So… Friday I was happily doing my thing as a substitute teacher supporting another teacher when I get a call to take over Mrs. A’s fifth grade class. It just so happened that the substitute for Mrs. A needed a substitute which, from the student standpoint, was a good thing since said substitute- Mr. F- sports a beard that makes him look like a refugee from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and a wardrobe that makes him look like your average resident of a homeless shelter.
The first order of business was for the class to read a short article on spies during the Revolutionary War and then answer 5 pages of questions about the article. After some noisy nonsense and grumbling, we read the article- all of 2 pages- aloud and then they got to working on the questions. As they did, I walked around the room helping them as needed, but more so I was looking at some posters the students had completed that were hanging up. I asked one student what they were for and she responded they were a social studies project.
That is the point of this article: the subject matter on some of these posters. While I cannot argue with the ones imploring the viewer that “Equality is for all,” or that “Violence is not the answer,” some of the others were quite “disturbing” to this conservative viewer.
There was one that depicted a map of North America. At the bottom was a black line between Mexico and the United States with an arrow pointing at it that read: “Don’t build a wall.” At the top, Canada was labeled “Come here! A great country” while the United States was labeled in the middle, “This country is bad!” in bold red letters. One student pointed out that this particular poster was his. I just smiled and avoided the temptation to say, “Yet here you are in this ‘bad’ country receiving an education…and a free lunch every day.”
Then there was the obligatory gun control poster with various little messages around the picture of a gun in a circle with a slash through it. One message read: “Criminals shouldn’t have guns.” Another read: “Crazy people shouldn’t have guns.” The person who did this one proudly raised her hand. Here, I did tell her that convicted criminals are prohibited from buying guns through background checks. She challenged me that criminals get guns anyway. When I told her that one is not a criminal until they commit a crime, I got silence. I then reiterated that the assumption of innocence is what makes this country great…in fact, better than Canada.
This one tickled me: “Men are as strong as lions. Women are as strong as men. We are all equal.” Obviously, this little budding social justice warrior feminist was learning similes that week. I avoided the temptation (again) to note that they were objectively incorrect because overall men are stronger than women and that is simply a fact of physiology and anatomy. This was juxtaposed against a poster in the opposite corner that read: “Women are not just for cleaning.” The funniest comment I heard was from a male student who happens to be the son of a teacher at the school who said to me, “That’s not true…they are also good for cooking.”
I could not help myself with this one: “No Muslim Ban…We are People Too!!” The young Bengali girl was quite proud of that poster. When I asked her what Muslim ban she was talking about, she referred to Trump’s travel ban from certain Muslim countries. I explained probability theory. If a country was 98% Muslim and there was a travel ban from that country, chances are that 98% of the time a Muslim would be involved. I asked her if given the chance would she ever move to one of these countries? The answer was, “No…my dad said they’re dangerous.” Hmmm….
I then decided to challenge her. What if, for example, Trump included Nigeria on the list of countries affected by the travel ban? After all, it is not a Muslim country per se- about half Christian and half Muslim. Yet it too has a terrorism problem such as Boko Haram. If Trump banned travel from Nigeria, would that make it a “Muslim ban?” I received silence.
Then there was this one: “Stop Deportations, Mr. Trump.” Note it is “Mr.” not “President” Trump. To this student, I asked him what deportations he was talking about. Was he referring to the deportations that were started under Obama? I reminded them that back at the beginning of the school year, the local paper ran a story about deportations increasing. That was in September and if I recall, Trump was a candidate at that time with, according to the papers, no chance of beating Hillary Clinton and that Obama was still president. The student was unaware of the deportations under Obama, but that was not surprising since Obama is elevated to saintly status in schools.
Finally, one student proudly pointed out their poster which said: “This country is open to all” meaning the United States. I asked her what she meant and she said anyone should be allowed to come here. I asked her if she knew anything about immigration laws. For example, can someone just walk across the Mexican border? She responded, “Of course…” I asked, “Can I just walk across the border into Mexico?” and received a “I don’t know…I don’t think so.” Further prodding, I asked why then should someone be allowed to just walk across the border into the US and not vice versa.
She responded that it was because of the Statue of Liberty, specifically the poem on that statue which they had apparently learned. The next question was obvious from me: “Is a poem the same as a law?” She sat back down and continued her work.
This was the fifth grade- a collection of ten or eleven year old children. Although I may reasonably applaud the teacher for having them think about current events, I also cannot help but thinking that they are receiving a skewed vision of those events. I avoided the temptation to believe that this was encouraged because this particular teacher proudly wears a hijab after marrying a Muslim man. The fact is that in other grades I have encountered similar sentiments from older students. There was the eighth grade student who, when prompted by me to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance, said, “I don’t have to…this isn’t my country.” I told him as long as he was standing on US soil, it was his country and to stand, which he did.
Third grade classes are taught about the evils of fossil fuels and professional posters sing the virtues of solar and wind energy over fossil fuel. This is some program called “Bison Buddy” where third graders are turned into 8-year-old lecturers on the evils of non-renewable energy sources. A recent edition of Scholastic Reader- a student newspaper- ran an article on how bad fracking is and that it was causing “large” earthquakes in Oklahoma.
If this seems like a hopeless situation, there is some hope. The 7th/8th grade social studies teacher- Miss K- is one shining example. She is a young African-American teacher who devotes every other Friday to current events and relates them to the history lesson plan. She is no fan of Trump, but she plays devil’s advocate to poke and prod and concentrate student thinking. Some of the debates are lively and animated between classmates and I cannot help but to think that even though minds are not changed, they are at least challenged.
That is the goal of a good education. Unfortunately, I see less challenging and more propaganda parading as truth.