Cameras in class, banned books, and CRT

One of the great features of the United States is our desire to provide a free education to every child.  And really, when I started my teaching career, I never thought it would be political.  Just a building where teachers did their job and children attempted to weasel out of doing their work.  The typical cat and mouse.  The eternal struggle.  Nearly two decades later,  and my idealism hangs on by the thinnest of threads.  Let’s go to the Midwest!

Cameras in the classroom

Iowa’s state legislature is considering H.F. 2177, a bill which would allow cameras in public school classrooms (except for physical education and special education classes).  Under the bill, parents, guardians, and others could connect to a livestream into their children’s classes and observe what transpires.  Instructors who fail to keep the livestream active or obstruct the camera’s view could face a 5% pay cut for their weekly salary (per infraction).  

The bill’s sponsor, Norlin Mommsen (R), argued that the bill would “showcase the great work our teachers do,” and compared this concept to the application of body cameras on police officers.  He also believes the measure would hold teachers accountable and takes away any uncertainty about what occurs in the classroom.  Mommsen also stated that the primary purpose of the proposal was to, “increase the involvement of parents in their children’s education.”

Cameras in the class? Bad policy for all parties

Iowa’s move isn’t the only aggressive approach to cameras in the classroom.  Florida’s legislature is taking up HB 1055, which requires cameras in classrooms and does not specify that cameras must be turned off when students are not in the room.  Sponsors of the bill believe it would catch more incidents of bullying and show teachers who neglect their duties.  There would not be live-streaming but if some event occurred in the classroom which concerned a parent, that parent would have the right to see a recording within seven days.  

I do not have any idea about the likelihood of these bills passing, but I do know they are unwise and counterproductive.  Briefly, let’s address why they would be bad for classrooms.

The cost of quality video cameras, software to allow for live streaming, and devices for storage would outstrip any possible value the cameras would have in catching ‘bad’ teachers or allowing parents to ‘check in’ with their children’s classes.  Republican lawmakers are the ones pushing these camera laws, but this doesn’t seem to conflict with their constant desire for fiscal responsibility.  

Cameras in the classroom also present a serious problem about the privacy of students.  While a parent may like the idea of having access to their child’s classroom, they may not feel comfortable when they realize the larger implications.  Other individuals will have access to a live feed where they can see children on video who are not their own.  I think that’s cause for concern for any parent.  

Allowing video access to a classroom will also not allow for contextualization.  Parents might log in to a camera feed during the middle of a lesson, or a conversation, and misunderstand a situation.  Moreover, this will increase the number of unreasonable parent complaints.  Any small  slight — real or perceived — would create more unnecessary work for already overworked administrators.

Video cameras in a classroom would also create an even greater teacher shortage, driving away professionals who do not wish to be treated under a constant cloud of suspicion.  Iowa faces a shortage of 1,500 teachers as of the end of 2021.  Does the state somehow believe more men and women will want to become teachers once they are constantly under surveillance?  

I suppose teachers would consider consenting to this if the members of the state legislature and the governor would agree to an equal amount of video access regarding every moment of their day, so that constituents could see what their representatives do in every given moment of their day, including meetings with lobbyists and other political agents.  Wouldn’t that be a better use of cameras?

Professional educators do not need cameras monitoring their every word and action.  It’s a form of micromanaging and adds to an already stressful job.  Parents who have questions about the classroom and their child’s education are always welcome to contact a teacher to discuss any matter, but accessing cameras in a class is a bridge too far.  This doesn’t even address the problems which would emanate from students knowing that they are being monitored via camera.  While a person may believe this would promote better student behavior, it would stifle discussion and participation in the classroom.  

Education is a culture war hot spot

Cameras in the classroom are a dreadful idea, but this concept is only a smaller part of a culture war.  Politicians around the country have attempted to make a name for themselves as the protectors of American values by attacking a problem which does not exist.  The ‘cameras in classrooms’ fight is the latest straw man in a litany of educational gripes where conservatives believe American children are somehow being indoctrinated by ‘radical leftist teachers.’  

A popular book on many ‘banned’ lists; it addresses racism on multiple levels

Currently, state legislatures are considering bills which advance bans on teaching ‘critical race theory’ (which many people can’t seem to clearly define) and censor or outright ban certain books from public education.  Over 30 states have legislation under consideration which would ban certain books from schools.  This is the level of concern some individuals have that teachers are attempting to indoctrinate their children.  Calm down everyone.  The kids are all right.

I do believe it is inherently the right and a duty of a parent to carefully consider the books their children read.  Participate in your child’s education from kindergarten through their senior year.  The content which children consume will affect who they are and what they believe.  However, I want parents to have this same level of scrutiny when it comes to the digital content their children consume.  What social media platforms do the children use?  What text messages are they sending, and to whom? What films and television shows are they watching?  What music is on their playlist?  I would submit that this content is far more potentially damaging to the development of a child than the books they might read and parents should curate that content with just as much diligence.  

In teaching high school students, I can also attest to the fact that these children have strong feelings about a number of issues which I don’t think I could change even if I wanted.  I wish I could indoctrinate children to bring a fully charged laptop to school each day.  I want to brainwash students to bring pencils and paper each day.  Yes, teachers have a profound impact on children, but not nearly the level of impact as their primary caregivers.  Generally speaking, the child becomes eerily similar to their parents.  

America in 2022, or Germany in 1934?

The books your children read are important, and sometimes, parents are right to call certain books into question.  Fifty Shades of Grey is not a valuable piece of literature for an English class.  And sadly, some teachers have been that stupid.  The stupidity of the tiniest fraction of educators does not, however, warrant a massive ban on books.  

The boorish behavior of attempting to ban books is not only silly, but dangerous.  It creates an atmosphere where those on the political fringes believe more radical actions are appropriate.  Consider a recent scene in Nashville, Tennessee, where pastor Greg Locke organized a book burning of the Harry Potter novels, along with Twilight, two popular series which Locke and his followers associated with ‘witchcraft.’   

This attitude also led to one parent going so far as to demand a local school in Texas remove Michelle Obama: Political Icon from its library.  The complaint levied charges that the biography was “Complete Leftist Indoctrination [sic] … it shows that Trump is a bully …” Thankfully, the school declined to remove the book.

Wait, what is Critical Race Theory and should we be scared?

Next to banning books, the great concern among conservatives involves banning ‘critical race theory,’ the premise that American governmental and legal systems were designed by white people, and, as a result, favor white people.  A person might suggest that the system has racist aspects when they see different sentences for black and white defendants in criminal cases for the exact same offense.

Proponents of critical race theory also discuss an element known as ‘intersectionality,’ which examines how the connection of sex, class, race, and gender can cause more obstacles in the lives of those who are part of more than one marginalized group.  For instance, a black woman from a poor neighborhood might struggle in ways that a white man would not understand.  She’s poor, black, and a woman — three distinct classes of people who have faced discrimination.  In some ways, they still do.  

Citizens in Texas show up to promote bans on critical race theory

Some of the more radical proponents of critical race theory suggest that merely being white in this system means you are a racist because you benefit from a racist system.  This is the element of critical race theory which causes the most rancor from conservative corners.  Most conservatives tend to be white, and I understand, to a degree, the resentment from accusations of participating in a racist system.  No one wants that label. 

I want my students in situations like this is to evaluate the claim.  Address the critique in a thoughtful manner and determine if there’s any merit.  Is this not the way we want children to act?  To have the ability to seriously consider an issue and determine if it’s a worthy idea?  

Education in any field is never solely about memorizing facts and information.  Once we teach students about those facts, we must make determinations, look for patterns, make predictions — any number of higher order thinking tasks.  What good is it to know information without have any ability to apply it?  

There is no need to fear critical race theory, because the overwhelming number of teachers won’t attempt to brainwash your children that the country is racist.  However, teachers will definitely discuss racist elements of America’s past.  No one can deny that even after slavery ended, black Americans have faced an inordinate amount of discrimination, violence, and injustice.  It’s a discussion you should have with your children.  

Critical race theory bears a strong resemblance to the anti-communist fears in the 1950s.  In dealing with the panic, President Dwight Eisenhower delivered strong remarks about the matter, noting:

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship. 

How will we defeat communism unless we know what it is, and what it teaches, and why does it have such an appeal for men, why are so many people swearing allegiance to it? It is almost a religion, albeit one of the nether regions. 

And we have got to fight it with something better, not try to conceal the thinking of our own people. They are part of America. And even if they think ideas that are contrary to ours, their right to say them, their right to record them, and their right to have them at places where they are accessible to others is unquestioned, or it isn’t America.

Hold the issues to the light and examine them.  Critique them.  Consider them.  Beat them back if you believe them wrong.  But don’t give in to the fear of ideas with an attempt to curb them.

So, how does West Virginia fit in?  

The Republican supermajority in the state legislature appears to be taking its cues from others around the country, with plenty of legislation regarding critical race theory. SB 618 would prohibit teaching critical race theory or other ‘divisive concepts,’ and infractions of this would lead to a teacher’s termination. Of course, the comical moves to the absurd with SB  587, which would establish a ‘tip line’ for reporting teachers who instruct about critical race theory.  

The bill goes beyond its expressed purpose, though, where the text reads, 

“The tip line is intended for parents to send in any instances where they feel that their fundamental rights are being violated, where their children are not being respected, and where there are inherently divisive practices being taught in schools.”  

That phone on that tip line would never stop ringing.  The attitudes of children are such that they always believe teachers disrespect them, and any form of discipline constitutes a violation of their rights.  This would only create more teaching vacancies than already exist.  

West Virginia lawmakers discussing CRT bills …

The legislature will also take up HB 4011, known as “The Anti-Stereotyping Act,” which would require instructional or curriculum materials pertaining to “… nondiscrimination, diversity, equity,  inclusion, race, ethnicity, sex, or bias, or any combination of these concepts with other concepts” be posted online with descriptions of the material.  This bill would also prevent teacher trainings or student instruction from promoting or endorsing stereotypes based on “race, sex, ethnicity, religion, or national origin.”  I don’t know why they believe educators are promoting stereotypes of any kind.  

Legislators in West Virginia appear to be sprinting to see who can shepherd a bill through the lawmaking process first.  HB 4016 takes an even more comprehensive approach towards banning certain education approaches.  It not only prohibits critical race theory, but it includes a ban on teaching “… ideological concepts rooted in or inspired by Marxism, Marxist-Leninism, Maoism, socialism, communism.”  A teacher can present information on these ideologies but they must certain criteria in that presentation, including the terrorism associated with these belief systems, and the superiority of capitalism.  So much for free thinking, right?

But, wait, there’s more.  The Anti-Racism Act of 2022, SB 498, again prohibits the teaching of certain racial concepts, using similar wording to the other bills.  This law, however, would provide a person with the ability to file a lawsuit for injunctive relief and actual damages.  Suing the school and educator for teaching particular content?  This would further jam an already backlogged court system and frighten teachers into shying away from important subjects over the risk of a lawsuit.  Again, this state has a teacher shortage.  SB 498 measure would only push more people out of a difficult profession or to simply leave the state and teach elsewhere with more money and less micromanaging.

If you’re reading this and wondering why it’s a bad thing to prohibit stereotyping or ban promoting bad ideologies, then you must look a bit closer at the text of the bills and compare those with the notions in critical race theory.  The language of the bills is couched in euphemisms which make them appear worthwhile on their face, but the deeper idea is to prevent any teaching that American tradition had, or may still have elements of racism.  The driving idea conservatives  want to project into schools is one which would whitewash history and prevent questioning the current roles which race, sex, gender, or even political belief might play in society.  

To claim that we have history ‘locked down’ and no further need for debate exists about our past means establishing the very type of indoctrination that no one desires.  Ideals and principles which the United States values should never include the fear of questioning the established order. 

Republicans use these types of wedge issues to distract from the greater concerns in society.  In West Virginia, our citizens face economic problems which never seem to improve.  The decline of the coal industry and an ongoing opioid epidemic have plagued the state’s financial condition and led to a decrease in population.  I wish the legislature operated with as much gusto in tackling poverty before they spend time correcting a problem which doesn’t exist.  

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