FLOWERBy Guest Writer Jennifer Healey


After days of reading and watching various opinions and analyses of the recent attacks in Paris, I have concluded that the American public school system may well be our most important weapon in the fight against terrorism. When students are taught to respect differences and tolerate that which they find offensive or even wrong, there is hope for America. In our nation of immigrants, a free and public education for everyone is all that can prevent a critical mass of religious extremism. Of course we will still see it in our cities and towns, and the internet makes it easy to be hyper -aware of their varying terrifying agendas. But like the cartoonists around the world, we teachers must also heed the call to arms.

Take up your red pens- the ones you use to edit student papers and give valuable feedback to growing minds. We must continue to help young people shape their opinions and cite their sources. Poverty and ignorance are our worst enemies. We can’t fear controversy. We must not shy away from the taboo subjects our parents taught us not to discuss at dinner parties. At my high school this month, my colleagues and I taught lessons about the ebola virus, Charlie Hebdo, Israel, Communism, Ferguson, Boko Haram, North Korea, and even the Westboro Baptist Church. (We HAD to do that last one- they came to Portland to protest our very own Trailblazers- a true teachable moment!) I trust these lessons are taking place in schools all over the United States. We are charged with no less than teaching young people how to be Americans, even while we may not all agree what that means. I celebrate diversity, and not just by putting a bumper sticker on my car. I cultivate empathy. I model tolerance. I demand respect. I show young Americans how to offend and be offended on a daily basis. Je suis an American public school teacher.

How sure am I that multicultural education is our country’s best hope? I have proof, or as we are required to refer to it now, “artifacts and evidence.” Over the past 15 years, teaching everything from Kindergarten to ESL high school American History, I’ve heard it all. The following is just a sample of the gems I’ve collected throughout my career. These are absolutely true, but I changed students’ names. Teachers, how would you respond in the following scenarios?

*  In high school, A Bhutanese Hindu student is explaining the concept of karma to a Chinese, self-proclaimed atheist. “It’s cool because it’s not even a religious thing. You just have to watch out because you get what’s coming to you.” Jiahao responds, “Oh, that’s cool. We say that too.”

*  A Ukrainian Jewish boy and Syrian Muslim girl are arguing about the Israeli Palestinian conflict in a carefully constructed role play. A crafty Global Studies teacher has switched their parts, so the Iraqi says, “My people were forced to leave a long time ago, but God gave us this land!” The Ukrainian is later overheard saying, “We can share the land, but you must stop building so many houses for your people.”

*  A Rohingya girl from a refugee camp in Thailand, fond of arguing with me about the shape of the earth, (flat, she knew for a fact because she’d actually seen the edge) told me why she had missed so many Global Studies classes one month. “Learning about these other religions makes my heart hurt. I talked to my dad and he says I shouldn’t have to learn about this because we are Muslim.”

*  In the Civil Rights unit, a girl from Saudi Arabia raises her hand to ask if American women had to fight that hard for the right to vote, or did men just decide one day that they were ready?

*  A staff member catches me in the hallway to inquire about a girl who has started to wear a full burka. She asks, “Can’t you make her take it off? We don’t allow those, do we?” I explain that we do, and more importantly, why.

*  A student came in with a note from her mother, in Russian, explaining why she didn’t have to do the Greek mythology speech. My Russian-speaking assistant smiled as she read the note, then said to me, “Mom says Yelena cannot complete the assignment, as the Greek stories are clearly made up. They know the Christian religion is the true one.”

Each of these conversations happened in the safe, controlled environment of an American public school. Students are able to argue, question, agree, discover, and appreciate their differences and similarities in the melting pot, facilitated by a trained and experienced professional who can show them how it’s done. I want my students to learn how to make sense of their thoughts and feelings, and how to act in a respectful, appropriate manner. To paraphrase Linda Christensen, editor of Rethinking Schools and director of the Oregon Writing Project, if we expose students to inflammatory subjects, then we have a duty to give them the tools to handle their strong feelings and react accordingly.

I am well aware that stories like these scare many parents away from a public school education. These are precisely the types of conversations some don’t want their children to have, lest the carefully constructed base of their family and faith should crumble away. But in my experience, no student has ever lost his beliefs because of education. If anything, experiences like these strengthen personal ethics and cultural practices. Isn’t learning about other people and questioning our own views the very purpose of education?

Obviously many factors contribute to the making of a terrorist. And I’m not suggesting the US is “safe” because of our schools. The dangers will always be with us. But it seems to me, and research backs me up on this, that a man is less likely to become a jihadist if he has an education, a good job and a nice place in which to live. In the U.S., Muslims, both immigrant and native born, have higher paying jobs, better education, and feel more “American” than their Muslim, “European” counterparts. Our public schools are at least one of the reasons for this fact. When children grow up surrounded by people different from themselves, they cultivate a tolerance that cannot by taught by reading a book- not even a holy one. Isn’t the future we want for our children one in which all the different people live together respectfully and in peace?

In our grand experiment, we have seen only too well the folly of segregating black and white, rich and poor, immigrant and “native.”  We have done almost everything wrong at least once, and let Constitutional law light the path as we fumble along. Almost every minority group has had to fight tooth and nail for basic civil rights; obviously many still are. But don’t we come closer than any other country in the world?

So the next time someone is bemoaning the failure of the public school system, as evidenced by our low test scores (compared to those in countries that only educate their top tier above the 10th grade), let’s politely remind them that we have other important concerns. What are public schools doing right? How about ensuring the future of this nation!!!

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