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Episode 10: Self Evident Truth

Educators believe training students to think critically involves lessons that dive deep to explore all sides of the issue. However, a recent rule passed by the State Board of Education restricts what students can be exposed to. This type of censorship hurts students and educators alike. For this month’s episode of Educating from the Heart, we sat down with Megan Young, a high school English teacher in St. Johns County to talk about the new rule impacts teaching and learning in her classroom. 

Guest

Megan Young, English Teacher, St. Johns County

Works Mentioned

Transcript

[00:00:00]FEA President Andrew Spar:  Hi, this is FEA President Andrew Spar.  To stay on top of all the latest news and issues impacting our public schools. Be sure to follow FEA on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. For more information on this podcast visit FEAweb.org/podcast. 

[00:00:17]Sharon Nesvig, Announcer:  You’re listening to educating from the heart. Thank you for joining our lively conversations with teachers, support professionals, parents and students, as they share issues that matter most in our public schools. Here are your hosts, Tina Dunbar and Luke Flynt. 

[00:00:43] Luke Flynt, Host: We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. Those are words that all school children learn when studying the history of our nation’s founding, but those words have a complicated history and students are right to have questions about them. 

Even at the time they were written those words certainly did not apply to all men, and forget about them applying to women. Let’s consider just some facts from Florida history. The 1860 Florida census shows that 44% of the entire state population was enslaved. Fast forward 60 years, and on November 2nd, 1920, 50 African Americans were killed, and the entire black population of Ocoee was forced to leave the town simply for trying to exercise their right to vote.  Three decades after that on Christmas day, 1951, the home of Harry and Harriet Moore was fire bombed, and they both lost their lives. They were targeted because they were organizing their community to ensure equitable education for black students and equitable pay for black teachers. Their perpetrators were never charged, much less convicted. 

And all this and the country that was founded on the idea that all men have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? 

[00:02:20] Tina Dunbar, Host: Well, Luke, we all know the tension between the word is found in the founding documents, and the reality of life in America still exists today. A good example occurred over this past summer. We saw the state board of education pass a new rule relating to the teaching of American history, that many educators fear will have a chilling effect on instruction. While it’s quite common for the state board to pass rules on what must be taught, they’re now engaging in what some call censorship or “cancel culture.” As a rule explicitly states “certain historical facts must not be fully explored.” That’s left many educators questioning how deleting facts could lead to effective lessons in history and civics. In fact, during last month’s episode, we spoke with a history teacher who shared her concerns on how this new rule actually hurts students because without understanding the full history of our country, they may not be able to recognize the positive contributions they could make to the future. 

And that led us down the path of questioning: What’s the depth of the impact behind this ruling? I’m going to introduce you now to Megan Young. She’s a high school English teacher from St. John’s County, and she uses poetry and literature to help students connect or make sense of historical context. She now questions what would motivate students to work towards creating a better future for our state, if we don’t start teaching racial equity and social justice in our schools right now?  

[00:03:56] Luke:  How does teaching history or teaching slavery or racism or things like that and the appropriate context (we know how that would impact history teachers), why does that have an impact on you as an English teacher?  

[00:04:11] Megan Young, St. John’s County English Teacher:  So it’s funny that you asked that question. So today we read a poem from 1623, and I think the poem would have been very challenging for students had we not done some contextual background before jumping into the poem. So the poem was “No Man is an Island” by John Donne 

And I think that going and talking about the contextual background, understanding this author was from Europe, and he had undergone, or he just experienced an almost fatal illness. He almost died from this illness, that near-death experience caused him to write all these meditations on life. 

And one of the meditations that came out was this excerpt “No Man is an Island.” So, without that contextual background, I don’t know that students would have been able to correctly identify the theme, understand the metaphor in the poem, and how he’s trying to develop that theme. So, whenever we study things in isolation, it makes it really challenging for students to make connections.  

Because the reality is, just like the poem “No Man is an Island” the theme is that we’re no one’s alone, no concept really is in isolation by itself because everything affects everything else. We’re all inextricably linked.  

[00:05:21] Luke:  Yeah. And I think that poem in particular really resonates with where we are with COVID-19, right? Where John Donne says, you know, “ask not for whom the bell tolls,” right? We are all an island connected to the main; “it tolls for thee.” We are all connected, and we all need to do what we can for each other. So, does it worry you now? When you teach things like that, are you, you know, maybe even anticipating that you’ll get a couple of upset phone calls or emails because you dare to put things in context?  

[00:05:59] Megan: At the beginning of my teaching career, I didn’t think about those things. My, my thoughts were classroom management and, you know, are we hitting the standards? But now I do have this little fear every time I bring up a piece of literature, is this going to be met with any sort of adversity? I think it’s super important to include context when you read, especially when we’re reading pieces of literature from so many different time periods. 

And I just want to make sure that my students understand the connections between what’s happening in the poem and what the author was going through. We also read Ayn Rand’s Anthem, and it’s really impossible to understand that message if you didn’t understand that Ayn Rand, you know, grew up in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution and experienced this like intense control.  

So she was super against anyone being controlled. So, I think it’s important as teachers, we give this contextual background, so students can really understand how all these events are connected and how they affect the pieces.  

[00:07:05] Luke:  Right. Because it’s, you know, one thing to know that slavery happened, right. It’s one thing to know that there was segregation, but if that’s all that we’re allowed to teach, that segregation existed, and we don’t talk about the power structures, we don’t talk about what led up to it or the ramifications from it, students ultimately are the ones that lose out.  

[00:07:29] Tina: How do you respond to students who ask questions? Maybe they figure out themselves that I, I want to go deeper. I want to understand that. And if they ask that question, Um, that very controversial question. How do you respond to that? 

[00:07:44] Megan: My safest way, and what I’ve been doing for years, is I respond to questions with more questions. So, um, I’ll just give an example. Every four years, when there’s an election, students will always say, “Ms. Young, who are you voting for?” Right. I like to turn it around and make a lesson on inferences. And I say, well, “who do you think I would vote for?” And then they just guess, and there’s this great debate about who they think I’m voting for and why they think I’m voting for that person. They’ll talk about what kind of car I drive and you know, the fact that I’m a teacher, all these different details about me and those different facts will lead them to an inference on who I’m voting for. So, I try to use that to when students ask tough questions, especially in the midst of like a whole class conversation, I’ll turn around and say, “well, why do you think that?” Or “what do you, what do you think the author is trying to say about that?” 

Just so it’s not me saying what I think, it’s what is the author saying? Why was the author saying that? What was happening in this time period when this book was written that the author would be thinking about this? So, bringing those conversations back again, contextually to what’s happening, the occasion surrounding this piece, I think is how you as a teacher manage some of those more challenging conversations. 

[00:08:58] Luke:  I have heard from a few of my colleagues that there has been a really severe crack down on bringing in outside materials into the classroom, even from respected institutions, such as NASA. Evidently school level administrators are so worried about their school, you know, showing up in the news or in the newspaper for teaching something controversial that they are just cracking down on bringing in outside resources, which seems to be, I think, really detrimental to learning. Anyhow. Um, I guess what I’m wondering is how widespread is that? Is that something that you’re seeing in St. John’s as well? 

[00:09:42] Megan: I think in general, there is a layer of fear from teachers throughout every district about the pushback or the anger from parents about what they teach. Even things that have been approved, texts and stories that have been approved by the state that are in our textbooks are being challenged, are being politicized; they’re polarizing our parents. And it, it was really disheartening this summer to see parents on Facebook getting in these, you know, just this vitriol over the books that students were reading. 

And the most frustrating part for me is the parents not reading the books themselves. No one has read the book. No one has taken the time to see, well, what, what is the theme of the book? What’s the message they’re trying to portray? It’s just, if it has anything to do with race, if it’s anything to do with race, it’s completely pushed aside as “my child will not read this.”  

When in reality, sometimes these conversations are more about the human experience, and they’re about tragedy in general and how we cope with tragedy and the importance of humanity and relying on one another and friendships. So  it’s, it’s a struggle, I think for people in every district right now, because there is that fear of, is this going to be polarizing? Is this going to be met with anger? Are our parents going to be upset about this? And it’s not just things that we pull randomly. It’s things that are in our textbook that we’re given as resources are also being [seen this way].  

[00:11:18] Luke:  Can you think of a specific example of something like that? Of something from your text book that is now worrisome? 

[00:11:27] Megan:  Yeah, I’m concerned about, so one of the texts that was on the summer reading list, that was the Florida Teen Reads book was, uh, The Hate U Give. So there was a lot of concern about that text being on there, even To Kill a Mockingbird is a classic. It’s a book so many people have read and loved for years. That’s, that’s a book that some people do not want their kids to read anymore. I’m going to be reading Of Mice and Men with my students next week. And that’s a book that I’m nervous as someone going to have something to say about this. So it’s, it’s hard as an English teacher because you can’t…everything you read from American history is going to have some commentary on race because it’s inextricably linked with our history. And it’s hard for me because I’m like, should I avoid those conversations and just focus on the thematic conversations? Or is this an opportunity for me to talk about history with my students?  

[00:12:36] Luke:  Students are generally aware when there is something they’re not supposed to learn. I’m wondering to what extent you get the sense that your students are aware of this controversy and, and does that make them want to dig deeper into it? Or are they just 10th graders, and they’re much more concerned about who’s taking who to homecoming?  

[00:13:01] Megan:  I think, I think honestly it varies from kid to kid. There are definitely students I teach who are more concerned with who’s taken who to homecoming. But then I do have students who, you know, when we’re reading a text, they realize that this has a larger implication. You, you hit the nail on the head when we talked about “No Man is an Island.” That made kids start thinking about face masks. It really did. And they’re making those connections through the literature. And I think when, when they start making those connections, they’re realizing, oh, that’s, you know, this is connecting to things that are happening in real life. This is something I could use to have conversations about that. I think they realize that the school is now no longer the place where they’re allowed to have these conversations. 

When in reality, isn’t this the place where they should be with an educator to help facilitate and foster these great debates? But unfortunately we’re not allowed to have conversations like that at school. So, where are the kids getting these debates? Where are they able to bounce ideas off their peers and hear people with varied different perspectives if it’s not at school?  

[00:14:13] Tina: We’re dumbing down education. What I heard you say is that we’re removing critical thinking. We’re not teaching our students how to think through things anymore.  

[00:14:26] Megan:  Yes. I forget the exact wording, but in Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he’s addressing the clergymen who criticized him as being unwise and untimely for being in Birmingham. And in one part, he says, “surely we wouldn’t be super concerned with the superficial idea of the effects and not look into the causes.” Surely we’re not just going to look at effects and not causes. And I talk about that with my students, and I’m like, he’s criticizing the clergymen here because they’re saying, oh my gosh, you’re coming to Birmingham, and then there’s all this tension. And he’s saying, surely you’re not going to criticize the tension and not figure out why there’s tension. It’d be like having a flat tire every day and just getting a new flat tire and not think to yourself, “I wonder why I’m getting a flat tire everyday?” So, I think what you said is correct. 

We are taking away the cause and effect, the relationships. How are these things connected? And we’re trying to say, you can only teach all these events in isolation and not talk about the connectivity, and that is superficial. That is not deep, super critical thinking.  

[00:15:35] Luke:  Yeah. And you know, in, in that same letter, of course, he tells the clergy men that he has reached what he calls the regrettable conclusion, that the greatest stumbling block is not the Klu Klux Klan [member] but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice. And that is a letter that I used to teach my students. And I could not imagine today having (I taught middle school), I could not imagine having my eighth grade students read that in today’s environment. I mean, they need to. 

[00:16:14] Megan: Well, we teach it in 10th grade, so I’ll be doing that core too. I’ll let you know how it goes. [laughter] 

[00:16:18] Luke:  I mean, because how do you, I would, I would be terrified of the repercussions that would come back on me when a child goes home and says, “well, Mr. Flynt said that moderates are the problem.” 

[00:16:35] Megan:  You know it’s weird because no one seems to have a problem talking about Jim Crow laws and how America “used to be racist.” No, one’s debating that like, no parents are like, this is not true. It’s when you start to talk about how those events have had repercussions on how we are today. Because the sixties were not that long ago. 

It’s when those conversations or those realizations from students start to happen, that people get upset. And so, I’ve been teaching Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” for 12 years now. I’ve taught it every year that I’ve been a teacher, and it is the first year that I’m like, kind of nervous about my students coming to those realizations because I am never telling them those things. I don’t sit up here and say those things. They think about them on their own, because they start to realize the interconnectivity of everything, the links between the past, the present and the future. And I think those realizations and those things happening might cause some parents to be upset.  

[00:17:44] Tina: Isn’t this reverse indoctrination? 

[00:17:49] Megan:  That’s a great question. Yeah. So, in Ayn Rand’s Anthem— I love, I love that I am talking to English teacher because I feel like I keep referencing books, and it’s how I understand the world. So, but in that book, this is a very dystopian society. And the entire book, the narrator, who is the main character is using the word “We” instead of “I,” and in this dystopian society, like most dystopian societies, they’re able to control everybody by taking away books, by taking away knowledge and, you know, limiting their access to learning. You are, you are not allowed to learn things outside of what the government has told them they can learn.  

And so when the main character discovers electricity, he literally invents the light bulb, that light bulb and the light throughout the book is symbolic of knowledge and truth. And Ayn Rand is trying to explain that for you to have free will, you have to have access to knowledge. And I think for our students to have free will, for them to have the ability to make decisions on their own, they need to be able to have access to the knowledge, education. 

And I think by limiting what their allowed to learn, it’s the start of a dystopian society where the government’s telling you what you can and cannot learn. I would prefer students not be kept in the dark about things and let them have their light bulbs, you know, be ignited on their own by being exposed to different types of literature, different viewpoints, and have them reach their own conclusions about things. 

[00:19:32] Luke:   What do you think about some proposed legislation, hich would ensure that African-American history is not only taught in schools, but is taught factually in a way that simply is not mandated right now? 

[00:19:50] Megan:  I think I would be very supportive of African-American history being taught factually, having that be mandated. I think this is the United States of America, and the majority of kids history is spent learning about Europe, which is part of our history, but the United States has a history of its own. And its slavery and the history of Africa and all of these different events are entwined so inextricably with our own history, that to leave that out of the picture is giving kids a really imbalanced view of our history. They, they know that we, the people from Europe came to America.  

They know that people came here for religious freedom, and they know that there was a revolutionary war, but when it comes to really the history of America and what makes us how we are, I don’t think there’s a really cause and effect really critical knowledge of how we came to be what we are today. And I think that adding in that history will definitely aid in them having that better understanding of what makes the United States of America what we are today. What great educators do well is they ask the right questions in the right order. And when students are asked the right questions and in the right order, they make a lot of discoveries for themselves. 

And when you take away an educator’s power to ask questions and to get them asking those questions in the right order, when you take away an educator’s power to get them thinking in that way, then you’re kind of taking away the student’s ability to think in that manner too. So, we teach kids, you know, how to evaluate, how to have, you know, their thinking caps on when they’re reading a source and be like, “Hmm, is this biased?” 

Is this, you know, is this reference that I’ve found is this viable? We teach them all these things, but when we’re not allowed to have these conversations with them, or we’re not allowed to apply those skills to the conversations, the current topics, I feel like there’s a disconnect between what happens in the classroom and how they apply it to the real world. 

[00:22:07] Luke:  How do we solve this?  

[00:22:10] Megan:  I think we need to give autonomy back to teachers. We are professionals. We are educators. We’re with the kids every day. And it’s the only time a kid is really surrounded by a lot of other kids from different backgrounds, different experiences, everyone’s had a different life, and it’s the chance they get to have conversations about, you know, challenging things, and with a mentor there, with a mediator who can give them advice and lead them in the right direction, evaluate bias, talk about counterclaims. It’s the really the perfect setting for kids to learn how to have disagreements and debates. So, I think leaving the educating to educators, that’s probably the way to solve most problems.  

[00:22:59] Tina: Luke, this new rule definitely creates another level of uncertainty for our teachers, but Megan has a good approach for effective teaching in this current environment. With the proper attribution, she’s able to delineate the fine line between her views and the author’s point of view. 

But it is really alarming to hear that many educational resources, the historical facts and literature, that have already been approved by the state are being removed. How is a teacher able to discuss and answer questions on current events, if you can’t even use certain news reports? And I also am wondering how teachers are embracing the law that recently passed, adding the Ocoee Massacre to the standards? 

I certainly can’t imagine the classroom questions that piece of history would generate, especially now when voting rights are such a big, hot button issue.  

[00:23:55] Luke:  While we are unsure of how this new rule will play out, we want all members to know your local union and the Florida Education Association are prepared to stand in your legal defense. 

Here are a few tips from our legal division: First, avoid using the term critical race theory or content from the 1619 project in your classroom, both are explicitly banned by the Department of Education. If you are challenged about instruction involving race in your classroom, just remember to stick to the facts and that there is current statute 1003.42(2) that dictates instruction on civil rights and African-American history. 

If you are not a member, now might be the right time to consider joining. We are strong advocates for public schools, and we will fight for your right and your freedom to teach accurate history. Towards the end of the conversation, we asked Megan about her thoughts on expanding African-American history in our schools. We have a bonus episode coming out next week with representative Geraldine Thompson, who once again has filed legislation to ensure that that essential part of our nation’s history is included in the Florida standards. Be on the lookout for our conversation with representative Thompson soon.  

[00:25:22] Tina: But that’s it for our show. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll see you again real soon. Until then, keep educating from the heart.  

[00:25:30] Aurora Gonzalez: If you enjoy our podcast, ask your friends and colleagues to subscribe on our website at feaweb.org/educating from the heart. Send your comments and feedback to heart@floridaea.org. Again, that’s heart, H E a R T at Florida, EA dot O R G. Or you can leave a voicemail at 8 5 0 2 0 1 3 3 8 4.  

[00:25:59] Sharon Nesvig: Educating from the heart is a production of the Florida education association. FEA is the statewide educators union with more than 150,000 members, including teachers, education, staff professionals, higher education faculty, graduate assistance, students preparing to become teachers and retired educators. 

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