guest blogger: Diana Hess

Diana Hess is a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the leading expert on all the complex issues that arise when controversial issues are discussed in classrooms. I asked her to contribute an essay for this blog about a fascinating, moving, but ethically troubling video recently shot in a Bronx high school. She writes:

Last week I received an e-mail from Michelle Obama urging me to view a video of high school students in Jackson Shafer’s class at the Bronx High School for Performing Arts and Stagecraft. I watched it immediately because I am interested in hearing what high school students have to say about the campaign and the candidates–and I was so fascinated that I then watched it again. I forwarded it to some colleagues in civic education with this message: “First, what is it about Obama that these kids find so inspiring–why is he able to tap into this hopefulness when others are not? Second, what would it be like to be a Clinton or McCain supporter in this classroom–is this teacher just wisely making use of a teachable moment, or is he sending the message that the election is a question for which there is a right answer? Third, how much fun it would be to be teaching these kids!”

The next day I read a number of newspaper articles about the controversy that the video sparked. It seems that there is a New York City Board of Education policy that prohibits using students for partisan or promotional purposes. Because the video was on the official campaign website it gave the impression that the students (and perhaps the teacher and even the school) were officially supporting Senator Obama’s candidacy. Moreover, in the same message from Michelle Obama, there was a request for donations, which made it appear that the students were being used to raise money, a fact that Mr. Shafer reported not knowing about in advance. There is talk of putting an official letter of reprimand in the principal’s personnel file. I find it astonishing that the Obama campaign would send a staff member into a public high school to shoot video of minors without obtaining required permission (which, it seems clear, would have been impossible to obtain given the policy). That being said, the video does provide an interesting snapshot of how some young people are responding to Senator Obama’s campaign, and also raises hard questions about how a teacher can tap into students’ enthusiasm for a political candidate without creating an environment that compromises democratic principles.

Although newspaper articles about the video report that Mr. Shafer is an Obama supporter, the video does not show him saying anything explicit about his own political preference. He does show his students the video of the now famous speech about race relations in the US, and the students develop and deliver personal “Yes We Can” speeches during class time, speeches that I found incredibly interesting, moving, and hopeful. One of the students reported talking with Mr. Shafer before school started on days following a primary about how Obama had fared.

It is always dangerous to make judgments about what is happening in a classroom without having a more complete picture–we do not know whether the students came up with the idea to create “Yes We Can” speeches or whether that was an assignment that Mr. Shafer created. And we do not know if Mr. Shafer has provided opportunities for students who do not support Senator Obama’s candidacy to voice their opinions. We do not even know what subject this class focuses on–is it social studies? English? But let’s imagine for the sake of argument that the 13 minute video is representative of what is happening in the class writ large. That being the case, what judgments could we make about what is going on here?

First, Mr. Shafer seems like an effective and committed teacher who is willing to ask his students to discuss the very issues of race and how it impacts their lives that we know many teachers shy away from. One student reported that after talking about racism in the class, she began chastising her friends for using racial epithets in conversation–and it seemed to be working. Her friends now say “dude” instead of using epithets. While I have heard from a number of high school teachers that this primary has sparked a level of engagement from the students that they have not seen in past presidential primary election seasons, the students in Mr. Shafer’s class seem exceptionally engaged generally–and remarkably engaged in the elections specifically. The primary is causing them to pay attention to the news. As one student commented, “I never knew what channel CNN was, now I know all the channels.”

Second, the students who speak in the video seem to assume that their opinions about Senator Obama are shared by all of their classmates. As an Obama supporter myself, the partisan part of me was happy to witness how his campaign is touching these young people. But as a teacher, I am of two minds about whether what is happening in this classroom should be lauded or criticized. Providing the students an opportunity to talk about race and how it impacts their lives is clearly important and rare. If Mr. Shafer is using Senator Obama’s campaign as a lever to promote these conversations, then it may simply be the case of a teacher knowing his students well enough that he can tap into their interests to provoke important learning.

On the other hand, I find it hard to believe that all the students in the class are Obama supporters. Keep in mind that Senator Clinton won the New York primary, and even though she lost the youth vote overall, there were still substantial numbers of young people who supported her then and most likely still do now. It is also likely that some students in the school support Senator McCain, or don’t know which candidate they support yet. And even if all the students in the class support Senator Obama, do we really want public high school classrooms to turn into de facto campaign events? I think not– because the presidential campaign is actually one of many mega controversial issues–and like other such issues, our job as teachers is to promote the consideration of multiple and competing perspectives.

It is not always clear the best way to accomplish this goal. In some instances, teachers may have to give more weight to a particular perspective to counterbalance the majority in order to ensure that controversial issues do not turn into questions for which students think there is only one answer. And teachers need to be careful not to throw out the baby with the bathwater–which could happen if students are not allowed to voice their genuine and authentic perspectives on issues in the interest of “balance.”

It is hard to tell from this video whether Mr. Shafer is being sufficiently attentive to the fact that the campaign should be treated as a controversial issue. But if attention is not being afforded the other candidates, and if Senator Obama is put forward as an icon instead of a candidate, then not only has a line been crossed, but an opportunity has been lost. For Mr. Shafer appears to be a strong teacher who has the respect of his students, and the students are amazing–sharp, engaged, spirited, and fun. The class has loads of diversity, including racial, ethnic, linguistic, and gender. And my guess is that there is lots of ideological diversity in the class as well. Thus, we have all the ingredients for exceptionally high quality democratic education: a strong teacher, engaged students, and diversity. Engaging students in deliberation about highly controversial issues, like the presidential campaign, in such an environment is an opportunity that is too powerful to waste.

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  • Thanks for the article. Do you mind if I quote you on my blog?