Renewing the call for politics in the classroom

January 7, 2017

Jay1headshotOne year ago in this column, I suggested that Milwaukee Public Schools should ease its stance on politics in the classroom, instead encouraging teachers and students alike to have reasonable, open dialogue on issues of the day. Research shows, I noted, schools can close some of the achievement gap by teaching culturally relevant and responsive material that would engage students with issues they care about.

In this age of social media, I argued, it is far likelier that students are seeing, reading, and commenting on news of the day, and MPS would be smart to channel that outside-of-school engagement into in-school learning activities. In fact, considering the studies following November’s election that show adolescents are much more likely than adults to fall for “fake news,” it’s probably more important than ever that critical thinking about current events be central to the curriculum.

I wasn’t talking about me, as the nature of my moonlighting, writing about politics and policy here and online, means I am extra careful about what I say and do in my own classes. But last month, things got much more personal.

Over my objection, Bay View High School, where I teach, used that January 2016 column as a source text for its Bay View Redcats Write Day, where students dedicate a full day to plan, write, and revise a single written argument. The topic was whether those seen as leaders in a community, including teachers, celebrities, and clergy, should be activists for social justice.

Other source texts included a video about Father James Groppi, BVHS alum and activist in Milwaukee’s fight against housing discrimination, and an op-ed about how when celebrities protest, they become the story, not their chosen issue.

The starting point for the op-ed was NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick and his “taking a knee” during the national anthem this season to protest treatment of African Americans, particularly police killings of black men.

Just before Write Day, however, things got really weird. Kaepernick himself retweeted a picture of the BVHS girls basketball team also taking a knee during the national anthem at a home game. That photo ended up being seen hundreds of thousands of times on social media. The girls quickly drew both praise and criticism after a local news station ran a story on their action, with little thought given to why they protested.

To be clear, although I teach members of the team, I had no hand in their decision to protest. However, I could not have asked for a more perfect opportunity to test my theory. A lot of the criticism was just nasty hatred spewed toward the girls — “They have a right to be stupid.” “Disgusting little [expletives]!” “So sick of these scum bags.” “The inmates are running the asylum.” Some focused specifically on the fact that they were “representing” the school and as such should refrain from making political statements.

Alumni from various eras posted things like, “This is not my Bay View.” They demanded the girls be removed from the team and the coach disciplined, often accompanied by a threat to withhold donations to the school for allowing the protests to happen. Bay View residents said things like, “This doesn’t represent the Bay View community,” with three exclamation points and several crying emoji.

“What are the limits of what a person can do or say while acting as a representative of a bigger entity?” one person asked on a neighborhood Facebook group. They continued, “Bay View High School should not be expected to blindly allow nine students to be their local, state, or national voice, unless the message supports the mission of the school.”

This is why I wrote last year’s column in the first place. Many people believe that everyone walking through the schoolhouse door, especially teachers, but now, apparently, students must also shed all political or ideological thinking so they don’t “represent” the school in a way that might offend others.

That’s simply not possible: Our beliefs are not something we can hang up in a locker with our coats, and it is dangerous and counterproductive to try stifling the interests and energy of students when they actively engage in serious thought, debate, or protest. Critical thinking and reasoned argument is the mission of the school. Literally. It’s in our mission statement this year!

MPS and BVHS have not disciplined the girls for speaking out. That’s the right call and a call that should be extended to MPS adults who also advocate for social justice.

I still contend active politicking should be restricted. Teachers should refrain from trying to sway students’ votes and should not copy leaflets in the their lounge.

But MPS policy should not force the human beings in its schools who are teaching and learning — and playing basketball — to check their politics at the door.

Jay Bullock teaches English — and several members of the girls basketball team at Bay View High School. Email him at  

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