During the school year, I try to empower my students to make their own decisions and form their own opinions. I begin with a unit I call, “Question Authority.” Students investigate all kinds of authorities, including government, media, and history. It’s a powerful unit that leaves kids shocked (“Food labels can say fat-free even if there’s fat in the food?”), disappointed (“Those models in the magazine are all Photoshopped?”), and angry (“We imprisoned people just because of their ethnic heritage?”). They learn to develop a critical lens with which to question the reality they once blindly accepted.
When a student finally gathers the courage to question me, I respond with one of my favorite sayings from Buddha: “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.” I want students to begin questioning the information that is presented to them, no matter who presents it. That’s where things get tricky.
As I recite my favorite saying, I think of the parents who complained that our school district was closed on one of the Jewish holidays because “Who cares about the Jews?” I think of the parents who refused to let their children participate in lessons on factory farming or who demanded that we remove the movie Supersize Me from our curriculum because it puts McDonalds in a bad light. One parent refused to let her child be taught about slavery from a white teacher. Another parent even accused us of pushing Obama’s liberal agenda because we read an article about a little boy who preferred pink to blue. “Stop trying to teach diversity!” she shouted.
These parents have complained to the principal, the superintendent, and the board of education. I call it fighting for ignorance, but intolerant parents are powerful obstacles to teaching tolerance. So are other forces that are largely beyond the control of a teacher, like friends, music and the media.
For a little while after students question me, I believe that I have opened minds and shined a bright light into our collective darkness. Then a parent writes me a note that her child can’t work in a group with Franco because Franco is a special-needs child who will lower the group’s grade. Then Lena comes in to class limping because someone on Facebook declared that it was “Kick a Ginger Day,” and her vivid red hair made her an easy target. The parents of the kids who kicked her say it’s all in good fun.
I used to believe that the shining light of Truth would always prevail. I believed that once a person was confronted with an irrefutable fact, he would have no choice but to assimilate that information into his worldview. What I realize now is that I’ll always be struggling against other viewpoints, no matter how irrational some of them are. My students are still kids, after all, and their worldview is still forming. My goal is to offer them all sides of an issue so that they can assemble their own ideas and opinions.
While I may not be able to change a family that embraces intolerance or convert society at large, I can shine a light. I can empower a student to question the authority of what he’s being told. In the act of questioning, he is already brightening the darkness.
Sofen is a middle school writing teacher in Sparta, N.J.
Readers: We’d like to know—how do you counter the intolerant attitudes that students pick up outside the classroom?