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Drawing fine line between education and activism

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Esther Cepeda
April 15, 2012
— We are now a nation of activists living in a “movement” society. If something upsets enough of us, we try to get the situation rectified through online or actual take-to-the-streets protests.

Is it any wonder that the new Occupy-anything-you-can-think-of ethos has made its way into public school classrooms?


Last week, Brooke Harris, an English and journalism teacher at a Pontiac, Mich., charter school, said she’d been wrongly fired for encouraging her students to organize a fundraiser for Trayvon Martin, the hoodie-wearing Florida teen who was shot while making his way home from a convenience store.


Harris told The Detroit Free Press that her students wanted to donate to the Martin family the proceeds from a day when students would pay to wear hoodies to school, with the hoods covering their heads, in order to show solidarity with the slain teen.


She had gotten permission for the fundraiser from her principal but the superintendent, Jacqueline Cassell, forbade Harris from moving forward because students flouting the no-head-coverings policy would disrupt the entire school. Cassell told the Free Press that though she objected to the fundraiser, “I certainly would not use this issue as a reason to terminate anybody.”


But Harris claims this is exactly what happened.


“I was told I was a bad teacher, that I was being unprofessional,” Harris said, “that I’m being paid to teach, not to be an activist.”


OK. Raise your hand if you believe wholeheartedly that public school teachers are employed by taxpayers to educate students in the academic subjects required for high school graduation—and not to feed students their personal political or social-issue opinions and encourage protests.


The problem is that it can be tough to spot a difference between a teacher who appropriately supports student efforts to exercise citizenship responsibilities taught in civics classes from one who serves as the impetus for an act of advocacy.


And it’s not like teacher preparation programs routinely train new educators on how to teach critical thinking by addressing controversial current events and other touchy topics relevant to academic subject matter, with unbiased facts that present all sides of an argument. Such guidance usually isn’t a staple of teacher orientation at schools, either.


Given that, for the most part, teachers mold young minds behind closed doors, you have to wonder how any lesson can be slanted when presented by an activist teacher who feels it is part of his or her mission as an educator to pass their politics on to students.


Yes, I said “activist” teachers. They believe that part of their job involves teaching students about the injustices of the world and how to challenge them—which is fine, I suppose, if you happen to see eye-to-eye and heart-to-heart with a teacher’s social and political beliefs.


Go ahead, residents of New York City, Milwaukee, Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Atlanta, check out teacheractivistgroups.org and learn the missions of organizations such as “Teachers 4 Social Justice,” “The Education for Liberation Network,” and the “Collective of Radical Educators.” All perfectly lovely organizations, I’m sure, if you don’t mind a little anarchy with your algebra.


I called Kyle Olson, founder of the reform organization Education Action Group, which routinely details examples of teachers who preach pro-union, anti-establishment political beliefs in their classrooms, and the author of “Indoctrination: How ‘Useful Idiots’ Are Using Our Schools to Subvert American Exceptionalism.” He offered an effective, nonpartisan tip for how all parents can navigate school situations that sometimes send kids home saying the darnedest things.


“Parents need to be engaged in the learning process,” Olson said. “They need to ask their kids: ‘What happened at school today?’ ‘What’s your homework?’ ‘What videos did you watch today?’ If you’re concerned, you need to find out more—nothing will change until parents complain.”


That works for teachers, as well. Protesters are demanding Harris’ reinstatement and have staged a rally for her. If she wasn’t out of line and was wrongly terminated for merely enabling her pupils to support a cause that they believed in, her students’ families are correct to exercise their right to complain online and on the streets to anyone who will listen.

Advocacy for your children is a lesson more parents need to put into practice.


Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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