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Stage Fright

Posted by Chuck Olynyk on November 21, 2016 at 9:45 PM

Today is Monday, November 21, 2016 and Day 321 of Year Seven. It is also my dad’s birthday. The soapbox is calling, and I feel the need to speak out on something relatively current and which might change how we teach. And when I am troubled, I usually talk to my dad. Think of it as a Benton Fraser thing (“Due South,” a series about a Mountie in Chicago, and Fraser often talks to his father).

Dad, it’s been a while. I was busy standing by my sister Sunnie, but I guess you know that already. You already know how the fight with the cancer went, and that I did the best I could, standing beside her to the bitter end.

I’ve tried to keep going on my own. Some days it feels like I can. But there is trouble on the horizon.

After the tempestuous election of 2016, there were a number of teachers in California who made the news. NBC reported one who said something about “Trump is going to deport you to Africa,” (remembered quote, and so therefore subject to correction) and another in South L.A. who did likewise, but I think he targeted Latinos, whether as a joke in poor taste, or an empty threat to get kids to behave.

We have plenty of people who make poor word choices in education and elsewhere. You and I have done that plenty of times. We’ve even had presidential candidates do likewise.

Then there are those of us who are trying to get a point across.

I try to teach my kids that history is the art of the analogy, that one needs to spot patterns, but they need to take not to be so selective of evidence that they dismiss what doesn’t fit. In the end, it is always a judgment call, and that sometimes we make mistakes.. (“Wisdom comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”). But you also taught me not to blind myself to what is happening, just because it is unpleasant. We used to joke about the movie “Taras Bulba”: “Ypu swore you’d wear a patch over one eye until the steppes were free again. Cover both eyes, so you cannot see yourself!”

We can make analogies to Hitler’s Germany and compare those being locked up in camps to the Japanese internment camps. Students are quick to do this. We can compare the war crimes trials at Nuremburg and Tokyo to dropping the atomic bombs on Japan and what would have happened if it were the Japanese putting American leaders on trial. Students are less quick to do that one. We can compare Columbus to a war criminal, as I’ve seen done in some classes.

Not all would agree with these analogies.

But in the end, we teach our students to think for themselves, not repeat rote learning. Just like you taught me, Dad.

Shortly after the election, Mountain View/Los Altos High School District suspended 40-year-veteran history teacher Frank Navarro, for drawing analogies between the speeches of Adolf Hitler and now-President-elect Donald Trump a short lesson paralleling Hitler with Trump. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/california-teacher-suspended-comparing-trump-hitler-article-1.2871481

Or we can say he was placed on paid leave following the incident, if we want to be polite, Dad. Or, as Mountain View High School’s principal Dave Grissom called Mr. Navarro's leave a “time-out” while Mountain View/Los Altos High School District Superintendent Jeff Harding “told the San Francisco Chronicle that Mountain View High School administrators would finish researching facts on Mr. Navarro soon…” As though he were an unruly child, which is how many see teachers, eh, Dad? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/11/14/history-teacher-suspended-for-comparing-donald-trump-to-adolf-hi/

Superintendent Jeff Harding said he’d like to restore Navarro to his teaching post.

However, Mr. Navarro was suspended/etc. due to an email from a parent who complained about the lecture, accusing the teacher of saying, “Donald Trump grabs p---y.” A less sensational version, related by Mr. Navarro: “This parent said that I had said Donald Trump was Hitler…” Navarro has neither been allowed to share his lesson plan with administration, nor be allowed to see the email nor confront his accuser. Instead, the excuse has been used by Principal Grissom and Superintendent Harding that they feared that the lessons may have been inappropriate in the tempestuous aftermath of the election.

“‘Regardless of their political affiliation, many of our students show signs of emotional stress,’ Mr. Grissom wrote in a letter to parents on Friday. He said he had an obligation to maintain an “emotionally safe environment” for students while protecting teachers and staff against unsubstantiated allegations. The Superintendent said, “We have a heightened environment right now with the election. It’s always a challenge to maintain a line in a classroom…”

That’s why, when 9/11 happened, the principal at Fremont High, got on the PA and ordered all history teachers to turn off their TVs rather than showing the kids what was going on and making as much sense out of it as we could. When we refused, they came to seize the TVs from our rooms. My response was to immediately turn on my radio. Dad, you taught me well.

So where is the line? When I teach about Imperialism and explain that European countries seized lands and made them into colonies, and when students ask about lands the U.S. seized and they ask, “Aren’t they colonies?” “No,” I’m to tell them, “We had territories.”

Are we allowed to discuss Nazis and the Holocaust? Interestingly enough, I noted the day after the election was the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht, and lost some friends over noting the anniversary, for it was assumed I had said Trump was Hitler. (Of course now I can’t help but notice the increase in reports of hate crimes appearing in the news…).

If we discuss the Holocaust, are we to shy away from the Holodomor, Stalin’s genocide in Ukraine. After all, it was a topic which didn’t show up in U.S. history books for many years. Remember when the neighbor boy, John, got in trouble at Emerson Junior High because the teacher said that Josip Tito was good for Yugoslavia and John stood up and told him otherwise? Sure you do, because just like his dad made a trip to school, so did you when I told off another teacher. The point is, when bias comes into the picture, that’s wrong. But do we keep history in a nice safe package, rate it PG? Or is that PC?

Do we safely tuck away the Armenian Genocide? What about the Belgium Congo? Do Native American genocides get safely put into ethnic studies or do we just forget?

The last two years, during the prelude to World War II lessons, when I have taught about appeasement, I compared Hitler being given the Sudetenland to Russia’s seizure of the Crimea from Ukraine. I explained that, while there was an outcry, the world community did little. I don’t think I was being biased. I was showing the students what was happening. They were seeing connections. They were able to evaluate data and make decisions based upon what they saw, not knee-jerk reactions.

And I’m sure you know, Dad, that Russian interest in the eastern Ukraine, our ancestral home, the home Grandfather fought for independence from Russia, continues. We even have some Ukrainian soldiers crippled fighting for their land who come to our church now.

Dad, this Mr. Navarro, a Holocaust scholar, argued that his lesson was not biased, but fact-based. It was a short lesson which paralleled Hitler’s speeches from 1930 until he assumed power in 1933, and the speeches of Donald Trump, to “make the history relevant and show them that these issues have been around for a long time and are probably not going away.”

Parents and students have been fighting for Navarro’s return and of the petition it reads, “It is dangerous and disgusting that the administration has decided to punish him for drawing parallels between two similarly dangerous moments in history…” It also quotes Navarro as saying: “To stand quiet in the face of bigotry and to turn your eyes away from it is to back up the bigotry, and that’s not what I, or any history teacher, should be doing in our work.”

If Navarro can be censored for drawing parallels, which is how history classes tend to work. who else can be censored? What will we be allowed to teach in order to foster independent thinking?

Given the choice of knuckling under, and doing what I think is right, Dad, I can’t see any other options but to continue doing what I am doing. If one voice is silenced through intimidation, then it will be easier to silence the next voice. And the next.

Thanks for listening, Dad.

 

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