What a week for Georgia schools. I’m still trying to wrap my head around a number of classroom lessons gone awry.
In one incident in a Gwinnett County middle school, sixth graders were asked to create colorful mascot for the Nazi party. There are better ways to learn about Nazi propaganda than to create it. The school later said it was not part of approved social studies materials.
In another instance in a Cobb County elementary school, fourth graders were asked to dress up like civil war era participants. One white child told another black child that he was dressed as a plantation owner and the black boy was his slave. The black boy’s mother, who holds a PhD in Education, was understandably upset with the lesson plan and the curriculum. In a comment on the mother’s video recounting the meeting with the principal, one woman brilliantly offered that it would have been “a better lesson to have children from non-African American backgrounds be the slaves and African American children be other options. Two lessons, one stone.” In the meeting, the principal defended the lesson and would not promise that they would not do it again. Besides, she noted, dressing up was optional. SMH…
I have spent the better part of this week trying to understand what made either teacher (and that principal) think that these lesson plans were optimal ways to teach about injustices in history. And so I wanted to first understand how the lesson plans connect to the curriculum and how the curriculum connects to the state’s standards. I also wanted to understand if lessons get vetted to make sure they actually support both the curriculum and the standards. And if they impart lessons worth learning.
So I asked a group that included educators. And I learned that teachers in Cobb County have county-level resources to help them create lesson plans, and that they have to submit the lesson plans to be reviewed, but I’m still not clear that there are actual curricula.
What happens in the real world happens in classrooms too. The end result of racist, anti-Semitic, misogynist, or any other kind of discriminatory stance is children feel hurt. Scared. Unsure of their standing with their classmates and their teachers. And they remember this forever. Recently, high school friends recounted childhood incidents of anti-Semitism that took place in our south shore Long Island town. I’d been lucky. Or maybe just oblivious. But these incidents happened. And scarred my friends.
Let me share two other incidents of situations in local classrooms that occurred this past week. And might I add, neither added to the comfort level of those present in the room. In a Cobb County high school, a video surfaced in which a student hanging a Trump flag in a classroom then snaps to attention with a Heil Hitler salute. The teacher was in the room, but this wasn’t part of a lesson plan. Like the earlier incidents, this was a teachable moment that wasn’t taken advantage of.
Another situation in a Fulton County middle school science class took place while parents were in attendance. During a “Bring Your Parent to School” event, according to one parent who shared this, students were “logged into an online group class chat that was projected on a white board in front of classroom. The kids, parents and teacher could see all of the kids’ comments scrolling. While most students were logged in with their actual names, some students were not… One child called him/herself ‘JEW’ and another called him/herself ‘NOTAJEW.’” One student who used his own named commented a few times about “The Jew” and once about “the Jock” and the teacher didn’t try to control the conversation or lay down ground rules about the commenting that accompanied the classroom discussion, until after a parent left the classroom to involve the administration. At that time, the teacher told the students to stop with their “silliness.”
The parent who reported this story continued, “Administration came into classroom, walked around for a bit and was present when the student made the 3rd and 4th Jew comments. At that point, another parent demanded Administration stop this, and finally Administration removed the student from the classroom. At the end of the class, the teacher vaguely addressed that a student was being inappropriate and was removed from the class and apologized for not knowing sooner. Administration then quickly spoke about the school being a place of zero tolerance for this type of behavior….Later that afternoon Administration called both parents who brought this behavior to their attention and said the perpetrating student’s parents were notified and consequences were given.”
But what bothered the parent was that this wasn’t used “as a teachable moment for the class; no one monitored the chat; and if either of the two parents who spoke up hadn’t done so, this would have transpired without anything occurring, and who knows how long it would have continued.”
I’ve written about this before — when we label, we dehumanize. None of us is a label, we’re all multi-dimensional people. And it’s imperative that teachers drive that lesson home.
The Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism understands that the atmosphere inside and out of classrooms needs to change. On November 8, they are hosting an invitation-only conference in partnership with the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and Simon Wiesenthal Center.
Called TASK (Tackling Anti-Semitism for our Kids), the conference is designed for specific organizations and individuals who are tasked with shaping the hearts and minds of K-12 students — national, regional, state and local educational agencies; leaders at the district level and individual schools in Atlanta and its neighboring counties as well as private schools, homeschool groups, faith leaders and community organizations. Attendees with be given tools and resources they can take back and use. Because it is only with enhanced proactive prevention methods as well as concrete intervention and response measures can students learn why there is no room for anti-Semitism and other forms of hate in classrooms.
As a volunteer I helped look up contact info for a number of public school invitees and so I know. Invitations are going to a huge number of people who have the power to influence what goes on in classrooms. I so hope the lessons trickle down so that our schools will stop making the news for the wrong reason.