CEDAR RAPIDS — For more than a decade, Cedar Rapids high schools students have had the option of enrolling in an English class that encourages them to listen and empathize with various points of view.
At the beginning of this school year, English teacher Emily Thomson asked students in her “Perspectives” class to first consider their own views and identities.
Students privately considered how aspects of themselves — race, gender, immigrant status, class and other markers — influenced their views of the world, the first-year classroom teacher said.
It was an uncomfortable exercise for some — and one frustrated student posted the worksheet assignment on social media, where it was picked up by a conservative media outlet.
The online publication ran a story about Thomson’s class under the headline “High School English Students Forced to Learn Gender-Bending Pronouns and Anti-White Propaganda.”
In a class focused on considering various types of worldviews, Thomson said she’s tried to take the piece in stride.
“It was a teachable moment — the class is about exploring other worldviews, and being empathetic when there are disagreements,” she said. “Our culture is in a place where we need to get better.”
Thomson said she plans to continue giving students the assignment, despite the online controversy.
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Administrators at Kennedy High and the Cedar Rapids Community School District have been supportive of Thomson’s teaching methods.
“The whole purpose of this class — and really, in my view, the whole point of high school — is to develop critical thinking,” Principal Jason Kline said. “That’s hard for adults, clearly, if you read any of the comments on any political post. And it’s hard for kids.”
Superintendent Brad Buck agreed.
“We have work to do in our society to help people be better at expressing their opinions thoughtfully, and also being open to the idea that there are other perspectives,” Buck said. “To the extent we can build that competency in our kids, I think we’re all going to better off long-term culturally.”
A handful of people around the country — none who appear to live locally, according to district officials — emailed Thomson aggressive or threatening messages after the conservative outlet’s story was published Sept. 6.
One emailer, who the district believes is a man living in New Mexico, took issue with the worksheet’s categorization of veterans — with white people, middle class and college-educated people — as a “non-target group.” Vietnam veterans, people of color, the poor and uneducated are classified as “target groups.”
“You call veterans oppressors?” said the author of the email, which the school district shared with The Gazette. “Only thing I oppressed during my wartime service days was eliminating as many communists as could be found. Seems we missed quite a few inside our own shores while oppressing commies in Asia.”
Kline said the threat was shown to Kennedy’s school resource officer, but further actions were not taken when they learned the man was not nearby.
“It definitely wasn’t civil discourse,” Kline said.
Promoting civil and thoughtful conversation remains a focus for Thomson. She’s tried to productively engage with students who have reacted negatively to the article about their class — which refers to one activist a “a raving lunatic,” makes reference to “the deranged left” and assesses Thomson’s curriculum as “sure to lower the IQ of the participant.”
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“It’s not OK to refer to someone as stupid just because you don’t agree,” Thomson said. “It’s not ‘stupid’ — maybe it’s taken out of context.”
During class Friday, students led a dialogue where they shared their points of view on whether they should be issued student ID cards. At the end of class, Thomson asked students how they had approached disagreements on the topic, which had riled some students.
“No one was yelling at each other,” Levi Sullivan, 17, told her. “We had a concise, well-rounded talk.”
Thomson said she hopes her students can go on to use those skills outside her classroom.
“That’s what we live in,” Thomson said. “If we’re going to prepare our learners, that’s part of teaching in 2018.”
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