Wednesday, September 9, 2009

No Presidential Speech for My Kids

Not of my choosing, of course.

The district my kids attend were one of several schools in Iowa that did not air the speech. Here are the official reasons given to parents (all caps = district's emphasis):

  1. There will be no organized school-wide or grade level viewings in any of our schools
  2. If this speech supplements curriculum being taught, AT THE CURRENT TIME, by a teacher - it is at the discretion of the teacher to show it or not
  3. Parents may make a decision to keep their children at home during this hour long speech and they will be excused for that hour only
  4. The district will post the President's speech on the district website for students, parents and others to view later in the day
After some digging, it was determined that this was because of "8-10 calls and emails from concerned parents". For some scale, my kids attend a 4A school district. Those calls represented less than 1% of the student body.

My initial thoughts:
• This screams of the path of least resistance. Not that that position is always a bad one... as an administrator, you make a dozen decisions a day that you aren't too crazy about, but you do so because they are going to cause the least amount of controversy. The district just voted on the use of their one-cent sales tax yesterday, and as any district coming up to a vote can tell you, extra controversy is not what you want when coming to a public vote. The part where parents can keep their kids home (presumedly to watch the speech?) without consequence, and that the speech was posted on the website, are very telling.

• I cannot figure out "if this speech supplements curriculum being taught--AT THE CURRENT TIME" (again, the district's emphasis). This is a speech about setting goals and taking your academic efforts seriously. Is that truly a place in the curriculum? "Class, tomorrow we will be learning about the importance of education and then we'll take a quiz." Is it like other objectives, that are covered once in the 13 years?

Self-awareness, responsibility, and self-worth are 21st century skills. You do not teach 21st century skills "at a current time". They are infused in the curriculum. They are always present. Any teachable moment that comes up, you try to foster the 21st century skills. A speech from the nation's president and a follow up discussion is the perfect opportunity for a teachable moment. I've thought that perhaps this is a wink-wink code to teachers that basically permits them to show the video because it can always be argued the speech fits in the curriculum... that's the best I can do with this.

• Speaking of 21st century. I remember the powerful experience of turning on the TV on 9/11 eight years ago. We were in the middle of Fahrenheit 451 at the time, but that went by the wayside. The students at Postville, as well as everywhere else, were mesmerized by what they saw. I said simply "Get out your journals and write. Write about whatever comes to your mind." Even the most resistant journal writers in my class did so immediately and could not stop themselves from writing and afterward discussing.

I'm disappointed that the message I received from my kids school is that we don't allow the current world to creep in. We do our education in an incubated box.

• I had, both as an administrator and a teacher, the chance to be ruthlessly attacked for "forcing" my students to read "racist trash"... aka Huckleberry Finn. Six different occasions in all. We made other options for the students, which was met with the charge of ostracizing the student who wasn't reading the book. Nothing less than the entire class not reading the novel was unacceptable for them. Every time I stood my ground, and every time, the parent of the student threatened to take the fight to the school board. And while they never did, my decision harmed my relationship with the parent in 5 of those 6 occasions. The parents never got past it.

The thing I had to tell myself is, do the right thing. The vocal minority do not dictate the curriculum. It would have been the path of least resistance to offer a different book, but even my students agreed, the discussion about whether the book was racist and what the author's purpose was, was one of the most powerful experiences they had in their high school career. Ironically, I never had a single parent object to Catcher in the Rye. As one student told me after he graduated, "there was no way I was going to tell my parents again what I was reading after they wouldn't let me read Huck Finn."

Bottom line to all of this: The decisions we make have to be what's in the best interest of learning, not the path of least resistance. This decision (at least what was communicated to the parents) was the opposite. It sets a very bad precedent, for it gives license by any small minority to tell the district you cannot show a future president's speech.

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