The superintendent of a school district in Illinois has issued a directive banning any discussion in classrooms of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teen killed Aug. 9 by a white police officer, or the civil unrest that followed in Ferguson, Mo.

KMOX-TV reports that Superintendent Ed Hightower of Edwardsville District 7 Schools made the decision after some parents complained that some teachers were expressing personal opinions during discussions with students in their classrooms. The station report says:

Superintendent Ed Hightower says normally there would be an open discussion of current events.

“However, this situation in Ferguson-Florissant has become a situation whereby there are so many facts that are unknown,” he says.

He says teachers have been told not to discuss it and if students bring it up, they should change the subject.

Other educators have taken the opposite position, saying that teachers should not ignore the events in Ferguson and should find developmentally appropriate ways to talk about it. For example, in this post, veteran teacher David B. Cohen says:

What do we do in school communities when events of historic proportion take place? Or overwhelm us? What do we do when our communities are in grip of trauma, fear, or grief? How many ways are we willing to define, or redefine, “our community”?

I think we have to be willing to toss out the lesson plan, or revise it. This must be done thoughtfully and advisedly, of course. A teacher needs to know the students, the community, and have the skills and sense to manage whatever is about to replace the regular lesson. But certainly, if we place the lesson plan ahead of significant moments in our communal life, we not only rob students of a chance to learn something more lasting and potentially important, but we also unwittingly reinforce the oft-heard but incorrect message that school is separate from “the real world.”

There is something chilling about learning that a teacher is supposed to change the subject when a student asks about an important current event.

Is it chilling or simply a good way to keep down the level of student unrest?   Teachers have been known to voice opinions far too strongly about current events.  Let’s face it, their students are captive audiences.  Perhaps there are just some topics that are best avoided in the classroom, especially where emotions on a topic run strong.  I don’t care if it is about an election, an event like Michael Brown or Treyvon Martin,  abortion or any other extremely controversial topic, teachers really need to take the high road and keep their opinions to themselves.  Well-planned lessons cut down on the extemporaneous discussion.

No one can control what students ultimately talk about but that kind of discussion doesn’t have to be in the middle of class.  I am not sure about Illinois but most schools have curriculum that must be covered.  Parents should complain if their kid’s science class has become an on-going discussion of controversial topics, even if the parent agrees with whatever position that teacher is taking.  It isn’t the time or the place.


4 Thoughts to “Limiting classroom discussion: Censorship or prudence?”

  1. Rick Bentley

    It’s NOT an “important current event”. The subject of black anger is the general topic and good luck talking about that in a school classroom. “Jerry, are you angry? Mark, how do you feel about Jerry being angry? Does either one of you feel that the other gets an advantage on you in life because of race?”

    Hightower is exactly right – there aren’t details to talk about at this point.

    Cohen’s overwrought statement is almost too stupid to respond to.

  2. ed myers

    It IS an important current event for young people who feel discriminated against by police. It provides a good backdrop for discussing the criminal justice system and the political process…which is needed to educate the children to become the engaged self-governing voters of the future.

    What teachers needs to do is refuse to answer children who want simple answers: were the police justified. Instead they need to teach how to gather information and make their own judgments. I’d like to see students who strongly believe one position be required to come up with the counterargument through research. This is a wonderful teaching moment. Students who learn to be analytical and delay judgment when facts are not known in the face of a very emotional situation is so worth it. They also need to learn how to appreciate that others can come to a different conclusion with the same set of facts. What a missed opportunity.

    I agree that a free-wheeling bull session in math class with kids interviewing the teacher on his opinion isn’t worthwhile, but every English and gov class should use this incident as a way to harness passion into educational engagement.

  3. Emma

    “I’d like to see students who strongly believe one position be required to come up with the counterargument through research.”

    That’s not on the SOL’s, so the kids are out of luck.

  4. […] Limiting classroom discussion: censorship or prudence? […]

Comments are closed.