Who de­cides what pub­lic schools teach, and when?

The Herald-Sun (Sunday) - - Opinion - BY TERRY STOOPS Guest col­umn Terry Stoops is vice pres­i­dent of re­search and di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion stud­ies for the con­ser­va­tive John Locke Foun­da­tion. This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in Carolina Jour­nal, www.car­oli­na­jour­nal.com.

I don’t write much about what hap­pens in­side of the class­room sim­ply be­cause there is so lit­tle in­for­ma­tion about it. The N.C. De­part­ment of Pub­lic In­struc­tion out­lines the se­quence, top­ics, and learn­ing goals for each grade and sub­ject. Cur­ric­ula and in­struc­tional de­ci­sions are made on the dis­trict, school, and de­part­men­tal lev­els.

Sim­ply put, what hap­pens in the class­room gen­er­ally stays in the class­room, and the pub­lic is none the wiser.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, an as­sign­ment or exam ques­tion will mi­grate from the class­room to so­cial me­dia. Some of my fa­vorite are funny test an­swers. What ended in 1896? 1895. Where was the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence signed? At the bot­tom. What is the high­est fre­quency noise that a hu­man can reg­is­ter? Mariah Carey. You get the idea.

But class­room ma­te­ri­als are also leaked be­cause par­ents be­lieve their child has been as­signed tasks that have ques­tion­able ed­u­ca­tional value, or they ob­ject to re­quired read­ing ma­te­ri­als. In rare cases, teach­ers will air their ob­jec­tions to les­sons im­posed on them by school dis­trict staff or ad­min­is­tra­tors.

Such was the case when a sev­enth-grade English teacher in Wake County alerted me to a forth­com­ing unit based on the “Nar­ra­tive of the Life of Fred­er­ick Dou­glass.” The nar­ra­tive is an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy writ­ten by Dou­glass, a former slave who es­caped bondage in 1838 and be­came a cen­tral fig­ure in the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment.

The book is one of the most im­por­tant anti-slav­ery books ever pub­lished in the United States, and un­ques­tion­ably it de­serves a place in the class­room. But is it suit­able for sev­enth-grade stu­dents?

Among a num­ber of con­cerns the teacher re­layed to me was the bru­tal­ity and graphic lan­guage in pas­sages as­signed to ado­les­cents who may not have the ma­tu­rity to en­gage the text with the sin­cer­ity and rev­er­ence it de­serves. Among the ex­cerpts is the fol­low­ing:

“I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so hor­ri­bly, that even master would be en­raged at his cru­elty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind him­self. Master, how­ever, was not a hu­mane slave­holder. It re­quired ex­traor­di­nary bar­bar­ity on the part of an over­seer to af­fect him. He was a cruel man, hard­ened by a long life of slave­hold­ing. He would at times seem to take great plea­sure in whip­ping a slave. I have often been awak­ened at the dawn of day by the most heartrend­ing shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was lit­er­ally cov­ered with blood.”

The les­son plan sug­gests that teach­ers ask stu­dents to iden­tify who was cruel and who is be­ing whipped. More­over, teach­ers are di­rected to have a con­ver­sa­tion with stu­dents about racially charged lan­guage, in­clud­ing the n-word, which ap­pears in the Nar­ra­tive re­peat­edly but not in the ex­cerpts as­signed to stu­dents.

In the hands of an in­ex­pe­ri­enced teacher, this part of the les­son could go ter­ri­bly wrong. The same is true for the “per­for­mance task” for the unit, which asks stu­dents to “write and il­lus­trate a chil­dren’s book based on an episode from Dou­glass’ life.”

I do not have the ex­per­tise to judge the qual­ity of the les­son or as­sess its ap­pro­pri­ate­ness, but I trust the judg­ment of the teacher who for­warded it to me. His reser­va­tions about it should be enough to war­rant a re­view by his su­pe­ri­ors and a dis­cus­sion with par­ents.

Terry Stoops

Fred­er­ick Dou­glass

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