Thursday, February 17, 2005

7th-Grade Teacher Goes Anti-War in Elizabeth City

A seventh-grade teacher in the Elizabeth City-Pasquotank school system roiled up a political crisis for her- or himself (so far, he/she has gone unnamed in the press we've seen). The teacher developed a writing assignment for a class at the River Road Middle School to write a letter to President Bush "convincing him to please send our troops home."

The teacher shared the writing "prompt" with fellow seventh-grade teachers, one or more of whom spread the news in the community before any actual assignment was ever given to a class. But the school's superintendent felt obliged to publicly apologize yesterday for "an error in judgment."

And it was. An error in judgment. You don't mandate a single politically charged point of view to a bunch of 13-year-olds and expect them to (1) make sense (as opposed to mouth slogans) and (2) keep the exercise from their politically on-edge parents.

It would be an error in judgment if it were a class of 18-year-olds in college, too. I was teaching freshman English back in the early '70s when Roe v Wade turned America into armed camps willing to shed blood over who got to control women's wombs, and in my inexperience I thought it would be useful for students to write essays supporting or opposing the Supreme Court's decision (I at least gave them a choice, as did the decision). What wretched writing that assignment engendered! Half-baked opinions based on emotion, rumor, insults, and puddle-deep information. I never did that again. Instead, I began to ask students to develop solid information based on print resources before attempting to write anything. In other words, I started teaching research and never stopped for 30 years.

Asking 7th-graders to write a letter to the President of the United States is not a bad assignment. But why not ask them to develop a topic out of local issues, and make the letters genuinely informational as well as opinionated? (I am somewhat surprised to find that the readers of the Elizabeth City Advance tilt against President Bush in an on-line poll of his job performance: 45 percent recently graded him with an A or B performance, while slightly over 47 percent gave him a D or F. The remaining voters gave him a C.)

Mainly, we're glad this teacher (whom we'll have to assume is young and inexperienced) did not get publicly humiliated, let alone fired. Let's hope it's been a learning experience.

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