Part II: Teaching, post-Charlottesville

By Dan Greenburg, Sylvania Education Association

As I plan my lessons for the start of a new school year, I hear student voices in the back of my head, asking “Why do we have to learn this?”

I use that question to guide what I teach and how I teach it.

I find the best way to address that question, without students even having to ask it out loud, is to link literature and writing lessons to things that are relevant to my students, to things that are happening in our world.

When we read Catcher in the Rye, we talk about how Holden Caulfield might have been impacted by social media. Would he have found a community of teenagers just as disillusioned with life as he was? When we read The Great Gatsby, we compare the American dream of the 1920s to today. We talk about college affordability and how that impacts the dreams and goals of students.

Relevancy is the key to my lessons.

Over the past year or so, however, I have found it increasingly challenging to remain relevant. As we become more polarized politically and culturally, I am finding it harder and harder to discuss controversial issues in class. I am actually afraid of the repercussions.

Last February, I taught my 10th grade English class a six-week lesson about persuasion and argumentation. As part of the unit, we talked about using facts to support claims, and the importance of using reliable sources. At the same time, we were studying this, a website called “Uncle Sam’s Misguided Children” published a blog titled: “Is an Ohio High School Teaching Kids to Hate the President.” That blog was about my school. It was clearly biased, and completely inaccurate in its portrayal of our school. It was shared close to 4000 times.

I thought: This is a teachable moment. What better way to demonstrate the problem with unreliable sources than this article, which completely misrepresents our school? Discussing how many times this article has been shared, I can explain how false information is easily circulated on the internet.

With those thoughts in mind, I copied the article and made it the focus of our lesson. I prefaced the lesson by saying we are not focusing on anyone’s feelings about the President or anyone’s political beliefs. This is about the reliability of sources.

I thought I had things covered.  I did not.

The discussion seemed to be going very well in class, but within 25 minutes, I got a call from the guidance office to send a student down. I later found out this student sent a text to a parent, saying he was uncomfortable with the lesson. By the end of the period, my principal was in my classroom. At the end of the day, my co-teacher and I had to submit our lesson plans to the Assistant Superintendent.

I do not fault the district at all. They needed to proceed with due diligence. On an intellectual level, I completely understood this. It didn’t stop me, however, from being terrified about the process.

In the end, the district supported me. There was no reprimand. There was a good discussion with the Assistant Superintendent about the process.

There was a lasting consequence, however.

I am weighing the risk/reward of raising “touchy” subjects in my lessons. I even added a section to my course syllabus, stating that is never my intent to push political beliefs or ideologies from the front of the classroom. I will address the issue this coming week at open house, as well.

My American Literature class will start the year reading One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It presents so many opportunities to connect to our world today, particularly in the aftermath of the events in Charlottesville and the issues related to the taking down of Confederate statues and monuments. It’s not a matter of pushing a viewpoint; it’s a matter of engaging students on a relevant topic and fostering critical thinking skills.

It’s my hope that, by communicating my expectations and intent to parents and students at the beginning of the year, by letting parents and students know I am willing to talk about and address their concerns, that we’ll be able to have thoughtful dialogue in class throughout the year.

I’m sure there will be the occasional “why do we have to learn this?” However, I’m optimistic that connecting lessons to issues that matter to students will greatly reduce the number of times the question get asked.

Read Part I: Teaching, post-Charlottesville