Over this summer break, I quite intentionally took time away from writing about political things. I unplugged myself from most of the controversies that swirl around us, and it was divine. But school’s back and the real world comes back with it. My break from writing about political things is over and I have a lot to say about the current attempted invasion of heinous political agendas into public schools in many red states across the country, including my own state of Indiana. I want to stand up and publicly shout the truth into the far and wide and I want my words on record. I am going to address two topics that have been twisted into political pretzels and thrown to the angry wolves to fight over: Critical Race Theory (CRT), and Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) . Strap yourselves in, kids.
Let’s start with SEL, shall we? Recently, an e-mail was shared with me by a family member. This e-mail attacked the teaching of Social and Emotional Learning and Critical Race Theory, using well-worn, bigoted dog whistle language such as “Marxist/Communist agenda,” “reprogramming,” and “sexually grooming.” The person who sent this out was a member of a radical, right-wing organization, Purple for Parents, which has been attacking public schools for some time now. I first learned of them when I published an article before the big Red for Ed Rally in Indianapolis back in November of 2019. Boy oh boy, did I ever find out that they didn’t like me very much! When I investigated their platform and the awful things their membership support and promote, I was more than glad that they don’t like me. I will reprint the entire email, sent from a member of the Purple for Parents chapter in Warsaw, Indiana, below so you will have a point of reference, since they address both SEL and CRT.
“…I wanted to let every Mama in my contact list know about Critical Race Theory and Emotional Social Learning in our schools. Attended the meet [sic] last night about WCS [Warsaw Community Schools] but it’s EVERYWHERE and is totally and completely focused on the Marxist/Communist agenda and both ‘reprogramming’ and ‘sexually grooming’ our young people. It sounds crazy but I can share all the data presented at the meeting. One CRUCIAL item we were provided as an opt out form to deny the schools from polling our children (secretly without our knowledge) on all types of social and sexual topics to identify ‘mental health issues.’ If you want a copy let me know. And if you want to know more start at www.Purpleforparentsindiana.com”
This is fear-based gaslighting in its purest form. I said I was going to shout the truth, so here it goes. My school teaches a program called Second Steps which uses the foundation of SEL as its platform. We teach these lessons as a portion of our course called STAR (Students, Teachers, and Relationships) during a half hour period linked with the students’ lunch break. The program is designed around five pillars, none of which are “Marxist” or “Communist,” nor do they “reprogram” or “sexually groom” anyone—not even remotely so. Here are the five pillar skills which SEL helps students work through….
- Developing your interests and passions
- Setting and achieving your goals
- Handling changing relationships
- Managing your thoughts and emotions
- Dealing with social conflicts
Real sinister stuff, huh?
Talk to anyone who’s ever spent time in a public school, particularly one that has a high population of kids living in poverty and/or crime-ridden areas, and they will tell you what trauma-affected students are like. Our schools are full of students who don’t have the skills needed to cope with the trauma scars they carry. SEL helps students understand and navigate the idea that they are not the only ones who are going through tough and confusing things. Everyone is fighting battles that we can’t see. SEL helps build empathy for others by examining how to deal with our own inner-most fears and anxieties. This is what makes organizations like Purple for Parents so fearful of SEL. They want their children to be raised to fear “the others.” They want them to ignore the trauma that causes so many young people to deal with anxieties and depression. They don’t want their children to learn to coexist with other children who have very different world views and orientations. I want my students to learn to be able to accept that they live in a world that is populated by people of all stripes. Here’s the thing, members of Purple for Parents: You claim you don’t want your children “indoctrinated.” That’s a lie. You do want them indoctrinated…to your narrow world view. That should never happen in a public school. There are plenty of very fine private schools available for you to indoctrinate your children in the way you see fit. As for public schools, we simply can’t indoctrinate anyone. I teach 8th grade in a large urban district, and I have students who come from every corner of the world, practicing many different religions and social norms. I have students who identify as straight, gay, and transgender. I have students who come from stable, well-to-do homes with little trauma sitting next to students who rely on the two free meals a day provided to them at school as their only reliable food source. I have students who have parents in prison—who have watched parents die of drug overdoses—who have been bounced around from one foster placement to another–who live in areas that are all but war zones after the sun goes down. It’s not my place to indoctrinate them, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. It’s my job to help them navigate their ever-changing world full of vastly different people—the well-adjusted and the broken—and to look not for consensus, but for empathy and understanding for their peers. If you are threatened by the idea of people learning to get along with one another in a world where empathy is in critically short supply, that is on you, not me.
Now, let me attempt to explain where I stand with Critical Race Theory (CRT). I am baffled at the push back from the Right about this. My only conclusion is that they just don’t understand what CRT is. The only other explanation—which is, unfortunately, plausible—is that they do know what CRT is and simply are against it because they are so bigoted and threatened by diversity and critical thinking. Critical Race Theory simply examines the social, cultural, and legal issues that orbit the history of racial relations in America. I have taught United States history for more than two decades now. I want to make one thing perfectly clear before I go on: United States history would make no sense—ZERO—if CRT were to be taken out of it. Without CRT, I’d be teaching a steady stream of lies to my students every day. I would be whitewashing 400 years of history, leaving out most of the things that make the subject complex, compelling, and most importantly, relevant. If I were legally forbidden to apply aspects of CRT in my class, I’d be nothing more than a snake-oil-salesmen selling a shiny, polished turd of a propaganda product. The problems which are rampant in our country today are all rooted in the same problems that existed in Jamestown Colony 400 years ago; greed, selfishness, and racial bigotry. Changing our curriculum to short-change that side of our history would be a slap in the face to any students who continue to suffer from the consequences of those historical (and contemporary) sins. Including the less palatable parts of our history, frankly and honestly, with the parts that make us more proud helps empower all students with a foundational understanding of our endlessly complex past. That might not always be easy to hear, but it will bring critical context to students’ current world and hopefully help them make sense of what often seems senseless. Most importantly, a deeper understanding of America’s failures to live up to our own creed will perhaps give students the tools they need to build a better nation in the future. For most of the first couple of centuries of our nation, United States history was taught as a fairy tale. THAT was indoctrination. Glossing over the sins of the past for all that time created a group of people who now fear those truths because they don’t want their privilege exposed.
I teach history with as little bias as I possibly can. That means I shoot straight. I don’t pull punches. I tell the story—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and let my students decide what they think about it all. I don’t trash America. I love America. But I am not going to lie about her. Our nation was built upon a high and noble platform of equality and equity. We’ve spent centuries trying to live up to that with a series of bright successes and dismal failures. We’ve never completely lived up to what we are supposed to be, but we keep trying. That’s the American story. We are sinners and saints, gleaming and dark, beautiful and ugly. If you want your kids to be lied to about that, then that is on you, not me.