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Friday, 10 February 2017 15:50

Handling Controversial Current Events in the Classroom

By | Education
SARATOGA SPRINGS — In a landmark tie-breaker, the controversial appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary for the U.S. Department of Education has been confirmed. What this means for education nationally is yet to be determined, but it is one of many headlines bringing national politics into local classrooms, including in Saratoga Springs. Such current events are among many that are used by educators to facilitate learning. According to Freya Mercer, Director for K-12 Humanities Integration at the Saratoga Springs School District, current events are used in social studies, English, and other subjects, to enhance critical thinking and analysis, reading comprehension, and other skills. Given that the news cycles have been unusually politically charged since the November elections, how do school districts handle class handouts and assignments on current events to a student body widely diverse in political viewpoints, culture, socioeconomic status, and a host of other factors? And when do current events cross the line from topical news to personal opinion? For example a video that went viral in January shows a Dallas teacher, shooting a toy water gun at a video of President Trump on Inauguration day, in front of her class. She has since been suspended. Locally, a number of fifth grade parents were unhappily surprised when their children recently brought home a handout of an article about the new U.S. President that seemed to the parent to be inappropriately slanted. One section read, “His victory was a blast of fresh air for millions of people. For millions of others, it was a disgrace.” Another section mentioned people refusing to attend the inauguration. Other handouts spoke of protestors and a concern of the lack of diversity in his cabinet appointments. These handouts were from NewsELA, one of a handful of generally accepted sources of current events news for primary and secondary education, and an often-used source for teachers nationwide. Whether these are the only materials handed out, or whether there were any that were unfavorable to the President’s former opponent, is unclear in this case, but it raises the question, how do schools regulate handouts and assignments on current events? According to Mercer, the Saratoga Springs City School District is clear that the current events must be fair and balanced. “Teachers have a lot of leeway when it comes to supplemental reading,” she added. “Obviously, it has to be age-appropriate and relevant to the curriculum, but there’s no way anyone would want to micromanage every piece of text that gets used in a classroom. Most of our buildings use Scholastic materials, but NewsELA is an Internet resource that all teachers will use to pull things to support student learning and reading.” Mercer’s office is responsible for state and local English Language Arts (ELA) student assessments. In addition, the office is responsible for academic intervention services (reading), enrichment and gifted and talented programming, arts-in-education, and implementation of the Common Core literacy standards. “The fifth grade curriculum includes studying the rain forest, and then the next unit is the universal declaration of human rights,” said Mercer. “They will also look at whether migrant farm workers are legal or illegal, and they will be learning how to relate it to literature and sometimes current events. They will also be going into Jackie Robinson and figures in sports history. There’s a lot of meaty content that our fifth graders are wrestling with. We have to be fair and balanced.” But defining how to meet that standard has been a longstanding educational concern still under debate. In the New York State School Boards Association’s (NYSSBA) “On Board Online” September 24, 2012 edition, there is an article by Cathy Woodruff titled, “Political Expressions in School Can Be ‘Gray’ Area.” In the article, Woodruff paraphrases NYSSBA General Counsel Jay Worona as saying, “Even if a teacher does not intend or expect to influence the developing political views of students, the expression of a partisan political view can raise legitimate concerns about the neutrality of the educational environment.” On the other hand, according to a summary of court cases provided in an ERIC Digest through the U.S. Department of Education on “Academic Freedom in the Public Schools,” teachers are generally allowed to “express (but not promote!) their personal opinions on controversial political and social issues. Primary constraints on these academic freedoms are that they must be exercised within the confines and relevance of the course and subject matter being taught.” [The Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) is an online library of education research and information, sponsored by the Institute of Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education, now run by DeVos.] Basically, students develop necessary critical thinking and other skills by being exposed to controversial topics that are age-appropriate and relevant to their curriculum, but educators have to do so in a way that recognizes these young minds are a captive audience and provide multiple views to ensure balance. Mercer emphasized that materials have to be taken in whole when assessing whether it is balanced, that a sentence or a handout can be pulled out of context. If that’s not the case, or anytime there is a concern the district wants to hear from parents. She said the best thing for a concerned parent to do is reach out to the teacher and get all the facts. “If they don’t feel comfortable talking to the teacher,” she said, “then go straight to the principal, and then I will be looped in.” What are your thoughts on teaching current events in the classroom? Saratoga TODAY welcomes your letters to the editor, Facebook comments and Tweets. Email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., or comment at www.facebook.com/SaratogaTODAY or @SaratogaTODAY on Twitter.
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