed to be further exposed to abusive language from the parent. I started the meeting by asking the student what happened. As it turns out he was not asked to leave the room at all. He decided to leave the room without permission and was quite rude in doing so. This was a violation of the first student right and responsibility according to Policy IMB . This is also why the student should always present their side of the story.

I then asked the student if the teacher had maintained impartiality. He had. I asked if the teacher had allowed for divergent positions and opinions. He had. I asked if, when the teacher did express his opinion he stated that it was opinion rather than a factual statement. He did. Did the teacher stress that students have the right to have their own and differing opinions? He did. I asked if the teacher’s opinion had ever interfered with the student’s grade. It had not. “But,” protested the dad, “the final project hasn’t been graded yet.” I asked if the student was afraid the teacher would give him a bad grade based on what had transpired. He did not. He felt that the teacher was and would continue to be very fair.

The student said he just did not like the class or the book, was angry about the teacher’s opinions, the opinions of his peers, and he did not want to be there. This is exactly why we need to teach in the democratic tradition! Students must be able to address differences in opinion as productive members of society. I often think the polarization of our country is a direct result of adults who did not learn to think critically and allow for differing opinions when they were in high school.

Because we have a policy which clearly outlines the rights and responsibilities for BOTH students and teachers, it became clear that the issue was not about the teacher’s actions. In fact it was the student who violated the policy. The issue, as it really boiled down, was that dad has been caught up in the messaging about CRT and did not like the opinions being put forth by Reynolds and Kendi in their book. Fortunately, we have a policy for that too! Policy IJJ provides a process to challenge materials and resources that have been selected by the district. I asked the parent if he wanted to follow the procedure under that policy, but he declined.

Of course, if the parent had read and understood Policy IMB to begin with, had read the book himself, and had really listened to his son rather than jumping to conclusions, this might all have been avoided. But most parents act from emotion. Children are their parents’ most valued treasures, so it stands to reason that emotion often takes over. This is why the parent rights and responsibilities are also an important part of the policy. A parent may not attempt to suppress the teaching of controversial issues simply because their opinion is different from that of the teacher or the opinion expressed in the resource being used.

This past fall I taught a 90 minute professional development session on this policy to all of our secondary teachers. It was very well received and several educators told me that they felt less nervous about teaching controversial subjects as a result. It bothers me that while our policy demands we teach controversial and sensitive subjects, our teachers are afraid to do so because of the current political climate. Policy, however, can help to ensure we are continuing to teach in the democratic tradition, so that perhaps our next generation can heal the scars this generation is leaving behind.



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