Talking about politics in the classroom is often a tricky endeavor, but with the end of this rancorous election season, many teachers have been using the experience as a civics lesson about democracy.
But a public school teachers’ union in San Francisco decided to take it a step further last week by offering a lesson plan that blatantly calls out President-elect Donald Trump for being racist and sexist.
"Educators have a role to play to help them [students] make sense of the new reality, especially those who come from the communities who have been attacked by Trump, and who now face a very uncertain future," the union wrote in its newsletter.
The drastic recommendation is an initiative that may reflect the concerns of the city’s diverse population. Last week, more than 2,000 San Francisco high school students staged a citywide anti-Trump walkout and mass demonstrations. But questions about whether the lesson plan went too far hints at the dilemma that teachers face: Should they use this opportunity to educate about the real-life implications of civic duties and risk receiving backlash for talking politics in class?
"Teachers often have a really difficult time to decide when to step in," Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., tells The Christian Science Monitor. "Students will be talking about it anyway, the job the teacher can do is to make it productive."
The United Educators of San Francisco, which represents more than 6,000 teachers catering to more than 57,000 students, circulated the plan in an email newsletter to its members last week. The San Francisco Unified School District emphasized that the lesson plan was shared as an optional resource where adoption is entirely up to individual teachers.
Among other things, the lesson plan, outlined by teacher Fakhra Shah, encourages teachers to have conversations with students about the election results.
"I know that they might curse and swear, but you would, too, if you have suffered under the constructs of white supremacy or experienced sexism, or any isms or lack of privilege," she wrote.
Harmeet Dhillon, a Republican National Committee representative from California, expressed her opposition by calling it "inappropriate propaganda that unfairly demonizes not only the campaign that Donald Trump won but also all of the people who voted for him," as reported by the Associated Press.
For teachers who choose to follow the lesson plan, they will have to take into consideration opposing viewpoints to encourage discussion – instead of demanding students take a certain view and increase polarization, as critics have pointed out.
"This election really has brought out how important civics education is," Kawashima-Ginsberg says. "It’s really important teachers do get the moral support from school administrators.... We can’t just put that responsibility on teachers and leave them out cold."
To Kawashima-Ginsberg, the decision to call President-elect Trump racist and sexist will have be based on an individual teacher’s judgment over whether it will help students who feel victimized or aggravate those who supported the president-elect. Helping them understand each other, she says, should be the key lesson in learning how a democracy should work.
Meira Levinson, professor at Harvard University's Graduate School of Education, however, tells the Monitor that there shouldn't be anything wrong with calling Mr. Trump's racist and sexist statements for what it is.
"The fact that he's an elected politician now doesn't mean that suddenly teachers cannot critique it for being racist and sexist," Professor Levinson says. "If a kid were to say in class many of the things Donald Trump has said, they would be found in violation of many schools and districts' code of discipline and suspended. But it does put teachers in a precarious position."
A recent case in the state illustrates how sensitive the job can be. History teacher Frank Navarro from Mountain View High School in California was suspended early this week after parents complained that he drew parallels between Trump and Adolf Hitler. Mr. Navarro claims that the school officials told him that they were placing him on leave for discussing the elections.
"This parent said that I had said Donald Trump was Hitler, but I would never say that," Mr. Navarro told The San Francisco Chronicle. He said he did, however, point out similarities between Trump and Hitler’s claims to "eject foreigners" and "make their countries great again." "I think it makes sense.... It’s factual, it’s evidence-based.... It reminds students that history is real."