Last week, while observing a student teacher teach social studies to sixth-graders, I overheard a student ask whether a friend was going to walk out in protest of gun violence.
Instead of talking about crushes, their Snapchat streaks or what was on the math tests, these 12-year-olds were engaging in civic discourse about a pressing topic concerning them and the broader community.
Often, stakeholders in education forget that our students are also citizens. The proposed Academic Balance Policy bill in the Legislature does this and therefore should not become law.
University of Minnesota School of Social Work Profs. Ross VeLure Roholt and Michael Baizerman write that “young people are systematically ... marginalized, if not outright excluded, from everyday citizen work on issues meaningful and consequential to them, for others, and for a community.”
Citizenship is not an innate human characteristic; it must be taught and practiced. Schools are one place where students get to interact with their peers and other adults. If the Academic Balance Policy were to become law, the ability of schools to be these sites of democracy would be neutered.
The bill says school districts must create a policy that “prohibit[s] school employees, in their official capacity, from requiring students or other school employees to express specified social or political viewpoints for the purposes of academic credit, extracurricular participation, or as a condition of employment.”
I understand the fear that people go into teaching to indoctrinate students. There may be bad apples who do. However, professionalism dictates that as teachers we treat our students not as pawns or widgets, but as humans capable of their own agency.
There are two major problems that would occur if the bill were to become law.
First, a chill factor would set in; teachers would not know what was or was not considered controversial. Is it controversial to debate the legalization of marijuana in a social-studies classroom? To some, absolutely. To others, the debate is germane because it is a replica of what is happening in state legislatures, including Minnesota’s.
How one teacher evaluates controversy may differ from another, or from a student, parent, administrator or overzealous lawmaker. It is so much easier to avoid controversy altogether and not have a discussion.
But lack of discussion would leads to the second problem — students leaving school not knowing how to discuss current events and political issues. Social-studies scholars Walter Parker and Diana Hess have argued that schools are a space to learn using discussion. If schools are not sites where such skills are practiced, students will turn to the other influences around them. In an age when, over and over again, we’ve seen that people are exposed to fake news and cannot tell what is fake news or not, forbidding our students to practice media literacy and argumentation — both of which are codified in state learning standards — would be educational malpractice.
I was a high school student in the lead-up to the Iraq war. I had just published a commentary in my high school newspaper saying I did not believe the war was justified when my chemistry teacher went on a five-minute tirade about why Saddam Hussein needed to be bombed. After all, he did 9/11, or so my teacher said. I sat in that room with no recourse, feeling targeted. I take this memory with me into my classroom on a daily basis. I share it with my students who are learning how to be social-studies teachers.
That incident does not mean to me that we should ignore controversy all together. Let’s remember that one of the reasons the students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida have been so effective at creating a movement is that their school allowed them the practice to learn how to communicate a clear, articulate message. We have seen them organize marches, organize support and challenge elected officials.
I understand why some in the Legislature would want to avoid empowering students. However, as evident by the sixth-graders I saw last week and the thousands who marched in protest, they do so at their own peril.
Daniel Bordwell, of St. Paul, is a social-studies teacher and graduate student.