“Anne, I’m so disappointed in you!” said one of the boys in my class. “Go for it, Anne!” said another. “Do I have to read this?” said one of the girls. Our class had just erupted into one of those chaotic, rapid fire comment blurting episodes. Seconds previously we had been peacefully reading the play adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank. What set off the explosion of commentary were two sentences, lines about Anne recalling a prepubescent moment where she wanted to touch another girl’s breasts during a sleepover and how the thought of nude sculptures got her excited. Students had mentally stepped away from Anne as a person to Anne as a sex object.
First of all, please know that I don’t normally have my seventh and eighth grade students reading material that they find sexually exciting. I am aware that their young brains are highly susceptible to sexual content, which is naturally very compelling, and some of which can become harmful to healthy development. My older version of the play did not contain this newer content recently discovered in a newer class set of texts. Determining what constitutes pornography and where censorship should start is best left to another blog post. Librarians have to grapple with controversial content all the time. They have my sympathy.
I want to share what happened next after I recognized we were in controversial territory.
I told my students that we would skip that part of the text and move on because the content was unnecessary for what we were learning. I pointed out that when they encounter something that makes them uncomfortable, they have the right to skip it and move on. In fact, whenever they encounter something that conflicts with their ideals, they should identify that conflict and discuss those feelings with a trusted family member. I reminded them that Anne was a normal girl having natural adolescent feelings that she recorded privately in her diary.
Later that evening, I called two families I knew would want to discuss the experience with their children. I knew they wouldn’t be happy.
Why did I do that?
DIVERSE VIEWPOINTS AND THE TEACHER’S ROLE
I believe every teacher needs to respect viewpoints their students’ families consider important. That’s all famiies’ viewpoints, not just the ones we personally support and agree with. If something controversial comes up in my classroom, as the Anne Frank content did, I encourage students to go home and discover what their parents’ perspectives are about it.
For example, no matter how I feel personally about President Trump’s initiatives, when I teach current events in my Social Studies classes, I recognize that my students’ families hold diverse perspectives, and I do my best to dispassionately provide facts and information. Whatever the controversy, I encourage thoughtful, evidence-supported arguments presented civilly and at appropriate times and encourage students to listen to the thoughts and ideas of others, presenting their own arguments and counterarguments.
My job is to teach them to be effectively analytical and articulate, not to change their minds so they will think as I do.
This is how I demonstrate respect for those who have entrusted their child to me.
Some viewpoints held by others are offensive to me. Nevertheless, to undermine a parent’s teaching would be unethical. As teachers, we provide information but allow others to think for themselves. We are in a unique position of authority which should not be abused. We shouldn’t pretend to agree with others when we don’t, but we can listen to learn and show that we care about them. Providing them with factual resources and the ability to identify misinformation and error is important and does not necessarily undermine family teaching.
If a parent objects to a classroom resource I use, I give their student other options. It might mean a little extra work for me, but it’s no big deal in the long run.
US AND THEM OBSTACLES
It is not uncommon to hear educators complain about parents. It’s also not uncommon to see Facebook posts where parents complain about teachers. This atmosphere of US versus THEM diminishes our ability to act as authentic partners, something truly valuable for the academic progress of students.
When we say we embrace diversity in America and value the contributions of everyone, we need to mean it. More and more often we see people affiliating themselves with narrower and narrower subgroups and targeting, even eviscerating, those with competing views. We can’t attack others without hurting our society as a whole. Healthier individuals, healthier collaboration and group decision making create a healthier society. We can’t afford to be fragmented and unable to work with others who opinions differ from our own. When serious problems confront society we need to be able to work unitedly to solve them.
The greatest obstacle to working effectively with others is feeling threatened in some way. We must eliminate the sense of threat by clarifying points of view and finding common ground. We do this by getting to know students’ families, by encouraging the sharing of their ideas and values, by listening with a desire to learn and then moving forward with the best interest of the child at the center of what we will ultimately say or do.
Another obstacle to partnering effectively with families is our pride and sense of independence. We want to teach with absolute academic freedom. However, as public school teachers, we have chosen to work with the children of society at large. We shouldn’t expect to have the luxury of dictating our ideals. Academic freedom is important as we create an intellectually challenging and positive learning climate. However, it is not unlimited.
Teachers are in a position every day to share values and expectations. Character education is often a necessary part of our instruction. Nevertheless, the values we teach should be society’s shared values: The idea that every person is important and worthy of respect. Respectful behaviors include making our learning environment safe, secure, and comfortable for everyone. Democracy means being engaged and participating in positive ways for the common good.
Knowing my students families and their ideals means I can better focus my instruction and respond effectively when controversy happens.
Anne Frank deserves to be remembered for her courageous optimism in the face of destructive divisions in society, divisions that would eventually contribute to her death and the death of millions of others. When her father had her journal published, he left out the more salacious details. He felt he knew what was best for his daughter. I can respect that.