Teachable Moments

Be aware of what’s going on in your child’s classrooms.  If you think that the debates that generate so much publicity in the media and at the ballot box are isolated to those areas, you are gravely mistaken.  If you think that people are not working extremely hard to ensure that regardless of how you vote and what you think is right, your children will be more inclined towards a different opinion, you are gravely mistaken.

Case in point – a teacher who suspended two students for a day because they voiced an opinion that he didn’t like.  After previously making a student remove a Confederate flag belt-buckle.  
“The classroom discussion was heading in a direction I didn’t want it to head,” McDowell said.
Fair enough.  As a lifelong learner as well as an educator for nearly 15 years, I understand that sometimes conversations and discussions take rather unexpected turns that teachers have to deal with.  I still wonder why he had the other student remove the Confederate flag belt-buckle.  I wonder what the school’s dress code is.  I wonder what the school’s formal policy on classroom speech is – but the article never bothers to address that.
“I thought it was a really great, teachable moment,” McDowell said of his decision to remove the student from class.
Fair enough.  If what you’re trying to teach is that disagreement is not permissible or tolerated, despite our massive focus on tolerance these days.  If what you’re trying to teach (in an anti-gay bullying t-shirt) is that some forms of bullying are acceptable.
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Legal Project, credits McDowell for trying to create a “welcoming environment for all students.” But Kaplan said the “teachable moment” would have come if the students stayed in the classroom.
Funny.  I’m sure the two students who were kicked out of class for the day probably didn’t feel very welcome.  Clearly, McDowell was not trying to create a welcoming environment for all students.  More accurately, McDowell was trying to create an environment welcome to some students, and explicitly unwelcome to others.  That’s definitely an instructive process, but not in the valiant way that this article wants to portray it.
McDowell has filed a complaint against the district over the discipline he received, but said Monday he primarily wants to “force the school to look at itself.”

“I want to force adults to look at what situation we’ve created,” he said. “I would really like us to be more aggressive in our policing of harassing and bullying.”

Ah, there’s that new buzzword again – bullying.  So bullying consists of not allowing people to say what they want – unless they’re saying what you want them to say.  And that’s what we’re wanting to avoid.  And yet that’s exactly what McDowell did.  A stunning example of hypocrisy in the classroom.  That’s always a teachable moment.  
The question is, what is being learned, and who is learning it?
Now, soas not to be a negative nelly here, let us go a step further.  If I disagree with McDowell’s approach, what would the alternative be?
I suppose I’d want to begin by suggesting that economics class isn’t the place to be making fashion statements – unless there is a clear dress code violation going on.  That would tend to ensure right from the get-go that conversation stayed on the topic of,oh, say, economics, since that’s what the class was supposed to be teaching.
But once the can of worms is opened, how does the discussion proceed?  I would suggest going with it.  The student asked a reasonable question – why do you object to one flag that represents a rebellion as opposed to another flag that represents an even larger scale rebellion?  Why is one flag improper and the other one proper?  The teacher has dug themselves a bit of a hole now.  They’d better be prepared to philosophically or theologically defend why they judge one flag to be offensive and the other not.
The student’s response is – despite media badgering to the contrary – quite representative of what a large percentage (I would say majority, but that’s hardly necessary) of the US population believe on one basis or another.  Rather than delegitimize that viewpoint entirely by kicking the student out of class, we could still nip the conversation in the bud.  Simply redirecting the students back to the actual subject material of the class would work just fine.  Or how about acknowledging that this is an issue that people feel very deeply about on both sides of the issue?  How about acknowledging that this sort of discussion is valuable and important but not necessarily appropriate for the high school classroom?  How about asking whether or not the students have forums to discuss this sort of thing at school (I’m betting not)?  How about offering to organize something outside of school jurisdiction to discuss the issue responsibly and intelligently?  How about encouraging students themselves to do this, to take ownership and accountability for what they believe, even if it can’t be under the auspices of the institution that allegedly exists to teach them these skills?
Any of these approaches would have defused the situation, if that indeed was the goal.  But that obviously wasn’t the goal.  The goal was to send a message that disagreement is not valid, tolerated, or even legal (within the world of a public high school classroom).  I appreciate McDowell’s honesty about his larger aspirations in the issue.  It makes it a lot easier to see it for what it is, rather than confusing it with a teacher who just overreacted or accidentally used excessive force in dealing with the situation.

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