By Jorge D. H. Prósperi, 2019
Novice teachers wanted a voice regarding the “neutrality commandment.” We were willing to teach content through prescribed methods, but we were also realistic and astute regarding the socio-political changes taking place and how it was impacting our students and families. Yes, they had become our students and we were their teachers. We were no longer willing to remain detached and neutral.
While learning the art of teaching and learning, novice voices plagued the college of education with critical questions, “We ask our students to think, think, think, but think about what? We ask them to think, but at the same time come to a full stop whenever the thinking leads to controversial issues. We are becoming accomplices and accessories to ignorance. The opposite of why we want to teach!” “There is not a subject free of controversy. Can you name me one?” And so they tried and failed.
We had come to a crossroad. Teachers would have to face some tough introspection. Should we remain compliantly neutral and follow the commandment, or as Parker J. Palmer would urge, teach with identity, integrity and courage? Would we dare to reveal ourselves on behalf of students? What was the value of their future, quality of life, citizenship? How would we navigate that journey of curriculum mapping without losing our place in the profession? Each teacher, each administrator, each district was challenged.
No, delivering sacred content did not need to suffer. It would always be there for the teaching and learning. Content would not suffer – but each principal, department head, and teacher would need to roll up their sleeves and go beyond it. The effort would require not only local, but global cooperation and collaboration. Were we up to the task? Did we have a choice?
Math could remain highly neutral and did not even have to mention any stellar mathematicians of color or ignore the Hidden Figures. But they began to do their part. One teacher introduced ways how Native Americans used math every day of their lives. Students began to notice the universality of numbers and its connections to science, music, art, athletics, discovering the creative Beautiful Minds of their math teachers.
Science was dealing with the ‘science of race’ examining its construction through new microscopic lenses delving into the depths of DNA. How genetics, genomics and eugenics were used to divide and exclude was exposed. New global faces surfaced as notable scientists. The scientific method itself was critically examined and expanded.
Foreign Language Teachers were not only teaching pronunciation and grammar but pointing out why Spanish speaking countries spoke Spanish, exploring the Latinidad and Natividad of the Caribbean. Current literature from 21 Spanish speaking countries began to rival authors from Spain with new vistas of nature, survival and resiliency . . . the flamenco guitar discovering its salsa.
French teachers presented the tenets of liberté, égalité, fraternité and its ties to our Declaration of Independence. Some teachers provided native accounts pointing to France as the third largest slave trading country and colonizers of the French Caribbean. French could be taught from different perspectives beyond views of the Eiffel Tower.
Art and music did not have much of a problem opening its doors to controversialness telling their students to, “Just look and tell us, show us what you see and feel?” And they did. The choral director challenged, “Let’s sing their songs. Sing of freedom and justice. Hear their voices once more through yours.” And they did!
The majority of English teachers were already there – waiting for other content areas to join them. They knew the power that empowers – language, reading, writing, prose, poetry… the metaphor. Students were urged to unleash the power of language. As always to notice and respect spelling and structure but not at the price of losing one’s authentic voice. Books considered to be too controversial were encouraged to be read examining and discovering the layers of the fragile and complex human condition.
For many English Teachers, Language Arts was the one constant critical human skill that impacted all subjects and curriculum. And I agree!
Social Studies and History departments had the greatest challenge. What stories to tell? Who was missing from the history books? What stories received more attention and why? Who wrote the history books? What to do with those monuments, those so called heroes, the revised stories, the trauma? Where were the women? What to do with Multiculturalism and Critical Race Theorists knocking on the classroom doors? How to explain the reality of police on horseback charging, with billy clubs clubbing, attack dogs attacking, firemen aiming fire hoses at black women and men.
History was no longer in the classroom but on TV, every night screaming, “CONTROVERSY!” Asking . . . “Why? Is this who we are?”
So what did those young eyes see, hear and think when they saw a governor blocking a student of color from a school, “We don’t want you! You don’t belong in this school!” (underscored by what was not said – but echoed by the supportive crowd)… “We don’t want you because you are black and we are white and you are not equal to us. Go back to where you belong!”
Lest we forget that there were states across America – not only in the south – that were not only comfortable with, but revered the “neutrality commandment.” “What they don’t know won’t hurt them!”
They fostered it on a daily basis from the morning pledge of allegiance to the truncated messages of patriotism. The “white status quo” ideology was their vision and mission. The least essential and critical questions asked, the better. No need to alter the annual good old “equal but separate” lesson plan.
But students kept asking . . . left on their own to discover – experience – hearing counterstories – wanting answers . . .
“Mom, dad, please help me understand. Is what I am seeing right?” “Teachers, please help me understand, is what we are learning right and true?”
“America, please help me understand, please?”
END OF PART II – Go to Part III