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The Federal Government in Your Arts Classroom

Originally posted in October 2020

With the 2020 election around the corner, it’s getting harder and harder to remember how the government is supposed to work. The dull churn of federal cogs and wheels seems like a different universe, maybe one that never existed. Everything is UNPRECEDENTED and SHOCKING and FIRST TIME EVER, and fatigue set in a long time ago. What’s he said now? What’s on fire? Ya know what, don’t even tell me. I know I can’t handle it today

When I set out to write this post, I thought I was going to be writing about how another 4 years of Trump wouldn’t make a big impact on what happens in classrooms. I just wanted, mostly for my own education, to set down what the federal government can and cannot do in public education, and reflect on what precedences have already been set. I wanted to reassure myself that, though devastating in other realms, a second term wouldn’t do too much damage in classrooms. But then I dug a little deeper… and then RBG passed away… and I started to see how the result of this election will be front and center in classrooms. 

I don’t know about you, but I did not receive any information on the laws surrounding education in either my undergraduate or graduate work, save for the state-mandated abuse seminars. It wasn’t until I was in the trenches that I heard the term “Title I” or even had any understanding of what an IEP was, let alone what any of that meant to me as a teacher or to my students. I cannot help but think that it was because we were music education majors and not general education majors. Was that not important information if you were “just” teaching “specials?” I suppose I’ll save that rant for another time, after the votes are counted… 

So if you were important enough to receive this information during your pre-service days or have a good handle on it now, feel free skim the following few paragraphs as I catch everyone (myself included) up to speed. Hold on tight, because we’re going through the last 65 years very quickly. 

HISTORY

Up until the 1950s, the federal government did almost nothing to the education system in America, by design. The 10th Amendment states that “the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution … are reserved to the States respectively.”(1) Translation: Issues of education belong to state governments. But in 1954, Brown v. Board of Education changed everything. You’ll remember that Brown v. Board of Education was the Supreme Court case that dismantled government-sanctioned segregation in schools. This ruling signaled the overturning of Plessy v. Furguson (1896), the case where “separate but equal” was made the law of the land. Both of these cases centered around interpreting the Equal Protection Clause in the 14th amendment:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”(2)

This ruling set off a chain reaction that exploded into a bonfire of unprecedented federal education reforms. By bringing an issue of equal protection of the laws into the public schools, Brown v. Board of Education opened the door for the federal government to get involved with education. Since then, this interpretation of the 14th Amendment has been used “to mandate equal access to education for students with disabilities; and, according to some arguments, to correct for persistently unequal access to resources across states and districts of different income levels.” (3) To put it simply, this allowed the government to do the liberal thing and get involved when help was needed. But as you can imagine, not all of this power was used responsibly. 

In the 1960s, America felt stupid compared to the rest of the world. Sputnik was happening! The Ruskies are beating us at science and math! And now that Pandora’s box had been opened and the federal government now had precedent to involve itself in public education, things started to change quickly. In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) into law. ESEA authorizes federal spending on K-12 education, and sets out the requirements schools must meet in order to receive this funding. This was part of a wave of sweeping federal programs in Johnson’s “War on Poverty” that included a massive expansion of welfare programs, such as SNAP (food stamps), Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start. 

ESEA was renewed every 3 years until 1980, bringing about a flurry of new requirements and benchmarks for schools to achieve in order to receive that sweet, sweet federal funding. The most notable change from this era is now called IDEA, which “makes available a free appropriate public education to eligible children with disabilities throughout the nation and ensures special education and related services to those children.” (4) ESEA is also where the term “Title 1” comes from. This refers to the additional funding that poorer schools receive in order to “catch up” to more affluent schools. Since public schools are primarily funded by local taxes, if a town or city has a small taxbase, they have less funding. Essentially, all federal funding for education is delivered through the Titles in ESEA and its reauthorizations since then. 

The 1970s saw a “back to basics” movement in education, wanting to undo the “softness” of schooling in the 1960s. Too much emphasis on the children’s emotional well-being, you see. In 1983, a panic swept the education world after the release of the “A Nation at Risk” report. This report essentially said that American public education was failing terribly compared to other nations. “What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur–others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.”(5) Most of the blame was heaped upon teachers– a school of thought that is often still present today. 

The 1990s and 2000s saw a rise in the emphasis on standardized testing and school accountability. School choice starts to come into play, as parents see traditional schools “failing.” In 2001, congress reauthorized ESEA and renamed it “No Child Left Behind.” This was a big step in federal oversight, and it directly affected curriculum and classroom priorities. “Under the NCLB law, states must test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school… schools are kept on track toward their goals through a mechanism known as “adequate yearly progress” or AYP.” (6) In a nutshell, tying standardized test scores to federal funding tightened the screws on teachers, curricula, and students. Because only certain subjects (math and language arts) are tested, anything other than those subjects started playing second fiddle… including learning how to play the fiddle (insert polite chuckle here). 

A quick note about Common Core: It is not a national curriculum, nor is it a part of the ESEA. Remember, the 10th amendment made that unconstitutional. However, the federal government was involved. The Common Core was created starting in 2009 by some state-level education leaders. Under Obama’s administration, since NCLB wasn’t working any miracles, states were given the option to opt-out of NCLB’s standards in favor of Common Core (or do-it-yourself, which wasn’t a popular option). 41 states have voluntarily adopted Common Core, most by 2015, when Obama signed Every Student Succeeds (or “ESSA”, which was that year’s reauthorization of ESEA). States and school districts have their own learning standards, policies, and priorities– and those are what most teachers deal with in their classrooms. Those standards may be adapted directly from the Common Core or they may not. 

TRUMP V BIDEN

So all of that is to say– whoever is the next president won’t be writing any curriculum. But, they could influence issues of equal protection, which might be even more important. This is particularly true in 2020, since the Supreme Court is in limbo due to the death of the Notorious RBG. It’s worth noting that the equal protection clause that allowed the federal government to be involved in public education is the same clause that RBG examined during her many gender equality cases. As of the final version of this blog, there are only 8 justices sitting on the court. 

Another 4 years of Trump plus an ultra-conservative supreme court could make some grave changes in education. He has mentioned he would get rid of the Department of Education entirely, likely putting hundreds of thousands of teachers out of work, destroying Title 1 funding for schools that need it most, and toppling federal grants for higher education. It’s unlikely to happen, but this does show his general disdain for public education. He would rather spend money on charter schools and vouchers. 

A conservative court would also do deep, long-lasting damage. Engel v. Vitale (1962) which banned school-sponsored prayer, could be overturned. Gavin Grimm’s case (read here: https://www.aclu.org/cases/grimm-v-gloucester-county-school-board) (7) might be heard in the Supreme Court in Biden’s White House, but Trump’s administration has deferred this argument to the lower courts. Gavin’s case could mean big changes for transgender students. And although the Supreme Court blocked Trump’s attempt to cancel DACA, the court did conclude that DHS could cancel DACA, just not the way Trump went about it. So, Dreamers could be back on the line again. (8) And (if you’re prepared for an even more grim thought), if Roe v. Wade is overturned, that could mean an increase in unintended pregnancies, meaning more teens dropping out due to pregnancies, and more families struggling to support children they were not prepared to bring into their family… putting even more stress on families. 

What Trump cannot do is enact this silly “Patriotic Education” nonsense. This was another instance of Trump just saying something to distract from something else. As this NPR article plainly states: “The federal government does not have jurisdiction over school curriculum.” (9) Although his hypothetical second term could and would do some damage, rest assured that there are many, many ways that “Patriotic Education” would not be allowed to happen. 

Depending on how things shake out with the Supreme Court before the next inauguration day (no spoilers!), some of those above issues may not be solved with Biden in the Oval Office. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that Biden is married to an educator, and  we would likely see much greater support and care for the public education system, within the power of the federal government. His plan to support teachers includes tripling the federal money that Title 1 schools receive. I know it’s an old trope that Democrats like to just throw money at things, but studies have shown time and again that schools that spend more per student have better outcomes. Yes, this should be a state or local issue, but when there is such an egregious imbalance in school funding, this is where the federal government can flex its power– issues of inequity. A study published this summer shows the incredible differences in funding around the country, and how that directly impacts student outcomes. You can see clearly on the map here (https://tcf.org/content/report/closing-americas-education-funding/?session=1&agreed=1&agreed=1)(10) that it is the poor, red states that underfund public education, and it is the Black, indigeonus, and Latinx students who are being hurt the most. This is what Title 1 of ESEA was intended to counteract. Time to keep our promises. 

 I haven’t commented much on the impacts on the higher education system (not typically my wheelhouse), but you should know that Biden has a specific plan for making teacher training more accessible, with the explicit goal of improving teacher diversity.  There are so many incredible people who could have been teachers if they could have afforded the education and training, and this is worth the work to make that happen. Studies have shown that “exposure to at least one black teacher in grades 3-5 significantly reduced the probability of dropping out of high school among low-income black males by seven percentage points, or 39%.” (11) Not to mention the impact that it would have on white students, realizing that educated authority figures aren’t always white. All ships will rise.  

STATE AND LOCAL

As big and dramatic as all that sounds, if you want to make a positive influence for teachers and students, the real work happens at the state and local levels. Like most government agencies, what the state board of education does is rather boring. Reauthorizations, writing codes and policies, approving this and that. But sometimes, the state board of education (which is typically a volunteer committee of 10-15 elected officials, not necessarily with education backgrounds) is granted some superpowers. Here in New Jersey, the state took over control of Newark Public Schools, meaning the state board essentially replaced the local school board, and the schools were assigned a new superintendent selected by the governor. Newark is officially fully back to local control (after 25 years) since July 2020, though Camden, Jersey City, and Paterson are still under state control. This is a great overview of the benefits and damage that change in control has had on Newark. https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/07/its-official-state-returns-newark-schools-to-local-control-following-two-year-transition/ (12)

 Some state education boards approve textbooks, which is the case in Texas. You might remember some (warranted) hoopla surrounding Texas’s influence on textbook publishers: please the Texas state board, you are guaranteed to sell millions of textbooks. And that led to incredibly nasty things getting into textbooks used in Texas and beyond. One text used in Texas supported a “balanced” view of slavery, saying it “should not be oversimplified… Many [slaves] may not have even been terribly unhappy with their lot, for they knew no other.” (13) And that happened only 2 years ago. All that is to say that state education boards can get away with some really egregious ideas, even though they are elected officials, because there aren’t a lot of people looking when they make these choices. Do you know who is on your state education board? Do you know how to access their meeting agendas, or when they meet? Time to visit Google. 

Local school boards are where the rubber meets the road. School boards hire the superintendent, make budget priorities, approve textbooks and curriculum materials, and otherwise get involved in more of the nitty-gritty of what happens in schools. It’s no surprise to most teachers that your school board has the biggest impact on what happens in your classroom. But I can almost guarantee that your school board is a mess right now with re-openings, virtual learning, teachers quitting left and right, and figuring out how to address civil unrest while friends and family die of a pandemic around them. Take the few minutes to Google who is running for your local school board, because your life may depend on it. Use this search engine to find your school board candidates easily. https://xqsuperschool.org/school-board-thing (14)

So, what do you want your vote to do?

Vote for a president who will support teachers, pre-service teachers, and students with equity (hint: that’s Biden). Pay attention to state school board elections; they will choose which textbooks your students see. And get involved with local school board elections and school budget votes; that can be the difference between fighting to teach and educating with freedom. 

Remember that voting is not a marriage, and you will not find your soulmate candidate. But make sure that when you fill out your ballot, you make informed decisions all the way through. Though it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a vast government bureaucracy to fund a child’s education. Choose your representatives wisely. 

REFERENCES

  1. U.S. Const. amend. X,§ 1.
  2. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1.
  3. Pelsue, Brendan. “When It Comes to Education, the Federal Government Is in Charge of … Um, What?,” 2017. https://www.gse.harvard.edu/news/ed/17/08/when-it-comes-education-federal-government-charge-um-what. 
  4.  U.S. Dept. of Education, “About IDEA.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2015. https://sites.ed.gov/idea/about-idea/. 
  5. United States. National Commission on Excellence in Education. A Nation at Risk : the Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, D.C. :The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983.
  6. Klein, Alyson. “No Child Left Behind Overview: Definitions, Requirements, Criticisms, and More.” Education Week, April 2, 2020. https://www.edweek.org/ew/section/multimedia/no-child-left-behind-overview-definition-summary.html. 
  7. ACLU. “Grimm v. Gloucester County School Board.” American Civil Liberties Union, 2019. https://www.aclu.org/cases/grimm-v-gloucester-county-school-board. 
  8. Yekrangi & Associates.  “June 18th, 2020 Supreme Court DACA Decision – What Does It Mean?” Yekrangi & Associates, June 18, 2020. https://www.yeklaw.com/blog/2020/june/june-18th-2020-supreme-court-daca-decision-what-/. 
  9. Wise, Alana. “Trump Announces ‘Patriotic Education’ Commission, A Largely Political Move.” NPR. NPR, September 17, 2020. https://www.npr.org/2020/09/17/914127266/trump-announces-patriotic-education-commission-a-largely-political-move?utm_medium=social. 
  10. The Century Foundation. “Closing America’s Education Funding Gaps,” July 22, 2020. https://tcf.org/content/report/closing-americas-education-funding/?session=1. 
  11. Gershenson, Seth. “The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers.” IZA Institute of Labor Economics, 2017. http://ftp.iza.org/dp10630.pdf. 
  12. Wall, Patrick. “It’s Official: State Returns Newark Schools to Local Control, Following Two-Year Transition.” NJ Spotlight News, July 2, 2020. https://www.njspotlight.com/2020/07/its-official-state-returns-newark-schools-to-local-control-following-two-year-transition/. 
  13. Timsit, Annabelle, and Annalisa Merelli. “For 10 Years, Students in Texas Have Used a Textbook That Says Not All Slaves Were Unhappy.” Quartz. Quartz, May 13, 2018. https://qz.com/1273998/for-10-years-students-from-texas-have-been-using-a-history-textbook-that-says-not-all-slaves-were-unhappy/. 
  14. XQ. “School Board Lookup.” XQ Institute, 2020. https://xqsuperschool.org/school-board-lookup. 
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Is music education on the decline?

Music educators are frequently defending their programs from budget cuts, space constrictions, and total annihilation. While this feels like an all-encompassing panic attack for a lot of music teachers, what’s really going on? Is music education really on the decline overall, or are we just not seeing the forest through the trees?

The answer is, of course, complicated. 

Yes, music education is on the decline.

This has been going on for decades. School bands were in their glory back in the days of Sousa (later 19th century)— and when I say glory, I simply mean they were on the rise and popular. Education was segregated and racist in those days, and music education was no different, so it really was only the “glory days” to those in power. Even so, those days were about 150 years ago. 

Millions of students are without access to music education during the school day. Several factors has contributed to the decline of music education:

No, music education is not on the decline.

While there is certainly room for improvement, over 90% of students have access to music education during their school day. There are new efforts to include music education in the school day, and even more work to transform music education to be more equitable and accessible. Here is what gives me hope:

  • Nonprofit collaborations: Where the schools fail to provide music education, nonprofit organizations are there to fill the gaps. 
  • New, different, and relevant music offerings in schools: The rise of music technology, songwriting, modern band, music production, etc in schools is very exciting. Though the majority of these programs are being offered in more affluent areas, there is hope that these models can be adapted in all schools for better student engagement 
  • Attention to DEI and SEL practices: Depending on where you live in the country, attention to DEI and SEL practices might also be on the rise. The application of more equitable and science-based approaches is a slow process, but the increased prevalence (in some places) is encouraging.  

Music eduction in schools is far overdue for a revolution. 

Truly, music in schools hasn’t really changed in DECADES. ⁠As evidenced by the ancient instruments and books in your closets… the emphasis on BOC (band/orchestra/choir)… the laser-focus on Eurocentric music… ⁠

Yes, some changes have come! More technology, new ensembles, new music…⁠ But if we’re being honest, a revolution is way, way overdue. ⁠

Unfortunately, schools are huge government-funded bureaucracies that change SLOWLY. And many, sadly, haven’t cared about the state of their arts programs. ⁠

So… it’s an evolution. It’s a step-by-step, inch-by-inch process. And it’s not happening overnight. Even if we want (or need) it to… ⁠

But! Our IDEAS can be revolutions! Our big goals, outcomes, dreams, visions can be MAJOR REVOLUTIONS!⁠ And our actions towards those ideas can be tippy-toe evolutions. ⁠

If you’re dying for a revolution but don’t know how to evolve towards it– that’s my jam. I walk you through those big, revolutionary ideas and make them into bite-sized “I’m only one person with a dream”-sized steps. That’s what my book “Planning on Purpose” is all about!⁠

So keep that dream of revolution ALIVE! And take one step closer every day. I’m with you!⁠

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More than demographics: Knowing your students as complex people

When I was in seventh grade home-ec class, our teacher asked us “Who are you?”

Most of us attempted answers like, “I’m a seventh grader…”

But she would cut us off, saying “No… that’s what grade you’re in. Who ARE you?”

“I’m a girl who plays the flute.”

“Nope, that’s your gender and something you do. Doesn’t answer the question.”

After we all huffed in frustration for a while, she brought us to this conclusion… Identities are complicated. They change over time, they include labels that can be interpreted differently depending on the context, some parts of our identities change other parts… We are all very, very complicated. 

The many ways we are who we are

When we’re talking about identities in the classroom, often we get stuck focusing on race or gender, or other basic demographics. But everyone has a range of identities of varying personal importance to them. A quick exercise: Think about how you identify in each of these categories:

  • Age/ generation
  • Ethnicity
  • First language 
  • Gender
  • National origin
  • Physical/mental/psychological ability 
  • Race
  • Religion/ spirituality
  • Sex
  • Sexual orientation
  • Socioeconomic class
  • Familial titles (parent/son/cousin, etc)

To take it a step further, consider which of these identities are important to you, and which are mostly irrelevant to how you move through life. For example, someone who is an auntie might take their role really seriously, and others may be an auntie in name only. 

Identities in the classroom

It’s human nature to categorize other people, just to make things simpler for ourselves. But that gut instinct to put people into boxes and make assumptions based on those labels is stereotyping. The stereotyped thoughts can lead to biased actions and decisions. 

Here are some actions you can take, as a music teacher, to celebrate the diversity of identities in the your classroom:

  • Be aware of your own thinking. I had a therapist who told me all the time: “You can’t always believe what you think!” Somehow we believe we have control over our thoughts and assume that our first thoughts are always right. That’s often not true! If you were raised with media and a social context that shamed fat people, you’ll likely have a knee-jerk negative reaction to seeing a fat person. You don’t have to listen to those initial thoughts or reactions. Ask yourself: Why do I think that? Is that true? Where did that actually come from? You may not be able to control your first thought, but you can redirect your second thoughts, and then your actions.

“Like fighting an addiction, being an antiracist requires persistent self-awareness, constant self-criticism, and regular self-examination.”

-Dr. Ibram X. Kendi
  • Use student data ethically. Say it with me now: “My students are more than data!” Having demographic information about your students is an ok place to start, but making decisions based 100% on that data is insufficient. Knowing your students as the unique and complicated people they are– what they value, what their dreams are, what gets them excited about music– will yield less biased results. 
  • Design student leadership into your program. Nothing reveals a student’s true nature better than giving them decisions to make and issues to argue. Not only will opportunities to lead and choose help you understand your students better, but it will also put them in the driver’s seat. 
  • Ask questions, listen, and act accordingly. Get to know your students personally. This happens in both tiny little moments and in more formal ways like surveys, activities, and town hall conversations. However you ask your students more about themselves, these tips will bring you from curious to action:
    • ask open-ended questions
    • listen without judgment– repeat what they say for understanding
    • remember, record, or write down what was said 
    • reflect on how their words can change your classroom
    • make the change! 
    • ask for feedback on the change(s)

Knowing your students as individual people will not only open your mind to new musical and educational ideas, but it will also open your heart– and theirs too!


Part of this content is adapted from my self-guided course “Ethical Arts Educator” returning in summer 2023.

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Don’t Dream It… Be It! Systemic Support for Music Teachers

Music teachers often feel like they never have “enough.” Enough space, time, money, instruments…It quickly morphs into feeling like you don’t have enough dignity or respect. Which means you feel like YOU aren’t “enough.” And that makes you… tired. Exhausted. Burnt out.

I’m not here to say you should be grateful for what you have and not rock the boat. Quite the opposite, in fact. The cold, hard truth is… we’ve been conditioned to think music programs shouldn’t have enough. That there’s some sort of pride in being scrappy and “making do.”

Nuh-uh. It doesn’t have to be that way. 

“But not in MY school, Allison! It’s just IMPOSSIBLE!”

Ok, then. It is impossible. Stop trying (I hope you can hear my sarcasm).

Getting the systemic support you need

Before you prepare to bring a request to the “powers that be” you need to have a few things:

  • Solid evidence that what you’re asking administration for is what is needed and will work
  • An unshakeable belief that you deserve and can have “enough” for your program
  • Achievable methods for consistently demonstrating that your program is indispensable 

And how do you get all that? 

  • Get connected to your community. Really connected. Listen to your students and their families. It’s just the beginning, but it’s the step you can’t skip.  
  • Be in community with other music teachers. Go ahead and vent about administrative drama– then work on solutions together. 
  • Get yourself to the best professional development. Yeah, there’s a catch-22 there… I need the administrative support to get the PD. Start small! This is how you get evidence that what you want to do with your students will work (and be worth the money). It’s not an easy part of the job (I don’t have to tell you that!) but it’s even harder when you feel alone. 
  • Reject the idea that you’ll have have/be/do “enough” The job of a teacher– especially a music teacher– is never done. There’s always an expectation to go “above and beyond.” And music is endless! Release yourself from the idea that you have to teach every type of music or concept, that you have to create new opportunities for your students at the detriment to your well-being, that you have to be everything for everyone. You don’t. You can’t. And you’ll always have a wish list of new things you’d like to have for your students. But– you are enough. You can do amazing things already! And there is money, time, and support for your program already out there. Go get it!
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Culturally Responsive Pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique

You’ve probably heard the term “culturally responsive pedagogy” or “culturally relevant pedagogy” by now. Maybe you know a little about it, or you’re curious about implementing it. 

Unfortunately, CRP has become a buzzword in the educational world, and we need to be careful with words and terms that “buzz.” Sometimes buzzwords are thrown around in the hopes of cultivating a certain idea or vibe, but without the weight of reflection and deep thought behind it. 

What CRP has been reduced to, in some uses of the term, is yet another technique for reducing undesirable behaviors. 

Can implementing CRP get the attention of students who often aren’t attentive? Yes. 

Can it engage students on a deeper level? Absolutely. 

Can it seem to reduce “undesirable behaviors?” It can do that, yes. 

But… Culturally responsive pedagogy is NOT a classroom management technique. 

Here’s what’s wrong with trying to implement CRP for the sake of classroom management:

Culturally responsive pedagogy does not seek to make “cultural others” more like the “cultural norm.”

A lot of “classroom management” comes from the desire for conformity. There’s nothing wrong with wanting a classroom that’s functional, effective, and engaging. But that doesn’t mean it has to be uniform, quiet, and wound up tight. Culturally responsive pedagogy celebrates uniqueness and has a wide lens for a variety of definitions of success and engagement. 

Here are some more truths on “losing control” in your classroom.

Culturally responsive pedagogy, at its best, is about creating more independent and confident learners, and increases learning capacity– and not just because students “behave better.”

There is a direct line between CRP and better learning outcomes– do not pass go, do not collect $200. There is no route that goes through “compliance-ville.” Simply put: when in a culturally responsive learning environment, students learn better. 

Culturally responsive pedagogy is way more than using diverse materials– it’s about your classroom culture. 

Including more diverse materials in your classroom is a nice start. However, if those materials are presented in a manner that is racist or into a classroom culture that upholds racist policies and ideals, then that isn’t culturally responsive pedagogy– It’s tokenism. The use of diverse materials is unlikely to make any meaningful change in your classroom without the proper supportive classroom culture. 

If you are looking for the meaningful connections and improved creative and learning outcomes that CRP promises, you’ll have to dig deeper than surface-level behaviors or a diverse composers series. Intentional changes in your music program’s policies, culture, and design– along with honest self-reflection and education yourself– will yield significant outcomes for all of your students.

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POWER TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE: Engaging Students in Politics

This article was originally published in the Feb 2021 edition of Gifted Education Review

Most school-aged students do not see themselves in politics, and have relegated the entire concept to the land of adulthood. Practical adult responsibilities are often mysteries to students as they leave their public education: How do I buy a car? How do I pay taxes? What about voting? Arguably one of the most important responsibilities as an adult American citizen is voting and registering to vote. After all, election results can impact your ability to buy a car and pay your taxes. 

We sometimes forget that engaging in politics is more than simply visiting your polling place once you turn 18. Speaking at a town or city council meeting, contacting your state and national representatives, or just staying informed on political news are all ways to engage with the government. Those are also a few ways to get involved with politics before reaching voting age. Besides preparing young citizens for voting and perhaps someday running for office, getting involved in politics at a young age has wide-reaching benefits. When examining political issues, students can advance their moral development and develop their skills in debate, analysis, argument, and persuasive writing. 

We often speak about “politics” as governmental affairs, but we deal in politics in our personal and professional lives too. It is an unavoidable fact that much about politics is about power: who has it, how they use it, and how they treat people/groups without the same level of power. Any system, formal or informal, denotes these groups or individuals as the powerful and powerless, givers and receivers, haves and have-nots. Knowing how to recognize your power in relation to the people around you and use your power for good is a life skill every person should have, regardless of your involvement in government.

CLASSROOM CONSIDERATIONS

General classrooms and history or civics classes are not the only place where politics exist. Politics come into play in the arts (protest music, murals), STEM (research funding, bioethics), and English and literature (historical fiction, censorship). It wouldn’t be difficult to argue that asking students to fundraise for their after school club is an act of politics. Afterall, aren’t they using their political/social power to bring further power/funds to a cause that is important to them?

For more controversial issues, teachers must consider how political they want to be, while protecting their jobs. There may be topics that your school considers “off-limits” and there may be issues that you feel are worth putting up a fight that may cost you politically, or even your job. It is a personal ethical decision whether to adhere to these policies, defy them, or advocate for changing them. After all, there are politics in your workplace as well. However, keep in mind that by refusing to discuss any political or controversial issue, you show your privilege. Unfair, racist, or sexist policies and systems, especially those that affect your students and your classroom, must be called out. If you do choose to take up an issue in your class that could be controversial, consider if you are better off asking for your supervisor’s or principal’s blessing first, or asking for forgiveness later. 

Another word of warning: you can share your personal views, but do not push your views on students. They will not respond well, and may see themselves as outsiders in your classroom if they disagree, disconnecting them from their learning. The details of a student’s viewpoint or opinion is much less important than fanning the flames of their engagement in an issue and their ability to articulate their position. 

ELEMENTARY STUDENTS:

  • For the youngest future leaders, recognize and name anytime a student assumes a leadership role, whether formally or informally. 
  • Emphasize the purpose, power, and responsibilities of the government, not just the roles and systems. 
  • Harness the power of a child’s sense of fairness. If a student points out an unfair system, big or small, that is an opportunity to talk about power, privilege, and change. 
  • Engage in their burgeoning senses of morality. Older elementary students typically move from pre-conventional to conventional morality. Acknowledge the advancement from a “What’s in it for me?” mentality to a sense of broader societal norms. 

MIDDLE AND HIGH SCHOOL STUDENTS:

  • Treat your middle and high school students as voters. According to the Voting Rights Act (2009), regarding the literacy of voters: “any person who has not been adjudged an incompetent and who has completed the sixth grade in a[n accredited] public school in, or a private school … possesses sufficient literacy, comprehension, and intelligence to vote in any election.” (Voting Rights Act, 2009).
  • Use a verbal or written debate as part of an assignment, activity, or assessment. Then have students argue the “other side”– not only to deepen their understanding, but to encourage empathy. 
  • Politics and policies of the school or district may come to light in your classroom. Dress codes, prom policies, and punishments often come up in students’ lives when unfair practices are in place. Encourage students to not just complain, but to take action. If you believe they have the power to make a difference, they will too. For example, if a school program is being threatened, involve students in the school board meetings. They have the most to lose. 
  • If an issue comes up in local politics that is relevant to your class, have students write letters or emails to their elected officials in support of a cause. For example, a life sciences class could write to the city council defending local wildlife when a new shopping center is being planned. Be careful not to force students to take a certain position– allow students to abstain or write their own letter. Be aware of any personal connections students have to personal politics; a student’s parent could be on city council, or would benefit from the new jobs a shopping center would bring, for example. 
  • Inspire activism by watching and reacting to the West Wing episode “A Good Day” (Flint & Schiff, 2005) where a group of young activists visits the White House to lobby for child suffrage. It’s powerful to see a young person so eloquently and persuasively argue for their rights– even directly to the president himself. There’s a 4-minute smash cut of the relevant scenes on YouTube.
  • The Political Classroom (thepoliticalclassroom.com) has a bevy of resources on politics, particularly useful if law and government aren’t your strong suit. 

You may feel as though you are walking a tight line with politics in the classroom, but with some planning and research, you can set your students up for real life beyond graduation day and election day. A country of informed and engaged voters benefits us all. 

References

Flint, C. (Writer), & Schiff, R. (Director). (2005, March 2). A good day. [Television series episode]. In Sorkin, A. (Creator). The West Wing. New York: National Broadcasting Company. 

Voting Rights Act, 52 U.S. Code § 10101(c) (2009). 

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