Teaching in the era of Trump
Our schools are our foremost safeguard of democracy, social cohesion and civility.
With that sobering thought firmly in mind, I decided to sit down with Wilson High School Principal Brian Chatard. I wanted to talk about how the school has been affected by the election and divisive presidency of Donald Trump. I was particularly interested in how the school was helping students understand the Trumpian world of "alternative facts," "fake news" and outright lies.
Chatard, who has been at Wilson for five years, is a tall, athletic man. In his office he keeps an Exercycle next to his stand-up work bench. He has a bachelor's in Cultural Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Barbara, a Social Sciences teaching certification and a master's in Educational Leadership from San Jose State University. He has also coached high school baseball and basketball.
After some brief greetings, he came straight to the point.
Chatard said the president's attacks on the media, his "vicious" rhetoric, the "inexperience" of his appointees and his "fear tactics" were all "unprecedented." Also unprecedented, he said, is the urgent need to change Wilson's curriculum to prepare students for radically different times.
Numerous post-election staff conversations have led Chatard and others to conclude that the school's current course offerings in the state-mandated areas of economics and government are, as he put it, "woefully inadequate." For one thing, he said, "the requirements for civics are antiquated." In these tumultuous times, he said, they need to emphasize America's core values.
Chatard wonders how Trump's presidency would change a civics course's presentation of "The Presidency." Do old assumptions pertain? Major challenges preceeded Trump, Chatard pointed out, and some of them contributed to Trump's rise to power.
Educators and their students learn about the world in strikingly different ways. The media define "what's happening," but because teachers and students turn to entirely different media, they perceive the wider, mediated world differently.
Teachers still rely on print or electronic versions of the news. Students spend hours each day on spontaneous, fragmented social media. They see a newspaper as "something used to light the barbecue," Chatard says.
In December, Wilson presented the film "Screenagers, growing up in the digital age." Chatard said that more than 300 parents and students showed up to see the film and talk about it — all in an effort to understand and close the generational media divide.
It's that sort of learning that needs a place in Wilson's curriculum, says Chatard, who is also the father to two teenagers.
Any reform of an "inadequate," suddenly dated curriculum requires surmounting institutional and financial barriers, he says. State and school board requirements must be addressed. Even the National Collegiate Athletic Association gets involved: they don't want student-athletes earning degrees based on bogus or watered-down courses.
The quickest way to create a timely, Trump-aware civics course would be to offer it as a senior elective next fall, Chatard says.
First, the course would have to be designed. What will it include: media literacy, social justice, the nation's founding principles? If seniors see the elective as compelling, all 400 might sign up to take it; those numbers would require finding and training 14 teachers.
And all this — course design, staffing and training —requires money in a time when Portland Public Schools is facing $18 million in budget cuts (or 3 percent) going into the new fiscal year. That problem threatens the gains Wilson has made in recent years. Chatard is particularly proud of Wilson's 90 percent graduation rate last June; now he sees it as endangered by cuts.
I happened to interview Chatard on the day a deeply divided U.S. Senate narrowly approved Betsy DeVos to be Secretary of the Department of Education. DeVos, a fervent advocate of privatizing schools though vouchers, will only make the funding crisis worse, Chatard says.
If this weren't enough, the principal, and the entire school district, have vowed to guard the safety of their students — all their students. And that could mean confrontations with federal immigration officials.
A Portland Public Schools Board resolution, passed just days after the election, proclaimed that the mandated safety and well-being of PPS students "would be disrupted by…Immigration and Naturalization Service employees (coming) on to PPS property" to remove students and parents or to obtain information about them.
Chatard puts it directly: "This is my flock. I need to protect it. That's my responsibility. Every kid has a right to be here."
After I left Chatard, I visited the school's library to chat with librarian Linda Campillo, once a newspaper reporter herself. She teaches Wilson freshmen a two-week-long unit on finding relevant, reliable information on the internet. In November, she began teaching ways to detect "fake news."
Campillo's change is a reminder that reform at Wilson, as everywhere, happens in many ways, big and small.
Editors note: An earlier version of this story referred to columnist as "Former Connection Educator." It has been updated to read, "Former Connection Editor."