Essay: WARMTH & LIGHT DISPEL THE CLASSROOM CHILL

November 7, 2011

In a talk at the recent Educators to Stop the War Conference, ESR Metro executive director Tom Roderick reflects on the creativity of teachers during these trying times.

Over 750 people from New York and around the country took part in the East Coast Regional Conference of Educators to Stop the War on March 5. The day gave teachers, students, and others a chance to share knowledge, ideas, and resources. ESR Metro executive director Tom Roderick and our curriculum writer Alan Shapiro both presented at the conference, as did members of our Nuclear Weapons Project youth group, SANITY. Below is a talk Tom gave at the conference.

 
 
Five hundred educators and 250 students turned out for today's conference. That's tremendously heartening. Clearly we were ready for this gathering. Opposed to the tragic war in Iraq, concerned about the direction the Bush administration is leading the country, disappointed in the lackluster efforts of the Democrats to mount an alternative, we have been trudging along, doing good work but too often in isolation from each other.
 
Now that we have come together and met each other and had a chance to share our ideas and strategies, I feel the energy, the feistiness, the combustion. From just the two workshops I attended, I have 50 names of people with ideas, resources, and common concerns. If we stay in touch and support each other, our work will expand exponentially (as a math teacher said in the morning session).
 
I moderated the roundtable for K-5 teachers and attended the roundtable for middle and high school teachers, moderated by ESR Metro's Alan Shapiro, in the afternoon. I'll describe them briefly.
 
For starters we were all very much aware of the oppressive atmosphere in which we're working as educators. Many schools discourage teachers from addressing any issue that might be the least bit controversial.
 
Case in point: Alan Shapiro, who writes short curricula on topical issues for ESR Metro's TeachableMoment, received an email in January from a substitute teacher in suburban Texas, asking Alan if he thought his piece "Presidential Election 2004: The Iraq Issue" was "appropriate or inappropriate for a substitute teacher to introduce to a 9th grade social studies class on Election Day."
 
As anyone familiar with teachablemoment knows, Alan is scrupulous in researching his pieces, citing his sources, presenting controversial issues fairly, and using inquiry approaches that encourage students to think critically and make up their own minds. He replied that he wouldn't have written the lesson for the website if he hadn't thought it appropriate. The teacher wrote back that she had been fired for using the lesson with 9th graders on Election Day instead of showing the students re-runs of "I Love Lucy," as the regular teacher had suggested. According to the teacher, one student became upset during the lesson, and orchestrated a letter-writing campaign, which resulted in the district terminating her employment.
 
As Alan said in his session, this incident is a reminder that teaching is inherently political. The choice of topics for class discussion, the selection of quotes, the questions one posesóthese are political decisions. A lesson about the Iraq War on Election Day is a political actóone that seems quite appropriate in a country that claims to be spreading freedom around the globe. Equally political is showing re-runs of "I Love Lucy" to a social studies class on Election Day. What message does that give students about their responsibilities as citizens?
 
Closer to home, Schools Chancellor Klein has barred Rashid Khalidi of Columbia's Middle East Institute from lecturing to NYC teachers enrolled in a professional development course because of "a number of things he's said in the past" [about Israel and the Palestinians]. This despite the fact that there have been no complaints from participating teachers and Khalidi has won praise from Columbia students. (New York Times, 2/28/2005)
 
It seems that there's a growing movement in this country to confine political discussion within very narrow parametersóor silence it altogether.
 
Equally insidiousóa huge damper on dealing with real issues in the classroomóis the national obsession with testing. "No Child Left Behind" is, in truth, "No Child Left Untested." Last week I met with third grade teachers who are implementing ESR Metro's literature-based conflict resolution program, The 4Rs. The teachers informed me although they enjoy The 4Rs and find it helpful with students, they would have little time for it in the next six weeks because they would be focusing on test prep. That test, coming up in April, will play a large role in determining whether their students are promoted, and they feel they have no choice but to gear their teaching primarily to the test.
 
"Our days are crowded," said Paula Rogovin, a teacher at the Manhattan New School, P.S. 290, during the elementary school roundtable. "They don't want us to do social studies, but we have to include it no matter what. The critical thing is to look at the curriculum handed to you and find ways to stretch it."
 
"Stretching the curriculum"óthat was the main theme of both roundtables. Educators from places as varied as East Harlem and Darien, CT described efforts to teach students about things that matter, including the Iraq War. Jerry Park and his wife, Mary Joan, founded "Little Friends for Peace" in Maryland in 1981, and over the years have trained thousands of young people and adults in peacemaking skills. One of Jerry's current projects is working with seventh graders to design a video game in which the challenge is to "pull the power away from the tyrant" using only nonviolent weapons (such as cell phones!).
 
Keith Catone and Ariana Mangual, who teach at Banana Kelly High School in the South Bronx, organized a teach-in about the Iraq War "to devote one day to presenting perspectives on the war that the students don't get from the media and the president during the other 364 days of the year."
 
Paula Rogovin develops social studies themes in her classroom by having students interview people, including members of the school community. In one of these interviews, a security guard told of her participation in the famous sit-in to integrate the lunch counter at Woolworth's in Greensboro, NC. (Check out Paula's book Classroom Interviews: A World of Learning.)
 
Keith Brooks has developed an interdisciplinary curriculum unit entitled "Was U.S. Military Action in Iraq Justified?" through which he helps his GED students in Brooklyn develop social studies, English, and critical thinking skills.
 
Jim Murphy, a Vietnam veteran, described how he and others from Hudson Valley Veterans for Peace speak in classrooms on invitation from English and social studies teachers. The group includes veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf, and Iraq Wars.
 
Participants in the sessions seemed to share four common goals: They want to increase students' understanding of what's going on in the world and their connection to it, develop their skills in critical thinking (including question-asking and research), increase their skills in nonviolent communication and problem-solving, and encourage them to turn their concerns into action (as the teachers and students at P.S. 230 did by raising funds for Tsunami survivors).
 
We discussed the tension between our role as citizens opposed to the war and our professional responsibility as educators to create a climate in the classroom where students of all political persuasions feel comfortable expressing their views. We spoke of the importance of engaging students in dialogue, as Paulo Freire advocated, rather than using the "banking approach" in which the teacher fills the students up until they are fed up and then calls it a day.
 
Participants in these sessions expressed the strong desire to stay connected, and continue to share ideas and resourcesóboth on line and in person. ESR Metro will facilitate that by distributing email addresses and adding all who are interested to our growing e-mail newsletter.
 
In the high school curriculum roundtable in the afternoon, one of the participants said that she is a second-year college student who is thinking that teaching will become her vocation. She said that in her entire school career from kindergarten through high school, only one of her teachers would be likely to be sitting in the room with us today. A social studies teacher who taught seniors, he departed from the textbook to get students to explore real issues in their lives and in the world. And he's the only teacher she remembers.
 
That's what it's all about, isn't it? To be remembered by our students, not for showing re-runs of "I Love Lucy," but for helping them understand what is really going on in the world and for showing them that they have the power to change it.
 
 

Tom Roderick is Executive Director of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility (formerly ESR Metro). This article appeared in the March-April 2005 issue of ESR Metro's newsletter, Action News.
 
Tom welcomes email responses to this article at: troderick@morningsidecenter.org