I trust my students can weigh the arguments that abound in our society

I think, when we normally consider English class (which everyone does all the time, right?), it’s the typical stifling novels and black-and-white movies that (fail to) inspire our imaginations. But more and more, in my career as a teacher, I find myself at the intersection of politics and curriculum; the merging of a tangible necessity for progression pushing against a retreat to the safety and simplicity of tradition. It seems the classroom is the headwaters, increasingly portrayed as turbulent, even war-like, with battlelines hardened. But what is the reality, boots-on-the-ground world that our legislators and parents debate from afar?

Before continuing, let me get my biases out front: despite the stereotypes of my English degree, preference for trendy coffee shops and allegiance to Jon Stewart, I treasure our government, state and federal. Let me reiterate: my eyes get watery when I see our Capitol building and imagine the government within, knowing that just yesterday on our cosmic calendar we were scavenging bone marrow, dependent on better evolved predators. And if any legislators are reading this now, it is your work that I value so highly. Seriously. I cried when John McCain died. I didn’t sleep for days this January, not out of concern for a candidate, but for our democracy. To beat a dead horse and quote Stephen Colbert: I am America.

This past year I’ve integrated into my teaching excerpts from Ibram X. Kendi, Jason Reynolds, and The 1619 Project. All connected to (I feel the urge to redact the next phrase) Critical Race Theory. I’ve also incorporated Trump’s 1776 Report, corrections that the New York Times made in The 1619 Project, reporting from Idaho’s Legislature, as well as a recent piece in The National Review that condemns Biden’s move to “impose the most radical forms of Critical Race Theory on America’s schools.”

Both sides of an argument, presented on their own merits. Why have I done this? Or, the more practical question: what will I teach next year when all this may be banned, tied to school funding? More and more, I feel like the workers at the MLB must feel; do your job as outlined, but if the politics change, if the consumer’s perceptions change, do it this way instead or lose funding. It’s a common neoliberal critique, and one that could be repudiated by the passion I know we all have to raise our youth gracefully and fairly.

But still, schools are a market economy, more so after the pandemic. I was reminded of this earlier in the year when parents had to choose: online or in-person. It was not only the pressure public school teachers faced to retain students in daily attendance, but also to retain them as students in the district.

This is all very familiar. I became a teacher as the Obama Administration was championing the Common Core Standards. The current Idaho-iteration of those standards, which are the mandate of my job, center on a progression, beginning in grade school, of students becoming more and more adept at making arguments. That entails, in the very wording of the standards, assessing evidence, claims and counterclaims. We are meant to study all sides of an issue, or in other words, we are meant to study everything.

My curriculum shifted again this year to a Pre-AP program, under the larger umbrella of the College Board (the giant behind the SAT and AP). The following principles are taken directly from my curriculum: students learn that “being inquisitive promotes extended learning;” and “through peer-to-peer dialogue, students’ ideas are explored, challenged, and refined” (italics mine).

You see where I’m going, here. But let me add this. Ask any English teacher in Boise or West Ada, and they will confirm: the holy triptych of “claim, counterclaim, evidence” transcends any obligation to teach literature as literature, for the sake of literature. This, in my view, is the politicising of the classroom, and I’m okay with it. American schools are the primordial soup of our body politic, made to make an informed citizenry. Also, books are written with purpose, and fit within a larger cultural dialogue that we participate in as a collective; the curriculum I teach is designed to confront all the biases implicit in everything we read. In fact, that is goal #1.

It’s been my felt obligation to swim upstream on that front; to understand that my job, by very nature, involves the endeavor of creating schema. That teaching is braided with our students’ developing brains and the power we wield as adults in their lives. I wouldn’t let my own kids hang with the guy behind a 7-Eleven counter, and yet we send our children to school everyday, reliant on a system that promises that teachers are trustworthy and a hope that their biases are hidden enough, or at least in-line with our own.

What, then, is the best way to not direct our students’ thinking, when doing so is the foundation of our education system? My answer: to step back, to reflect, to seek a metacognitive approach to the debates of our time. To teach all sides and everything.

Race is a debate of our time. Our presidents’ debate over whose “report” should be taught in schools is a debate of our time. Inherent in all this is a fallacy: only one can be taught. Post-Information Age, it seems we are more fearful of information than ever. But to censor, I believe, is unwise when the Internet is in all our pockets, both fueling division via echo chambers and also waiting to contradict everything we tell our students.

The political discussion surrounding this all, so far, has been centered on the abstract. Keith Richert pointed out in Idaho EdNews: “conservatives said they wanted to eliminate social justice and critical race theory instruction from Idaho classrooms — although lawmakers have offered scant evidence of the practice.” Evidence, I believe, that I am presenting here. I know full well my words can be taken out of context or used to fan the flames in this debate. It is my stated intention, though, not to prove the legitimacy of any one perspective, but to prove the necessity of access to all perspectives.

We are asking larger questions about the direction of schooling: How do we want our children thinking when they become adults, and confront the levers of our country? Do we eliminate discussion of race in favor of colorblindness; a fast meant to erase the influence of structural racism and felt anti-patriotism? After all, the goal is to reignite a more genuine appreciation for our country. Or do we embrace Ibram X. Kendi and the New York Times with the intent to leverage a deeper understanding of American (and British) history to create a more just future? Both are equidistant goalposts.

But allow me this indiscretion: I’ve read Kendi, and Reynolds, and Crenshaw, and I still love America. Love. More so because I understand the challenges we’ve overcome and continue to overcome.

What’s the endgame here, on either side? A more complacent citizenry? More agreeable workers? Better consumers? Law and order? For myself, I think I’ll stick to the mandate of the job. It seems like there is nothing less complacent than an ill-informed protestor. Nothing less agreeable than a jipped consumer. Information is just that, and written into our (legislature-approved) curriculum is the dissemination of that information, along with tools to analyze and assess.

If the Idaho government restricts teachers from using Critical Race Theory materials, I will adhere. It’s not my job as a teacher to actively rebel against the system to which I am a component and in which I have a great amount of pride. And yet, as a teacher, I understand that I am not always trusted. That my views are not universal. And as a parent, I understand the fear of power in our children’s lives, and our nation, that we do not understand.

But I do not fear for my own kids and my students, as long as their teachers adhere to their mandate, and educate. We must trust in the universalities of human learning (not regionally dictated omissions and additions), and embrace the idea that, like us, the students of our country can hold two or more conflicting thoughts in their head at once. That they can weigh the arguments that abound in our society and in our time. As someone who has dedicated my life to those students, I have nothing but trust.

 

Kam Walters

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Kam Walters is an English teacher in the Boise School District.

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