Academic journal article Social Education

Teachers, Classroom Controversy, and the Media

Academic journal article Social Education

Teachers, Classroom Controversy, and the Media

Article excerpt

Ayesha's story: "We're Talking about You"

I knew teaching about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in my ninth grade world history class six months after the World Trade Center bombings could be challenging. Still, I saw this as an opportunity to create a safe space where students could dialogue about the controversial issues surrounding United States foreign policy in the Middle East, and learn about cultures from which many of them feel alienated. As a social studies teacher, I feel obligated to provide my students with multiple views on the conflicts in the Middle East, a region that my world history students study every year. I offer my students primary source documents in addition to school texts. They participate in the research process by locating both mainstream and marginalized voices regarding the topics they are studying. In this case, students completed a comprehensive study of the twentieth century history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict using readings that presented two opposing perspectives: one was a history of Israeli claims to the land; the other was a reading from a human rights group regarding Palestinian claims to the land. The students' task was to model the United Nations and, working in groups of four, propose a peace plan to end the conflict. While students were in the midst of writing their peaceful resolutions, I began receiving e-mails from local talk radio host Lars Larson. The first one said, "Ms. Coning. We're talking about you. Want to join on KXL 750?"

When I tuned in to the radio station, I was astounded by what I heard. A student's parent had fazed the talk show host the article that presented a Palestinian viewpoint and the host was quoting from it; he informed his audience that there was a teacher in the area who was indoctrinating her students to be anti-American. Based on a picture he found of me on the internet, the radio host described my physical features, saying that I looked Arab. He told his audience that my first name was an Islamic name and that I must be Muslim. He even shared information about my mother, a US. citizen of 30 years who emigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan in the late 1960s.

Outraged callers demanded my resignation and said the FBI needed to look into my background. When a senior student from my U.S. history class called in to the show to tell Larson that what was being said about me was not accurate, he asked the student questions about my political positions. She said that/had different political perspectives from hers, but that she felt safe to voice her views in my classroom. After trying unsuccessfully to gain information to support his allegations of politically biased classroom lessons, Larson hung up on the student. These attacks continued for two more days. At this time, I was experiencing complications with my pregnancy and because of that, I was offered an administrative leave by my school district, which I took. The attacks on me stopped and Larson went on to other topics on his radio show.

Teaching and Controversy

Ayesha's story is a social studies teacher's bad dream featuring one of her worst fears: public criticism and controversy over something that has been taught in class. How often, when thinking about how to teach contemporary issues like the Iraq War or civil rights advocacy, or historical events such as the Vietnam War or the Native American experience, do teachers feel a bit of hesitation? They ask themselves many questions: What videos will be appropriate? Which readings might cause controversy? What are the prevailing views of this community? How do I ensure that I provide multiple points of view and stay out of trouble? What academic freedom protection do I have? What can and should I do if I am challenged? How do I find legitimate primary source documents on controversial issues?

"What interest might the media have in my teaching?" may not be the first question to come to mind when planning lessons, but as we can see from Ayesha's experience, it is one that bears some forethought. …

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