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The Policy Concerns That Keep Teachers Up at Night (Opinion)

We teachers have our hands full with our day-to-day classrooms, but education policies can have a major impact on our working lives.

Here are the policy issues some educators feel we should be most concerned about:

Restrictions on What Can Be Taught

Bryant Odega is a Los Angeles-based labor-rights activist and teacher-candidate fellow at the Harvard Graduate School of Education:

I think the most important education policy issue facing public schools today are the topics and curricula teachers are able to teach. There is a growing effort by conservatives to restrict teaching topics, even going as far as banning books that talk about gender, sexuality, or race; turning libraries into disciplinary centers’ and distorting the history of slavery and racism in order to minimize its impact.

However, this is not new; restricting knowledge, especially within the context of race, is an age-old issue within the United States. In his book, Fugitive Pedagogy: Carter G. Woodson and the Art of Black Teaching, Harvard professor Jarvis R. Givens writes about how teachers in Virginia’s freedpeople’s schools were subject to terror following the Civil War. Furthermore, Black education itself was subject to violent white protest. These are experiences that continued during Woodson’s years as a student during the 1880-’90s. Racial progress too often begets resentment and backlash. Woodson would eventually launch what we now celebrate as Black History Month and popularize Black studies as an academic discipline. Nevertheless, efforts to halt the teaching of race continue today.

Cultural diversity in the classroom is important for students because culture informs the way people perceive themselves, each other, and the world. The lack of inclusion and diversity sends a message to students that their perspectives, cultures, and contributions to society are not significant, and as educators, this is an issue we must tackle head-on.

Professor Rudine Sims Bishop popularized the concept of Mirrors and Windows promoting a multicultural curriculum which “mirrors” the daily experiences of students and “windows” into the experiences of others. This approach engages students by including, affirming, and respecting their cultures and life experiences in the classroom. It also helps them learn about experiences different from theirs, even finding cross-cultural connections in ways they may not have considered before.

If we want to educate a civil society of critical thinkers and informed decisionmakers, then our students deserve all the opportunities possible to engage in knowledge that helps them recognize their own agency, respect others, and become change makers in their own lives and those of their communities.

As educators, it is important for us to reject conservative efforts to take us backward and instead teach and affirm the entire humanity of our students, to advance humanity forward. If we remove cultural diversity and awareness from our classrooms and curricula, we will be perpetuating a narrative that denies the cultural diversity and humanity of our students.

So how do we accomplish this? Teachers should continue teaching and reading from books that include cultural diversity and awareness. Here’s a list of books that can help. Additionally, teachers should discuss book bans and curriculum censorship with students so that they can analyze the impact of these efforts and reflect on how they would respond. Being able to apply skills developed in class to real-world events further helps students in their learning process.

Teachers should also get more civically engaged, whether it’s voting, attending school board meetings, or getting more involved in your labor union. Teachers’ unions are on the front lines of combating the current attacks on curriculum, and there’s been success in codifying culturally affirming policies for students within labor contracts with school districts as demonstrated by the teachers’ union within the Los Angeles Unified school district, the nation’s second largest district, United Teachers Los Angeles. UTLA succeeded in codifying support in advancing ethnic studies and culturally responsive curriculum within its labor contract with the district. These are just some ways to address this issue within and outside the classroom. Most importantly, continue to stay informed and alert in order to best serve the needs of your students.

‘Professional Learning’

Angela M. Ward, Ph.D., is an anti-racist educator with over 25 years of experience in education. She is focused on creating identity-safe schools and workplaces. Follow her @2WardEquity on Instagram & X and visit http://2wardequity.com/blog/ to subscribe to the 2Ward Equity newsletter:

Professional development is used to launch the school year and introduce new curriculum, tools, processes, and resources. It is a critical component to supporting the adults in the education workforce. Mediocre professional development in public schools threatens the future progress of the profession to meet the needs of the most vulnerable students. Public schools have taken “professional” out and replaced it with compliance, sit-n-get, meaningless offerings that do little to prepare educators for the challenges of today. Teachers, principals, directors, executives, and superintendents all need high-quality professional learning to navigate the turmoil the educational system sits in.

Instead of development, I choose to focus on the adult as a learner and find professional learning to be more promising. Professional learning opens the door to new knowledge pathways and acknowledges the choice available to educators. It invites adult learners into a collaborative and interactive space to learn, enhance their skills, and build capacity to go into and impact learning in the classrooms, hallways, conference rooms, and board rooms each day. In a professional learning experience designed for an adult to build their personal capacity, facilitators work to understand participant skills and knowledge and to build rapport in the time allotted to enhance educator self-efficacy.

As I work with districts, it is clear to me that high-quality professional learning is not the norm. It is exceptional to find a district that dedicates a budget for learning experiences that build educator awareness, enable them to sharpen their skills, and challenge their thinking to push them to their growth edge—what Vygotsky (1978) calls their zone of proximal development. Without adequate learning and growth space, we are hemorrhaging educators to private-sector jobs that value their expertise and knowledge and support them with learning teams, as well as onboarding them to a work culture focused on their professional growth.

Funding and providing the time and space for the design and delivery of high-quality professional learning is a key policy issue facing public schools. Our students deserve a highly qualified workforce that is tapped in to the latest research and learns about their needs through ongoing community building outside the school walls. To be effective, professional learning must address the immediate needs of the educator to support the most vulnerable students in our schools. By supporting adults to learn how to support the most vulnerable, adults are better prepared to ensure all students receive what they need.

Civics Education

Michael Hernandez is an award-winning educator and speaker. He is the author of Storytelling With Purposeand is an Apple Distinguished Educator and Lindblad/National Geographic Grosvenor Teacher Fellow:

One of the biggest issues public schools face today is our ability to develop productive citizens—students who are prepared to apply the knowledge of our curriculum in constructive ways to solve problems in the world beyond our classrooms. The pressure to attain high test scores and the obsession with data-driven learning has left kids and teachers unengaged and disconnected from our world and their own lives. We’ve neglected what matters most in education, which is the focus on the humanity of learning: curiosity, passion, and our responsibility as members of a local and global community.

Test results released last May by the National Assessment of Educational Progress show 8th grade civics scores down for the first time ever. While some blamed the pandemic for the decline (reading and math scores were also down), my experience in the classroom leads me to believe that it’s more about cultural shifts and the doubling down on teaching based on direct instruction/memorization/testing.

In the same way that you have to conduct experiments to truly understand science and have to write in order to create and comprehend literature, we must also actively put the concepts of civics into practice to truly understand their purpose and how they function in our own communities.

One of the best ways I’ve found to do this is through project-based-learning experiences like journalism and documentary filmmaking. Digital storytelling projects like these allow students to explore topics that they are curious or passionate about and integrate research and writing skills at the same time. There are many advantages to these projects:

· Students make personal connections to the topic and develop empathy for people affected by policies and social conditions.

· Students see and feel the concrete implications of politics and public policies on the ground in front of them, rather than reading about it in a book, which only develops an abstract relationship to the material.

· Students develop and apply skills like critical thinking, logic and reasoning, and ethical decisionmaking.

· They help students develop the skills, knowledge, and courage to become civically engaged beyond the classroom.

· Students are empowered to participate in society in constructive ways and see their personal role and responsibility to contribute in positive ways.

Project-based-learning challenges like digital storytelling help students become active participants in civic life rather than passive bystanders who might feel disenfranchised or frustrated with the political system. It also sends important messages about our trust and respect for our students, their experience, and their unique points of view. This in turn models how to develop healthy, productive relationships with others to achieve common goals, which are vital life skills in a democracy.

Here are some ways teachers can start conversations around civic engagement through digital storytelling, even if they aren’t officially a journalism or social studies teacher.

· Empathy Interviews. Have students identify people in their community who have a relationship to your current unit or topic of study, such as an author of a book, a journalist, a recent immigrant, or a scientist. Record an interview with them (use a voice-recording app on your phone/iPad or via video-conferencing tools like Zoom), then review the responses, looking for new insights or ways they challenged students’ existing thinking. This models listening and empathy skills.

· Humans of Your School. Inspired by the Humans of New York blog, this lesson asks students to take portraits of lesser-known members of their community and include their insights on their life or current living/working conditions. Post the images and text on a class website or social media channel. This project uplifts diverse voices and helps build community.

Even in our busy lives as teachers, small projects like these can quickly energize the classroom and get kids excited about learning and being an active member of their community.

Thanks to Bryant, Angela, and Michael for contributing their thoughts!

Today’s guests answered this question:

What do you think is the most important education policy issue facing public schools today, why do you think it is so important, and what is your position on it?

Keisha Rembert and Kit Golan provided responses in Part One.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at [email protected]. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first 12 years of this blog, you can see a categorized list here.

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