Sunday, June 16, 2019

A Tale of Two Teachers and the Central Park Five

After having watched When They See Us on Netflix, I'm understanding the outrage over the so-called Central Park Five more clearly than I used to. I knew that they were proven not to have committed the atrocity for which they spent years behind bars, and I knew that former village idiot, now national idiot Donald Trump had declared their guilt with no need of proof. I knew Trump used their case as an argument for the death penalty, even though it's one of the best arguments against it.

I somehow missed the story of this teacher, who was fired for presenting this story to her class back in 2016. Evidently administration thought telling the story could get students all riled up, and wanted a more "balanced" view. This reminds me of Deborah Lipstadt, who refused to appear with a holocaust denier on CSPAN. Lipstadt knew, unlike Fox News and the Trump administration, that demonstrable falsehood does not represent the other side of an issue.

The other side of this issue is that prosecutors did not, in fact, rush to judgment and go all in to find these young men guilty of crimes they did not commit. But they did, and the only defense I hear from said prosecutors in light of the new documentary is that the young men were in the park and up to no good, that they were guilty of something. Well, even if the prosecutors are correct, highly doubtful given their track record, these young men were not guilty of the crimes for which they were falsely convicted.

So when I read that the young woman in question had her suit to get her job back tossed in court, I'm a little upset. I can understand the argument that your First Amendment rights do not extend to the classroom. I have a whole lot of opinions, many or most of which have been on this page, that I don't share with my students. I don't go into my first period class ranting about Andrew Cuomo, Michael Bloomberg, or whoever happened to have disgusted me that morning.

Sometimes there are two sides to an issue. We recently discussed the issue of arming teachers in my class. I tried to present both sides even though I think it's a ridiculous idea. I proved so good at playing devil's advocate that one of my students told me she was afraid to speak against it because she thought I wanted to carry a gun in school. I had to tell her that I opposed it. I had to tell her that, in fact, I wished she would speak out and I was just saying things to provoke comment.

Sometimes there aren't two sides. The story of the Central Park Five is one of outrageous injustice, and when we prohibit its discussion in class, there is another outrageous injustice. It's not about the teacher's First Amendment rights. It's about the right of the students to discuss objective reality. It's not the teacher's job to present the views of Donald Trump or holocaust deniers as though they have merit. It's further not the teacher's job to sugar coat actual events so that students aren't upset by the outrages perpetrated by our government.

I'd argue that, if we do our jobs correctly, we help students get in touch with what's going on. We encourage them to express themselves and participate in society. If we are so cowardly that we can't present the truth for examination by our students, we aren't very good teachers. The administrators who instructed this teacher to suppress the truth and then followed up by haunting her into 3020a proceedings aren't very good administrators. Further, they are trying to place blinders over the eyes of our students, precisely the opposite of what educators should be doing.

In my school, a teacher taught a lesson based on the same film and was observed doing so. She got an excellent rating from the administrator who observed her. This points to an issue with our outlandish rating system. Theoretically, Danielson is the great equalizer. Everyone gets rated by this rubric, and everything is fair. That's another blatant falsehood. The truth is everything is still in the eye of the beholder, and administrators can use the rubric to rationalize whatever the voices in their heads tell them.

In one school, you get fired for discussing the real story of the Central Park Five. In another, you get rated highly effective. How do you explain that? Of course there's the ever-burgeoning scourge of inept administration, only coming to light very recently. There's outrageous and deliberate ignorance that passes for leadership, closely tied to the implicit racism that freaks out the NY Post editorial board each and every time the chancellor draws attention to it. And then there's the encouraging existence of reasonable administrators who see it as their job to, you know, help us teach children about important events that affect their young lives.

Regardless, it's an outrage that this other young woman was fired. I hope her legal team finds another angle that's more successful and has her reinstated with full back pay.
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