Saturday, June 17, 2017

An Actually Racist Statement Results in “Remedial Action”; Same Teacher’s Good Pedagogy Gets Him Fired

Curmie’s long hiatus has left him with a lot of catching up to do if he wants to resurrect the Curmie awards this year. The good news, in multiple ways, is that the calendar year so far has generated only a dozen or so topics that Curmie has any interest in writing about. The bad news is that quality and quantity are different things, and there are some doozies in this group.

We start with a two-parter, only the second half of which happened this year (in January). As is often the case, Curmie heard about this story from netpal Jack Marshall. I don’t have a lot to add to Jack’s analysis, but if the Curmies are to make a return, we need to start churning out the posts about worthy contenders.

So, we start last fall in Folsom, CA, where a student asked Sutter Middle School history teacher Woody Hart for a definition of equality: this was apparently triggered by a class discussion of an exam question, but it’s a reasonable enough request for a student that age to make under any circumstances, especially given the ubiquity with which the term was no doubt being tossed about, only six days before the national election.

Hart’s response was, shall we say, disturbing: multiple students claim he replied, “When you hang one black person, you have to hang them all (as) that is equality.” Say WHAT??? Well, his version differs slightly: “If you hang black people in the South, that means that you hang any black person who comes from outside the state.” Oh, well, that changes everything… except for the whole “it doesn’t change a thing” part. Curmie is not sure whether to be more perplexed by what apparently passes for rational thought in this quotation or offended by the face-melting racism hidden not very damned deep below the surface.

Tyrie McIntyre, the father of one of the (few) black students in the class, complained to school authorities, who acted. Sort of. They agreed to remove McIntyre’s son, Tyler, from the class. According to the Sacramento Bee, Principal Keri Phillips “outlined remedial action for Hart, saying he will use examples at a level that eighth graders can understand…. avoid stereotypes or culturally insensitive language and rely on ‘very simple analogies that do not focus on the controversy.’” Curmie gets the middle part, but fears that the eighth graders understood the example all too well, and there was no “focusing on the controversy” in Hart’s statement. It was the controversy.

Curmie is afraid he must agree with Mr. McIntyre that “there was no way to justify the statement that he made.” That doesn’t make Mr. Hart an awful person, but it does make one raise a skeptical eyebrow, wondering if the 70-year-old teacher just got trapped in a clumsy statement or if there’s some real, thinly disguised racial nastiness going on here.

School Board President Zak Ford:
Not the Sharpest Knife in the Drawer
What passes for the brain trust in the Folsom Cordova Unified School District would have us believe that question was answered in January. The Sacramento Bee again: “Board President Zak Ford expressed outrage at the meeting, calling the remark ‘very inappropriate and flat-out stupid.’ Superintendent Deborah Bettencourt called the comment inappropriate and apologized to thousands of district parents and staff members.” So far, so good, right? Except the reason for the meeting was that Hart had had the audacity to display a Confederate flag, one presumes the Stars and Bars, but perhaps the actual flag of the Confederacy (as well as a Union flag), while teaching about the Civil War. WHAT??? That’s a problem?

Curmie can add to but not really improve on the commentary of local resident Cliff Zall: “The Confederate flag is a wart on our history, but gosh darn it, it’s part of our history. The next thing you know, history is not going to be history. It’s going to be what we wish it was.” Here’s the addition: how are students to know that the Confederate flag is anathema if they don’t know what one looks like? Indeed, wouldn’t the suppression of such a readily-available image just make it a little more deliciously naughty, thereby increasing its appeal to the average 13-year-old? Or, if they already know, how is seeing one in the context of a discussion of the Civil War in any way inappropriate?

Students—you know, the people who were actually there—argued that Hart was treated unfairly by the Board. Eric Hall, an 8th grader at the school, presented a petition signed by about a quarter of the total student population, asking that Mr. Hart, “a great teacher” who “got the class interested in things,” be retained. By this point, however, the Board had already forced Hart into retirement. Here’s a snippet from yet another article from the Sacramento Bee:
Allison Simmons, a junior at Folsom High School, said Hart was her eighth-grade teacher. Simmons said she hated history until she participated in his classroom simulations, which made history come alive. The classes didn’t promote racial insensitivity, but quite the opposite, she said.

He’s teaching you what’s right and what’s wrong throughout history so you don’t repeat it,” Simmons said. “You guys made a stupid decision to take the best teacher away from so many students,” she told the board.
Curmie has no opinion on Hart’s teaching skills, but can’t fault Ms. Simmons’s analysis that the Board’s decision was, in fact, stupid. I’d add anti-intellectual, hypersensitive, arrogant, ill-informed, pompous, and ultimately chilling, but “stupid” works, too. The only possible explanation for this ruling (because that’s effectively what it was) is that the Board was embarrassed by their earlier inaction when Hart really did do something that constituted a breach of professionalism, and they pounced on any pretense to put the entire situation behind them. That would be unethical, but not imbecilic.

But then, Board President Ford said “that the investigation of the Hart matter does not mean teachers should be afraid to be provocative or to use historical artifacts to “help students understand uncomfortable aspects of history.” And now we’re back at “stupid,” because this comment shows Mr. Ford to be dumber than the proverbial sack of hair. How else should teachers perceive such a nonsensical decision, if not as a direct threat to their classroom autonomy and an assertion that the Board will act arbitrarily, whimsically, and irrationally whenever it chooses. Ford shouldn’t despair altogether, however. Curmie is writing again, and there might be a Curmie nomination on the horizon.

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