Friday, September 4, 2009

The "I Pledge" video controversy and whether students will be brainwashed if they listen to President Obama speechify next Tuesday

I’m really frustrated by the whole Obama speech controversy, but I’m going to spend most of this post on the one school “I Pledge” incident to explain my reasoning.

First, the “I Pledge” video controversy was just a silly mistake by a PTA mom unsaavy in how easily things can cause offense when speaking of politics. I do not believe as Gayle Ruzicka does that the video is “radical, leftist propaganda” from a politically-motivated PTA president, although I don’t think that video should have been shown to the elementary kids—the “I pledge to serve President Obama” is not how I view my relationship to any politician; I don’t like encouraging celebrity worship (although the Red Hot Chili Peppers guy kissing his biceps and pledging to the “funk of the United funk of funkadelica” isn’t offensive, it’s just typical celebrity pap meant to make young viewers laugh.); the reasoning behind many of the ideas is over the head of elementary age kids without a lot more explanation than a blurb; and the few semi-controversial topics along with the more universal ones make the video a lightning rod in a school setting. There are better ways to make the point about service.

I’m reminded of a much smaller misunderstanding during the politically-charged 2007 vote on the voucher referendum. I often discuss elections with my students and encourage them to pay attention and get educated about the basics in preparation to vote in the future. I had to really avoid any substantive talk of reasons during the months leading up to the voucher vote, with both sides distrustful of the motives of the other and PCE flacks making frequent trumped-up reports of teachers pushing their views on students. As normal, we discussed elections and what a city council does (being an odd year election), and I explained how a bill is passed and what a referendum is. I had to leave my discussion of the actual issue to, “The green sign people and the yellow sign people both love their kids and have a strong disagreement over school money issues. People have very strong feelings about this right now and I don’t feel comfortable discussing it here. Go home and ask your parents what they think and why.” (This now sounds ironic after Byrne’s comment about us “not caring about our kids.”) Not one student knew anything about my out-of-classroom anti-voucher work. I know a lot of kids did discuss the referendum and vouchers at home, and I had only one short-lived worry I’d offended anyone. After the vote, I queried one class if they had discussed the issue with their parents and asked them why they voted the way they did. A lot of them were nodding or saying they had a good discussion at home or watched the TV coverage, etc., and then one kid piped up that his mom wanted to know why I wanted to know how she voted. My jaw dropped and I stared for a moment as I tried to unwind that sentence and then understand how my motive had been misunderstood. I had to assure the student that I absolutely did NOT want to know how his parents voted. My request had been totally aimed at the students, but I could understand how it could be misconstrued in that atmosphere. I just wanted all of my students to understand their own parents’ reasoning and not be apathetic about the world around them. All of my other years of teaching, including the past year’s presidential election, I believe my kids have benefited from being able to discuss the political system and how it affects their lives. I try to play devil’s advocate to both sides of any issue and I believe the discussions aid my students in understanding both sides of an issue and dealing constructively with differing opinions from their classmates.

Which leads to what frustrates me intensely in the reasoning of those mad about the “I Pledge” video—the overreaching desire to shield children from opposing opinions. These justifications used by a mom bother me:

They shouldn't be troubling our youth with the woes of the world and making them feel like we're in slavery or they have to worry about how many times they flush the toilet or if they have a plastic water bottle," Cieslewicz said, referring to pledges in the video to "end slavery."

What?! We should do away with about every piece of literature studied in school post-Dr. Seuss (though that eco-terrorist Lorax had better be omitted too), including Charlotte’s Web dealing with the possible murder and consumption of the main character? Finding ways to expand the knowledge, perspective, and empathy of naturally self-centered kids (that’s not a reference to a group, just to kids in general) without being unduly negative is an important balancing act, but school is a place to hear and try new ideas. Whether it’s The Bridge to Terabithia, The Giver, Maniac McGee, or Number the Stars, books that insightfully reveal injustice, suffering, and plain old evil help kids develop their intellectual and emotional senses.

The Standard-Examiner’s article had another piece of Ruzicka’s lame reasoning:
Utah Eagle Forum also took exception to the parts of the video where environmental issues were raised, especially those pledging to stop using plastic bags and bottles and limit toilet flushing.

Ruzicka said a lot of families may not view those issues as important. She said children seeing the video may see their mother use plastic bags from the store and "begin questioning her actions."

This from an outspoken critic of public schools and their supposed lack of critical thinking in an article where she is angered by what she calls “a thinly veiled attempt to indoctrinate” children. I don't believe a child questioning his mother about plastic bags is a bad thing. Here’s my hastily worded, but deeply felt disagreement to Ruzicka’s opinion:

If your child doesn’t learn, discuss, and read about numerous things at school that cause them to reflect on themselves, their family, and the world, they are being done a disservice and being left unprepared to think for themselves.

I hope my child hears about environmentally friendly practices at school and comes home to question us someday. We can get motivated to improve if warranted, or explain how leaving the toilet unflushed is not worth it to us, but we do keep a bottle of water in the tank to reduce the water used and why we think that’s especially important here in Utah.

I hope my child hears or reads something at school that makes her cry. I hope she begins to understand the bad things of the world enough to show kindness and mercy to those less fortunate and to be more grateful for the good.

I hope my child learns how to reason for herself independently enough to agree with me when I’m right and see my flaws and disagree with me when I’m wrong.

So to circle back to the upcoming Obama speech on the 8th, I sincerely believe my students can listen to the president and judge his words for themselves and that the “brainwashing” stuff is silly. At a school where students read and debate about the morality of opening trade with China, animal and human cloning, the death penalty, the Holocaust, the Latino drop-out rate, eating disorders, and cute outfits, they should be judged capable to listen to a presidential speech on education.

The fact that President Obama was even giving a speech to students kind of snuck up on district schools and how to handle the event has been debated. In the past few days, different Alpine District high schools have considered requiring teachers to show the speech or conversely forbidding teachers from showing the speech. A Daily Herald article yesterday quoted the district spokesperson saying it was being left up to schools and principals, but as I understand it, a clarification was made that teachers cannot be forbidden from showing the speech as long as accommodations are made for individual students who wish to skip the video. My principal has received calls about the issue already. I really think the whole thing is a tempest in a teapot.


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