The Importance of Running a Transparent, Skills-Based Classroom

by Christopher Paslay

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity and inclusion with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons, and perhaps refocus their teaching on traditional academic skills.

Over the weekend Matthew Kay, an English teacher at Science Leadership Academy, had a conversation on Twitter about distance learning.  Specifically, he wondered how parental oversight might impact his ability to teach equity and inclusion during the fall semester.  Before I continue, I’d like to state that as a fellow Philadelphia public school English teacher and coach, I support Matthew and his passion for education, poetry, sports, and honest conversations about equity and inclusion; Matthew is also a published author and writer, and I applaud his achievements.

So this blog about his recent tweets (and my video analysis above) are not meant to disparage Matthew or add to any hostile blowback that has come from conservative media sources. I’d simply like to politely add to the discussion that Matthew started on Twitter on Saturday, August 8th, and join the conversation with additional perspectives and offer constructive criticisms that might help future distance learning this fall.

As is now public knowledge, Matthew Tweeted the following thread on Saturday:

So, this fall, virtual class discussions will have many potential spectators — parents, siblings, etc. — in the same room.  We’ll never be quite sure who is overhearing the discourse.  What does this do for our equity/inclusion work?

How much have students depended on the (somewhat) secure barriers of our physical classrooms to encourage vulnerability?  How many of us have installed some version of “what happens here stays here” to help this?

While conversations about race are in my wheelhouse, and remain a concern in this no-walls environment — I am most intrigued by the damage that “helicopter/snowplow” parents can do in honest conversations about gender/sexuality …

And while “conservative” parents are my chief concern — I know that the damage can come from the left too.  If we are engaged in the messy work of destabilizing a kids racism or homophobia or transphobia — how much do we want their classmates’ parents piling on?

Several journalists and news organizations got wind of this thread (as did scores of twitter users who posted comments both supporting and criticizing Matthew), and several stories were written.  The Daily Wire, a conservative news website founded by Ben Shapiro, wrote two critical stories about the tweets (see here and here), and a popular conservative blog titled American Thinker also wrote a scathing story about the tweets (see here).  To be fair, these articles were overly hostile and although they raised legitimate concerns, were a bit sensational and skewed by politics.

Benjamin Boyce, a popular YouTube podcaster whose claim to fame was covering the Evergreen State College protests while attending the school, recently did a segment on Matthew’s tweets, which I feel is the most thorough, insightful, and balanced analysis (see Boyce’s podcast here).

There are two main questions at the heart of all of these articles and podcasts (including my own podcast above), and they are as follows.  One — should teachers worry that parental oversight during virtual learning will harm efforts at teaching equity and inclusion? And two — should teachers place social justice and so-called equity issues above traditional academic skill building?

I agree the most with Benjamin Boyce’s take on the tweets.  First, parents have every right to see what exactly it is that their children are learning in classrooms.  In fact, we the teachers work for the parents, not the other way around.  The notion of “what happens here stays here” is in my opinion misguided and inappropriate, with certain exceptions, of course; as a PA certified school counselor myself, I understand there is a very real difference between a therapist and teacher. Other than issues such as abuse and assault, which may be coming from inside the home, teachers should not be shielding their lessons, objectives, and activities from parents, and the inclination to do so is a cause for concern, as it does call into question the issues of transparency, trust, and the appropriateness of the lesson.

Second, academic skills should take precedent over any social justice initiatives.  Academic teachers are not counselors or social workers, and lack the clinical experience and training necessary to delve into such therapy-oriented sessions as described by Matthew Kay in his book, Not Light But Fire.  As Boyce states in his podcast, English classes should not turn into dramatic struggle sessions about equity issues, hence the learning community may devolve into the chaotic and quite divisive environment characterized by the Evergreen State College fiasco of 2017.  And besides, academic classes should be preparing students with skills for college or the workplace, not indoctrinating them with highly charged identity politics (which some parents may or may not agree with).

Yet, curiously, according to the article in The Daily Wire by Matt Walsh headlined, “Teachers Openly Fret That Parents Might Hear Them Brainwashing Children, Call Parents ‘Dangerous’,” a number of teachers do feel parental oversight is a problem when it comes to virtual learning:

It’s important to note that while some teachers responded to Kay’s comments with the appropriate level of horror and disgust, many others chimed in to share their own strategies for brainwashing during a pandemic. One teacher said she’d also been “thinking about” the problem Kay described, and had decided that she’d ask students about their preferred pronouns via survey — though she still worries that “caregivers” might see it and learn something about their children that they weren’t supposed to know.

Another teacher said that students last semester would sometimes “type secrets into the chat” whenever the discussion turned to “anti-racism and gender inclusive content.” Another complained that a white parent — she made sure to specify “white” — in her district recorded a Zoom class and “filed a complaint against the teacher for an anti-racist read aloud (saying the teacher’s commentary was inappropriate and biased).” This, the teacher says, “is going to be an issue.”

A ninth grade teacher shared in the commiseration, saying that her class required students to “read and respond to a news article,” but that participation in this exercise is stunted now because “outsiders” are “listening.” The “outsiders,” to be clear, are the children’s parents. A teacher with pronouns listed in her Twitter handle said that she plans to use the chat function more than voice lectures because she wants children to share “information” with her in a “parentless way.” A science teacher agreed with all of the sentiments expressed here and summarized it bluntly: “Parents are dangerous.”

If educators feel uncomfortable presenting virtual lessons on equity with parents in the room, then these teachers must reevaluate the appropriateness of the content of these lessons.  Further, academic teachers should prioritize teaching the appropriate skills in their content area, and with some exceptions, leave the “messiness” of delving into the vulnerability of things like gender and sexuality for trained counselors and social workers.

Debunking DiAngelo Episode #3: Does Niceness Perpetuate Racism?

According to Robin DiAngelo, niceness is not anti-racism. Whites must be blunt and actively call out the oppressiveness of “whiteness” in order to stop systemic racism. To be “less white,” DiAngelo states, “is to be less oppressive racially. To be less arrogant. To be less certain. To be less defense. To be less ignorant.” But is this zero-sum approach — disrupting and stereotyping one group in order to advance another — really the best way to go? Is an approach based on confrontation, provocation, and agitation the best way to bond with our students and colleagues? Is forgoing curtesy and “niceness” going to develop the kind of core principles and values our community needs to create an atmosphere of teamwork and synergy?

Please subscribe to my growing YouTube channel, Inside White Fragility. Thanks for watching!

Anti-Racism: The New Religion of Woke Millennials

by Christopher Paslay

Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism.

Dr. John H. McWhorter is an African American Professor of English at Columbia University, and a native of Philadelphia.  A product of Friends Select School, his resume is quite impressive: he’s taught at Cornell University, the University of California, Berkeley, and has written for numerous publications, including TimeThe Wall Street JournalThe New York Times, and The Washington Post, among others.

In 2018, during a lecture on racism, McWhorter highlighted the ways in which modern anti-racism is less like a productive approach to racial equality, and more like a religion.

“Anti-racism, as it is currently configured, has gone a long way from what used to be considered intelligent and sincere civil rights activism,” McWhorter stated.  “Today, it’s a religion, and I don’t mean that as a rhetorical faint.  I mean that it actually is what any naive anthropologist would recognize as a faith, in people many of whom don’t think of themselves as religious.  But Galileo would recognize them quite easily.  And so for example, the idea that the responsible white person is supposed to attest to their white privilege, and realize that it can never go away — and feel eternally guilty about it — that’s original sin right there.”

McWhorter’s take on anti-racism is a growing perspective.  “We have a cult of social justice on the left,” Andrew Sullivan wrote in New York magazine, “a religion whose followers show the same zeal as any born-again Evangelical.”  Michael Barone wrote about the cult-like behavior of millennials in his Washington Examiner piece, “The new religion of woke anti-racism.” 

Unlike classic multiculturalism, where conversation and the exchange of diverse ideas and viewpoints are encouraged, modern anti-racism is about indoctrination — its ideology is to be completely accepted, no questions or alternative viewpoints allowed.  Anti-racism has a set doctrine that must be embraced, lest one risk being branded “racist” and chastised and/or silenced.  As National Book Award winner Ibram X Kendi teaches in his book, How to Be An Antiracist (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum), “There is no neutrality in the racism struggle.”  You either get active fighting racism as an anti-racist, or you remain passive and help perpetuate systemic racism.

Some common points within the anti-racist doctrine are:

  • America is a systemically racist country, and all racial disparities are a result of this racism.
  • Being ‘colorblind’ is racist, because it denies systemic injustice and is “problematic.”
  • Color should not, however, be acknowledged when it comes to unflattering statistics like crime or school violence.  Bringing up color here is considered “problematic” and is not allowed. 
  • All whites have a ‘privilege,’ and perpetuate systemic racism by default.
  • All people of color are racially oppressed, and suffer from systemic racism by default.
  • Whites have zero authority on racial matters, while people of color have total authority.
  • Whites have zero understanding of the experiences of people of color in America.

Whites who fail to accept anti-racist doctrine — or challenge, question, or offer any alternative viewpoint— suffer from “white fragility,” a “problematic” condition where whites supposedly become extremely fragile when they are faced with talking about race. According to Robin DiAngelo, whose white fragility theory has become one of the most influential ideas about racism in America, whites consider a challenge to their worldviews on race a challenge to their worth as a person. As she explains in her book, White Fragility (which is part of the Philadelphia School District’s recommended anti-racism curriculum):

The smallest amount of racial stress is intolerable — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers a range of defense responses. These include emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and withdraw from the stress-inducing situation. These responses work to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.   

So if you’re white, and you are learning about anti-racism, you have one option: shake your head and say yes.  Unlike classic multiculturalism, which celebrates diversity and core values that unite the races, anti-racism goes on the offensive, provoking people by race, labeling and stereotyping them, forcing them to adopt the ideology or face backlash.  While multiculturalism is interpersonal, and offers practical solutions like inclusivity and tolerance for diversity on an individual or classroom level, anti-racism is mostly sociopolitical, and targets “systems” by disrupting or dismantling certain groups in order to end “injustice” and spread anti-racist doctrine.  Remember: white silence is violence.

During a 2018 lecture on racism (see video above), Professor McWhorter explains how modern anti-racism — a far cry from classic multiculturalism and the positivity of traditional civil rights activism — has become a religion all its own: 

The idea that, there is going to be a day, when America comes to terms with race, or that there could be.  What does that even mean?  What is the meaning of the ‘coming to terms?’  What would that consist of?  Who would come to them?  What would the terms be?  At what date would this be?  The only reason that anybody says that is because it corresponds to our conception of Judgment Day, and it’s equally abstract.

When we use the word “problematic,” especially since about 2008 or 2009, what we’re really saying is “blasphemous.”  It’s really the exact same term.  Or, the suspension of disbelief.  That is a characteristic of religious faith.  There’s an extent to which logic no longer applies.  That’s how we talk about racism.  So suppose someone asked, ‘Why are we to focus on the occasional rogue cop who kills a black man, when nine times out of ten that black man is in much more danger of being killed by another black man in his neighborhood?’

Gosh, that’s not pretty, but like many things that aren’t pretty, it’s also true.  If you ask about it — though you know you’re not supposed to — eyes roll, and you’re given an answer that doesn’t really completely make sense.  And there’s an etiquette that you’re supposed to stop there.  It’s rather like certain questions that you ask a priest, very gently, but you know that if you don’t get a real answer, then you’re just supposed to move on. . . .

But there are problems with [anti-racism], there are severe problems with it.  It does some good things — it gets some good people elected.  But there’s some bad things.  So for example, if you’re a good anti-racist, then you’re thinking about the cops that kill black men . . . but you’re not supposed to think about the fact that so much more murder happens to men like that in their own neighborhoods.  You’re supposed to think of that as maybe connected to racism in some abstract way, but you’re not supposed to think about it.  You’re not supposed to think about all of those homicides every summer in big cities across America.  Teenage black boys are killing one another in the hundreds over frankly nothing.  That’s somehow less important than what the occasional RoboCop does.  That’s modern anti-racism for you.  That’s backwards. 

And when we think about anti-racism . . . that whites need to undergo some sort of massive psychological revolution before we can have any kind of black success, beyond what we have already, why is somebody talking about their white privilege important, when we’re talking about making black schools better? . . .

Modern anti-racism turns a blind eye to most black homicide.  Anti-racism as currently configured, turns a blind eye to black young people’s upward mobility.  It turns a blind eye to doing the kinds of things that civil rights leaders of fifty years ago considered ordinary in favor of what is ultimately and inwardly a focused quest for moral absolution that has at best a diagonal relationship to helping people who’ve been left behind.  The issue here, I must repeat, is not whether or not racism exists; we know it does. . . . I had some racism of my own two weeks ago.  That’s not the issue.  The issue is whether modern anti-racism is the best way of combating the effects of that racism.  And it’s not.