Teaching Ferguson

Ferguson firefighter surveys the damage at a strip mall that was set on fire after a grand jury declined to indict the Officer Darren Wilson for shooting Michael Brown

Teachers are using #FergusonSyllabus to share ideas for how to discuss  the shooting of Michael Brown and the Ferguson protests, reports PBS NewsHour.

Marcia Chatelain, a history professor at Georgetown, started the Twitter tag. Teachers in all subjects are planning lessons, she says. “Some science teachers talked about tear gas and the health impacts of using tear gas on citizens.  . . .  I heard from music teachers who said, we’re going to spend time looking at the elements of protest music and protest songs for different movements.”

 Liz Collins, who teaches English at a Washington, D.C. charter school, is “focusing primarily on text, on media, on facts and interpretation and how can we discuss these things and determine what the truth is, whatever the truth — if that’s possible to determine, and the different perspectives.  How do the protesters feel? How do the police feel?”

Teachers share lesson ideas in the New York Times and the Huffington Post.

School apologizes for ‘evil Jews’ assignment

“You must argue that Jews are evil” in a five-paragraph essay, using Nazi propaganda and personal experience “to convince me of your loyalty to the Third Reich!”  Hoping to teach persuasive writing, critical reading of propaganda and  history, an English teacher at Albany High School (New York) told students to pretend the teacher was a Nazi official who needed to be convinced of their loyalty.

A third of students refused to write the paper. Superintendent Marguerite Vanden Wyngaard said the assignment should have been worded differently and apologized. “I don’t believe there was malice or intent to cause any insensitivities to our families of Jewish faith,” she said.

Vanden Wyngaard said the exercise reflects the type of writing expected of students under the new Common Core curriculum, the tough new academic standards that require more sophisticated writing. Such assignments attempt to connect English with history and social studies.

I’m quite sure the teacher doesn’t believe Jews are evil. But the assignment was unwise. Plenty of people still think Jews are evil. Anti-Semitic trolls lurk in the comments section of most blogs. It’s current events, not history.

If the teacher had come up with a uncontroversial assignment, would it have taught critical thinking as effectively? asks Ann Althouse.

Why not ask students to write an essay urging Germans to vote for Hitler in 1933? (Advanced students could pretend to be American communists defending the Hitler-Stalin pact.)

Integrating history with other subjects requires forethought. A New York City math teacher raised hackles earlier this year with slavery story problems that seemed to trivialize slave ship deaths and whippings.

Update: The Albany teacher has been placed on leave, reports AP. That’s an over-reaction. Meanwhile, her classes are about to begin reading Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night. 

Consumer students aren’t ‘paying’ to think

Students see themselves as consumers, not learners, writes a community college professor. When he discussed, in a rhetoric class, how mores and opinions have changed on a controversial topic, a student objected, saying, “I’m not paying for your opinion.”

. . . the current emphasis on “customer service” in academe seems to have given some students the impression that they have the right to “purchase” only those ideas that they personally agree with, and that all other ideas or opinions are at best irrelevant and at worst akin to faulty products or unsatisfactory service.

Ultimately, students are paying for faculty members’ opinions, or, at least, their professional judgment, he adds. It’s “not just what we know, but what we think about what we know.”

Teaching students to argue about politics

Students should learn how to discuss controversial political ideas in class, says Diana Hess, a teacher turned University of Wisconsin education professor, in Discussions That Drive Democracy.

“A lot of parents want schools to reflect their own ideological views,” Hess tells The Cap Times.

“I argue that parents shouldn’t want that. If they do, they need to rethink why they have their kids in school.”

. . . “It’s not to suggest schools should be working against parents’ values,” she continues, “but we want schools to be ideologically diverse places. That’s how we educate citizens.”

“Many teachers I have watched are good at getting kids to listen to viewpoints that are different from theirs, and that’s a good thing,” she says. Young people tend to be open to new ideas.

Will teachers develop students’ minds? Or indoctrinate students in liberal ideology? asks Ann Althouse, a UW law professor.

. . .  it was specifically teachers who were at the core of the Wisconsin protests, vilifying conservatives.

And as for parents needing “to rethink why they have their kids in school.” Let’s be clear: Schooling is compulsory. . . . Teachers should never forget that they have their students trapped in their classroom by the force of law.

We want students to learn how to discuss “controversial issues, support their arguments, and listen to divergent opinions respectfully and critically,” Althouse concedes.

But it takes a certain level of trust — which is in short supply.