Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year is post-truth, which is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Outlining the dangers of post-truth and fake news shared on Facebook, MTV writer Brian Phillips warns, "An America where we are all entitled to our own facts is a country where the only difference between cruelty and justice is branding."
Moral and political philosopher John Rawls reminds us that, in order for public reason to exist, we all must agree on some kind of reality, and public reason is primarily made in institutions, like schools. That is, we as a society must agree on common processes (for example, fair voting and election procedures) and substantive criteria (like moral and values-based considerations) from which to work toward a common good that everyone views as legitimate. In the aftermath of a successful post-truth campaign for the presidency, then, where does that leave schools, educators and the development of public reason?
As a teacher educator, I noticed post-truth systems of thought in my classroom of budding and seasoned teachers, but they felt peripheral. However, Trump’s victory stirred these teachers, unearthing prejudiced beliefs I’d heard throughout the campaign and codifying them as truths. The election results are changing how I see my role as an educator in ways I do not yet completely understand. I have always sought to create a transpartisan classroom that is oriented toward justice—that is, a space that welcomes various political positions in the interests of working collaboratively toward the greater good. And I felt confident that, if my students understood the facts and perspectives of marginalized people, they would reflect on their complicities in that marginalization (when applicable) and orient their practices toward justice. Yet, in the weeks following the election, I am not so sure.
As my students spoke about voting for Trump or not voting at all, I felt shaken, no longer sure of how to navigate the classroom space or our broader community with them. My efforts to cultivate a transpartisan space felt painful. Hearing their gut feelings and media-crafted myths as rebuttals to the argument that we should be inclusive of Muslim and queer students was shocking, their expressions of apathy troubling.
In her recent address to the 2016 meeting of the National Association of Multicultural Educators, educational scholar Linda Darling-Hammond reinforced the need to create transpartisan spaces in our classrooms. She noted that the “Trump Effect” may provide an opportunity to explicitly address the colorblind racism and domesticated homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia that has been lurking beneath the surface of our society for some time.
Yet, what does a transpartisan classroom look like in a post-truth society? How do you combat prejudice when, for many people, facts and counter-narratives don’t hold weight? Of course, we all hold prejudices that we have to address. But when beliefs consistently trump facts, what are the implications for schools and educators who are seeking to foster a just, compassionate and informed citizenry?
In my search for answers, I found hope in realizing that post-truth epistemologies can never negate truth and that transpartisan teaching does not mean all opinions should hold equal weight in the classroom. In a pluralist, democratic society, students must learn to engage in dialogue and dissent. It is my role to not just facilitate the sharing and critiquing of opinions and ideas, but to draw harder lines regarding what informed, supported opinions are and to remind students of the co-constructed common reality from which we are all operating.
In fear of seeming too biased or alienating the ideologies some students bring to the classroom, I’ve danced around this responsibility of drawing harder lines. Perhaps misinterpreting justice scholars like Kevin Kumashiro or Paulo Freire, who respectively advocate for the partiality of knowledge and the need for dialogic relations in matters of unraveling oppression, I found it difficult to say to students, “These are the realities of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia, and this is what must be done to find a path forward together.”
As Freire cautions, “Leaders who do not act dialogically, but insist on imposing their decisions, do not organize the people—they manipulate them. They do not liberate, nor are they liberated: they oppress.” Heeding this warning, I refrained from drawing harder lines as an acknowledgement of the limits to my own understanding and out of fear of my justice orientation becoming a form of oppression for other ways of knowing and being. Yet, sobered by the hate that has erupted since the election, I realized my reticence to take a robust stance against prejudice was stifling the development of public reason by denying the common reality it demands. Students’ beliefs and the actions that manifest from them must be honored to the extent that they do not lead to the oppression of others.
I feel my pedagogy awakening. Prior to the election, I failed to help my students identify and animate what they can mutually consider reasonable. I now enter my classroom intent on cultivating a truth-based reality with my students through critical media literacy and historical analyses. Doing so will better prepare them to participate in a democracy that is both procedurally and substantively reasonable—and to do the same for their students.
Beck is a doctoral fellow in the University of Florida School of Teaching and Learning and a former first-grade teacher.
You probably know that Teaching Tolerance is one of the United States’ leading providers of anti-bias education resources. But did you know we reach hundreds of thousands of educators—and millions of students—annually? It’s true! If you use any of our FREE resources (TT’s magazine, blog, professional development, film kits, Mix It Up at Lunch Day initiative or Perspectives for a Diverse America), you are part of a large and growing community of social justice educators and equity advocates.
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Women marching in prayer to confront militarized police positioned behind razor wire. Nonviolent protesters continuing their resistance while being blasted by water cannons in below-freezing temperatures. Indigenous peoples from around the globe coming together in solidarity. These events, along with dance, song, ceremony and other forms of peaceful, nonviolent protest, have all happened within the last few weeks—and before—at the Standing Rock Sacred Stone and Oceti Sakowin camps in North Dakota. Educators should use this moment to teach students about standing up to governmental injustice and the degradation of our environment. And the #NoDAPL movement offers four valuable lessons for students of all ages: persistence, presence, planning and provocation.
Persistence. The #NoDAPL movement began in June 2014, when Energy Transfer Partners announced its plans for an oil pipeline route across lands and waterways of cultural, spiritual and environmental significance to the Lakota Nation and other communities downstream. Public hearings were scheduled for May and June 2015, and the pipeline was approved in January 2016. Sacred Stone Camp was established in April 2016 to protect the water. Since then, thousands of indigenous and settler¹ supporters have traveled to the camps to stand in solidarity against the pipeline and in support of the preservation of the Lakota Nation’s sacred lands. The state of North Dakota, Energy Transfer Partners and the federal government have responded violently and forcefully. Students may be reminded of the civil rights movement, perhaps Selma’s “Bloody Sunday” or attacks on nonviolent youth protesters in Birmingham. Witnessing the persistence of people facing down traditional power structures can teach students how to stand up for themselves and what they believe in, no matter the opposition and no matter how intense the pressure.
Presence. Students can learn the importance of showing up by investigating the Standing Rock protests. Too often, people stop at filling out an online petition, sharing a few stories with an outraged tone and then going about business as usual. The #NoDAPL movement has been successful so far because of people’s willingness to show up, to stand in the way and to use their bodies to pressure state and federal authorities and a profiteering corporation to change. Showing up has always been necessary to creating change. As longtime civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis advises young people, “If you see something that is not right, that is not fair and not just, you have to speak up. You have to speak out. You have to find a way to get in the way.”
Planning. Starting with this video calling for people to help establish the Sacred Stone Camp in April 2016 and the #NoDAPL timeline, students can learn the importance of planning and how social media, video, websites and other networking resources can be used to develop a grassroots movement or a protest gathering of any kind. A review of the First Amendment would be appropriate to contextualize why protest is a valuable American right, especially in light of our president-elect’s recent comments about free speech. This look back is a valuable way to connect the past to the present.
Provocation. Sometimes, taking action or using words that anger people in power is necessary to move the bar forward on a particular issue. In the case of #NoDAPL, Facebook Live sessions have documented the actions of police and pipeline company-paid security personnel. The sessions have held the government and company publicly accountable. Getting in the faces of those who abuse their authority—or otherwise enact injustice—and spotlighting those actions can open the door to holding people accountable and making a difference.
Students should feel empowered to say no and stand up to anything or anyone that hurts or divides us. Teachers are in a unique and powerful position to encourage their students in this way and to place it in a long history of acting collectively to create necessary change. A good place for teachers to educate themselves—and to send advanced students—is the comprehensive Standing Rock Syllabus, developed by the NYC Stands for Standing Rock committee. This group is made up of indigenous scholars and activists and other supporters.
Protest movements have a long history in the United States of redressing grievances and righting injustices, so students can learn the value of protest from the #NoDAPL Standing Rock movement. Let us stand together as educators and remind our students of their fundamental right to protest.
Editor’s note: As of yesterday, the U.S. Department of the Army prohibited the Dakota Access Pipeline from being constructed near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation, a testament to the power of protest.
Morris teaches writing and Native American/Indigenous Rhetorics at Kutztown University of Pennsylvania.
¹ A term that refers to people who settled what is now the United States, or whose ancestors settled here and who continue to benefit from that initial colonization. Click here for more information.
The Atlantic: “Enforcing civil rights is not a zero-sum game … [and] we are all better off when our system of public education promotes equity in opportunity and justice for all.”
Disability Scoop: “While typical playgrounds can be overwhelming for some children with autism or other challenges, the sensory trail is specially designed to provide cognitive and physical benefits geared toward their needs.”
EdSource: “Supported by civil rights laws, brain science and research on learning, schools in California and across the nation have increasingly made it a priority to try to create classrooms that are welcoming to all. The goal is civil discourse, improved academic performance and fewer discipline incidents.”
Education Week: “Working with parents and educators on digital citizenship gives me hope right now. Schools are teaching their students to interact in kind ways online, because it’s the right thing to do—and also so that students are mindful about creating a positive and admirable digital footprint.”
The Hechinger Report: “With bilingualism linked to enhanced academic and social skills, educators say dual-language programs can be used to narrow the achievement gap and equip underserved students for a future in a competitive workforce.”
National Public Radio: “Dyslexia is so widespread that it forces schools and parents to take action. And yet, it is deeply misunderstood. Even basic questions don't have easy answers.”
The New York Times: “This lesson plan asks students to weigh the potential drawbacks and advantages of the [Dakota Access] pipeline project for all involved, then challenges students to develop a reasonable and just solution to the current standoff.”
The Seattle Times: “‘I’d like to see kids evaluating politicians and what they’re doing, and applying knowledge—not just memorizing facts from 240 years ago. … [T]he election really pushed people to see that education can’t just be all about STEM.’”
The Wall Street Journal: “Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website, according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college.”
The Washington Post: “Rochester International Academy (RIA) provides a strong transitional program for newly arrived immigrant and refugee students, working in close collaboration with families and community partners. Because Rochester is an official resettlement site for the United Nations, 98 percent of RIA’s students are refugees.”
If you come across a current article or blog you think other educators should read, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org, and put “What We’re Reading This Week” in the subject line.
When teaching about the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), U.S. teachers are often confronted with a dearth of accurate and nuanced material about the history, politics and people of the region. This crisis of critical awareness mainly materializes through two recurring narratives that circulate in mainstream media, political discourse and popular culture: “Islam as anti-Western” and conflict fueled by “ancient hatreds.”
The first narrative not only conflates Islam with the MENA, but also presents Islam simplistically, masking the diversity within the religion. Shows like Homeland and 24 have lent credence to the idea that all people from the region are Muslim and that all Muslims are threats to those who live in the West. Consequently, there is little to describe the region’s national, ethnic, political and religious identities, and—as evidenced by the 2016 presidential contests—some politicians have consistently failed to distinguish ordinary people from members of extremist groups.
The second narrative is that the MENA is characterized above all by “ancient hatreds,” as seen in President Obama’s 2016 State of the Union speech. Framing contemporary geopolitical conflicts as timeless conflicts—“Arabs vs. Jews,” “tradition vs. modernity,” or more recently, “Sunni vs. Shi’a”—is an ahistorical approach to these complex and rich histories.
These narratives work in tandem to produce a one-dimensional conception of the MENA, which, in turn, fuels the rising Islamophobia in U.S. schools and society. As a result, Muslims and even non-Muslims (like Sikhs or Arab Christians) have been targets of hate crimes, attacks, harassment and bullying.
It is in this climate that a group of scholars and educators, including us, came together to create open-source, online curricular materials for high school teachers called Rethinking the Region: New Approaches to 9-12 U.S. Curriculum on the Middle East and North Africa.¹ Born out of an aim to contextualize the MENA region, we grounded the project in a rigorous analysis of four commonly used world history textbooks in U.S. high schools. Our findings served as a springboard for the curriculum design. Specifically, we wanted to draw attention to how peoples and societies interacted collaboratively and fluidly at different political and historical junctures, and integrate this analysis into vibrant curricula for high school teachers.
As several of us were former high school and elementary teachers, we acutely understood the need for such materials. We find this curricular intervention particularly important in the current American political context, when mainstream media often simplify complex histories and identities, exacerbating difference and “Otherness” in ways that do not truly reflect the MENA region in all its complexity.
We framed Rethinking the Region around the following themes: women and gender, plural identities, political and social movements, empire and nation and arts and technology. We chose these themes because they are often crudely treated in U.S. textbooks. The lessons can be taught sequentially or can stand alone. They allow teachers to choose when they want to pause and when they want to go into more depth on a particular theme or topic, while still adhering to the state curriculum. We also used open-source and online materials for many of the sources. In the event that something has been taken off the web, we hope that the references and titles provided will enable teachers to find the resources elsewhere.
Rethinking the Region not only allows educators to avoid reductive approaches to the region and highlight multiplicity, plurality and agency, but it also provides resources that are part of broader curricular and school climate initiatives meant to combat Islamophobia. In this sense, our approach, rooted in anti-racism and cultural responsiveness, lends itself to new questions, new understandings and new possibilities to rethink the region.
Maria Hantzopoulos is associate professor of education at Vassar College, where she coordinates the Adolescent Education Certification Program and participates in the International Studies, Urban Studies and Women’s Studies programs.
Roozbeh Shirazi is assistant professor in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.
¹ In addition to the two authors of this blog, the team also included Monisha Bajaj, Ameena Ghaffar-Kucher and Zeena Zakharia.