Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

Teaching Controversial Issues: Teachers’ Freedom of Speech in the Classroom

Arlene Gardner

What is the purpose of education? The conventional answer is the acquisition of knowledge. Looking beyond this facile response, most people will agree that the true purpose of education is to produce citizens. One of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government.  John Dewey makes a strong case for the importance of education not only as a place to gain content knowledge, but also as a place to learn how to live. In his eyes, the purpose of education should not revolve around the acquisition of a predetermined set of skills, but rather the realization of one’s full potential and the ability to use those skills for the greater good.

Democratic self-government requires constant discussions and decisions about controversial issues. There is an intrinsic and crucial connection between the discussion of controversial political issues and the health of democracy. If we want our students to become informed, engaged citizens, we need to teach them how to “do” democracy by practicing the skills of discussing controversial issues in the classroom and learning how to respectfully disagree.

Research has demonstrated that controversy during classroom discussion also promotes cognitive gains in complex reasoning, integrated thinking, and decision-making. Controversy can be a useful, powerful, and memorable tool to promote learning. In addition to its value in promoting skills for democracy, discussing current controversial public issues:

  • Is authentic and relevant
  • Enhances students’ sense of political efficacy
  • Improves critical thinking skills
  • Increases students’ comfort with conflict that exists in the world outside of the classroom
  • Develops political tolerance
  • Motivates students
  • Results in students gaining greater content knowledge.

(Diana Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (2009); Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (2017); “Guardian of Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools” (2011); Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd).

Yet, teachers may consciously (or unconsciously) avoid controversial issues in the classroom because of the difficulty involved in managing heated discussions and/or for fear that parents will complain or that the school administration will admonish or punish them for “being controversial.” These concerns are certainly not groundless. How well are teachers protected from negative repercussions if they address controversial issues in their classrooms? How extensive are teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech? How can heated disagreements among students be contained in the classroom?

Two different legal issues exist regarding free speech rights of teachers: The First Amendment directly protects a teacher’s personal right to speak about public issues outside of the classroom and “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s right and responsibility to teach controversial issues in the classroom.  However, both have certain limitations.

First Amendment protection of public speech by teachers

Although the First Amendment free speech protection is written in absolute terms (“Congress shall make no law…”), the courts have carved out several exceptions (for national security, libel and slander, pornography, imminent threats, etc.).  The courts have also carved out a limited “government employee” exception based on the rationale that a government employee is paid a salary to work and contribute to an agency’s effective operation and, therefore, the government employer must have the power to prevent or restrain the employee from doing or saying things that detract from the agency’s effective operation.  Thus, the government has been given greater latitude to engage in actions that impose restrictions on a person’s right to speak when the person is a governmental employee, which includes teachers who work in public schools.

Some of the earliest threats to the free speech rights of public school teachers were the loyalty oaths that many states imposed on government employees during the ‘‘red scare’’ and early ‘‘cold war’’ years of American history. In Adler v. Board of Education (1952), the Supreme Court in a 6-3 decision rejected First Amendment claims and upheld a New York statute designed to enforce existing civil service regulations to prevent members of subversive groups, particularly of the Communist Party, from teaching in public schools. The Supreme Court effectively overturned this ruling in the 1960s and declared several loyalty oath schemes to be unconstitutional because they had chilling effects on individuals which violated their First Amendment rights (Baggett v. Bullitt (1964); Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction (1961); and Keyishian v. Board of Education (1967)).

Much of the reasoning regarding the “government employee” exception to the First Amendment outlined in Adler was abandoned altogether in the 1968 U.S. Supreme Court decision in Pickering v. Board of Education. Teacher Marvin Pickering had written a letter complaining about a recently defeated school budget proposal to increase school taxes. The school board felt that the letter was “detrimental to the efficient operation and administration of the schools” and decided to terminate Pickering, who sued claiming his letter was protected speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court held that Pickering’s dismissal violated his First Amendment right to free speech because public employees are entitled to the same measure of constitutional protection as enjoyed by their civilian counterparts when speaking as “citizens” and not as “employees.”

In Mt. Healthy City School District v. Doyle (1977), non-tenured teacher Fred Doyle conveyed the substance of an internal memorandum regarding a proposed staff dress code to a local radio station, which released it. When the board of education refused to rehire him, Doyle claimed that his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights had been violated. The court developed a “balancing test” that required the teacher to demonstrate that the speech act was a ‘‘substantial’’ or ‘‘motivating factor’’ in the administration’s decision and gave the school board the opportunity to demonstrate, based on the preponderance of the evidence, that the teacher’s speech act was not the ‘‘but for’’ cause of the negative consequences imposed on the teacher by the school board. Finally, the court would “balance” the free speech interests of the teacher and the administrative interests of the school district to determine which carried more weight.  Based on this test, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the teacher’s call to the radio station was protected by the First Amendment, that the call played a substantial part in the board’s decision not to rehire Doyle, and that this action was a violation of Doyle’s rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

In a 5/4 decision in Connick v. Meyers (1983), the U.S. Supreme Court held that speech by public employees is generally only protected when they are addressing matters of public concern, not personal issues. Sheila Meyers was an Assistant District Attorney who had been transferred.  She strongly opposed her transfer and prepared a questionnaire asking for her co-workers views on the transfer policy, office morale and confidence in supervisors.  She was terminated for insubordination. Meyers alleged her termination violated her First Amendment right to free speech. The district court agreed and the Fifth Circuit affirmed. However, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed because Meyer’s speech only dealt with personal not public issues.  “When a public employee speaks not as a citizen upon matters of public concern, but instead as an employee upon matters only of personal interest, absent the most unusual circumstances, a federal court is not the appropriate forum in which to review the wisdom of a personnel decision taken by a public agency allegedly in reaction to the employee’s behavior.” Although the case involved an Assistant District Attorney, it is applicable to all public employees: teachers must demonstrate that their speech is of public concern.

This was confirmed in Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District (1989) where the school district did not rehire non-tenured teacher Timothy Kirkland because of poor performance and substandard teaching evaluations. Kirkland filed a lawsuit in federal district court against Northside, claiming that he was not rehired in violation of his First Amendment rights after he gave his students a reading list that was different from Northside’s list. Northside argued that Kirkland had no right to substitute his list without permission or consent and he had failed to obtain either. The district court ruled in favor of Kirkland and Northside appealed. The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and dismissed Kirkland’s complaint, holding that Kirkland’s “speech” did not infringe on any matter of public concern and was in fact “private speech.” If the nature of the speech is purely private, such as a dispute over one employee’s job performance, judicial inquiry then comes to an end, and the question of whether the employee’s speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the decision not to rehire him need not even be reached. The U.S. Supreme Court denied cert, leaving this decision in place.

Academic freedom

Although primarily used in the context of university faculty rights, “Academic Freedom” protects a teacher’s ability to determine the content and method of addressing controversial issues in the classroom.  This is more limited at the K-12 level because the courts have long held the view that the administration of K-12 public schools resides with state and local authorities. Primary and secondary education is, for the most part, funded by local sources of revenue, and it has traditionally been a government service that residents of the community have structured to fit their needs. Therefore, a teacher’s “Academic Freedom” is limited to his or her content and method of teaching within the policies and curriculum established by the state and local school board. By finding no First Amendment violation, the court in Kirkland implicitly held that he had no right to substitute his own book list for the one approved by the district without permission or consent, which he failed to obtain. 

In an early case, following the end of World War I, Nebraska had passed a law prohibiting teaching grade school children any language other than English and Robert Meyer was punished for teaching German at a private Lutheran school. The court held that the Nebraska law was an unnecessarily restrictive way to ensure English language learning and was an unconstitutional violation of the 14th Amendment due process clause (the 14th Amendment had not yet applied the First Amendment to the states until Gitlow v.  New York in 1925) that exceeded the power of the state (Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923).

“The Fourteenth Amendment, as now applied to the States, protects the citizen against the State itself and all of its creatures-Boards of Education not excepted. These have, of course, important, delicate, and highly discretionary functions, but none that they may not perform within the limits of the Bill of Rights. That they are educating the young for citizenship is reason for scrupulous protection of Constitutional freedoms of the individual, if we are not to strangle the free mind at its source and teach youth to discount important principles of our government as mere platitudes.” Justice Jackson in West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett (1943)(holding unconstitutional a requirement that all children in public schools salute the flag).

The Supreme Court has more than once instructed that “[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools” (Shelton v. Tucker (1960)). In Epperson v. Arkansas (1968)(a reprise of the famous 1927 “Scopes Trial”), the Arkansas legislature had passed a law prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution. Sue Epperson, a public school teacher, sued, claiming that the law violated her First Amendment right to free speech as well as the Establishment Clause. A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court declared the state law unconstitutional. The Court found that “the State’s undoubted right to prescribe the curriculum for its public schools does not carry with it the right to prohibit, on pain of criminal penalty, the teaching of a scientific theory or doctrine where that prohibition is based upon reasons that violate the First Amendment.” Seven members of the court based their decision on the Establishment Clause, whereas two concurred in the result based on the Due Process clause of the 14th Amendment (because it was unconstitutionally vague) or the Free Speech clause of the First Amendment.

The Supreme Court, however, has not clearly defined the scope of academic freedom protections under the First Amendment, and commentators disagree about the scope of those protections. (See, e.g., William W. Van Alstyne, “The Specific Theory of Academic Freedom and the General Issue of Civil Liberty,” in The Concept of Academic Freedom 59, 61-63 (Edmund L. Pincoffs ed., 1972); J. Peter Byrne, “Academic Freedom: A ‘Special Concern of the First Amendment’,” 99 Yale L.J. 251 (1989); and Neil Hamilton, Zealotry and Academic Freedom: A Legal and Historical Perspective (New Brunswick, 1998). 

Whatever the legal scope, it is clear that the First Amendment protection of individual academic freedom is not absolute. For example, in Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education (1998), the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a teacher could be reprimanded (in this case transferred) because she sponsored the performance of a play that school authorities subsequently deemed inappropriate for her students and inconsistent with the curriculum developed by the local school authorities. This judicial deference toward K through 12 institutions often can be seen in cases involving teachers who assert that their First Amendment rights were violated when school administrators imposed punishments on them for engaging—while they taught their classes—in some form of expressive activity that the administrators disapproved.

The content

While cases about academic freedom, such as Epperson,  involved state laws that limited or prohibited certain content being taught (in this case prohibiting teachers in public or state-supported schools from teaching, or using textbooks that teach, human evolution); New Jersey has taken a very broad approach to classroom content.  Since 1996, New Jersey has established state standards (currently called “Student Learning Standards”) that set a framework for each content area.  Unlike many other states, New Jersey does not establish a state curriculum but rather leaves this to local school boards. Subject to applicable provisions of state law and standards set by the State Department of Education, district school boards have control of public elementary and secondary schools.  How much protection do New Jersey teachers have when they address controversial topics?  Most First Amendment education cases in New Jersey involve students’ rights rather than teachers’ rights (e.g., school dress, vulgar language, threats, religious speech, equal access, See http://www.njpsa.org/documents/pdf/lawprimer_FirstAmendment.pdf). However, several recent cases from the Third Circuit (which includes New Jersey) provide some parameters.

In Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania (3rd Cir. 1998), a tenured professor in media studies sued the administration for violating his right to free speech by restricting his choice of classroom materials in an educational media course. Instead of using the approval syllabus, Edwards emphasized the issues of “bias, censorship, religion and humanism.” Students complained that he was promoting religious ideas in the class. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the Third Circuit’s summary judgement against Edwards, holding that a university professor does not have a First Amendment right to choose classroom materials and subjects in contravention of the University’s dictates.

A very recent decision regarding a New Jersey teacher confirms the fact that the First Amendment does not provide absolute protection for teachers in public schools to decide the content of their lessons if it is not within the curriculum set by the school district.  In Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020) a non-tenured public high school teacher at Woodbridge High School was teaching Holocaust denial to his students and was posting links to articles on the school’s website saying things such as, “The Jews are like a cancer” and expressing conspiracy theories accusing the United States of planning a 9/11-style attack. When the Board of Education fired Ali, he sued claiming that his employment was terminated on the basis of his race and religion, and that defendants had violated his rights to free speech and academic freedom, among other claims. The District Court rejected all of Ali’s claims, awarding summary judgment to the school board, and the Third Circuit affirmed.

These are extreme cases where a teacher is addressing issues that are NOT within the curriculum set by the university or within the state social studies standards and the local school district’s curriculum.  When teachers are teaching a controversial topic that is included in the New Jersey Student Learning Standards for Social Studies and their school district’s social studies curriculum, the existing case law seems to support the fact that they would be protected by the Fourteenth Amendment, unless they are violating school policies that require teaching in a neutral, balanced manner that does not seek to indoctrinate students.

For example, what if a teacher wants to assign a research paper about the Stonewall Riots or the Lavender Project?   Since the history of LGBT rights is in the state standards and supposed to be included in local school district social studies curriculum, the Stonewell Riots and Lavender Project would be part of this history. This is not a situation like Ali where the materials were beyond the scope of the local curriculum (as well as being taught in an indoctrinating manner—see below). If the teacher fears that the topics will be controversial with the community, he or she should make the school administration aware of what he or she is planning to do.  Since here, what the teacher plans to teach is within the state standards and the local school district curriculum, the school administration should support the teacher.  If parents object, the real issue is one of policy (Should LGBT history be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher. Therefore, the parents’ argument should be with the state and local boards of education.

What if a teacher wants to show scenes of an R-rated movie in the classroom (i.e. Revolutionary War scenes from The Patriot or D-Day from Saving Private Ryan?) Obviously, the American Revolution and World War II are part of the state standards for U.S. History and in every local school district’s curriculum.  The movie scenes would need to relate to the district curriculum and the teacher should get prior administrative and parental approval if some movie scenes are going to be very graphic.

How should a teacher prepare lessons on Nazi Germany during the 1930s? Nazi Germany is also part of the state history standards and every school district’s curriculum. It should be taught in a way so that students can understand how the Nazis came to power and the prejudices they carried.  Some of the World War II footage and movies may be shocking but our students will not be able to become informed, engaged citizens if we hide the past from them. 

An ounce of prevention beforehand will help.  Before starting, teachers should be clear about the goal of their lesson: The classroom activities should encourage critical thinking. You are not trying to convince students of any particular point of view. Preview any materials, especially visual media which may be very powerful or provocative. Be aware of the biases of the sources of information that will be used by students.

Teaching Tolerance suggests in Civil Discourse in the Classroom that “Teachers can effectively use current and controversial events instruction to address a wide variety of standards and even mandated content. To do so, however, teachers must work carefully and incrementally to integrate this new approach in their classrooms.”  The University of Michigan’s Center for Research on Learning and Teaching offers guidance for how instructors (offered for college instructors but applicable for K-12) can successfully manage discussions on controversial topics. See Center for Research on Learning and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd). The “Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” of the American Association of University Professors, suggests that teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matters that are unrelated to the subject discussed.

Before engaging students in an activity or discussion involving a controversial subject, tell your supervisor and/or principal what you are planning on teaching and, if necessary, reference the district policy on teaching controversial issues, explain the lesson’s connection with the district social studies curriculum and explain the goal and value of what you plan to do.  Then, consider the demographics of your community. If you anticipate that the topic of your lesson will be controversial with the community, send a note and/or talk with your students’ parents and/or the Parent Teacher Organization.

In an informative piece titled “Do You Have the Right to be an Advocate?,” published by EdWeek, Julie Underwood, a professor of law and educational leadership and policy analysis at the School of Education, University of Wisconsin-Madison, explains that the “district or the state can regulate employee speech during school hours or at school-sponsored activities to protect their own interests in instruction and political neutrality.” Despite the ambiguity in the laws protecting a teacher’s freedom of speech, Underwood concludes: “If it relates to the in class instruction and is age appropriate there is a good rationale for having a political discussion”.

Teaching in a Neutral or Balanced Manner

If the teacher has created a supportive, respectful classroom climate and built tolerance for opposing views, it will be easier to consider controversial topics. For example, considering historical controversies might be good background as practice for looking at current controversies. Establish a process and rules of adequate evidence or support so that the discussion is based on facts rather than simply opinions. To help maintain classroom order even when students are having heated disagreements, set clear rules for discussions or use activities that require students to use active listening skills when considering controversial issues, such as:

  • Continuum/Take a Stand
  • Civil Conversations
  • C3 Inquiries
  • Guided discussions
  • Socratic Smackdown
  • Moot courts—structured format for considering constitutional issues
  • Philosophical Chairs discussion
  • Legislative hearings—structured format for considering solutions to problems

Carefully consider how students are grouped if they are to work cooperatively.  Provide closure (which may be acknowledging the difficulty of the issue).

School boards work primarily through policies which set guidelines for principals, teachers, parents and students, as well as the district curriculum. To avoid a problem afterwards, the teacher should make sure that the controversial topic is within the state standards and the curriculum adopted by their local school board. Then the teacher should consult the school district’s policy regarding the teaching of controversial issues. Most school districts have a policy (usually #2240) that supports and encourages the teaching of controversial issues and sets guidelines for teaching controversial issues, including a process for dealing with challenges.  Although the language may differ, policies dealing with controversial issues generally focus on the need for the classroom lesson to be balanced, unprejudiced, fair, objective, and not aimed at indoctrinating students to a particular point of view.

Clearly, the type of indoctrination attempted by the teachers in the Edwards or Ali cases is beyond protected speech.  In addition to avoiding indoctrination, teachers should avoid telling a joke in the classroom that might imply a negative characterization of an ethnic group, religion or gender.  A “joke” that might be a put down of any ethnic group, religion or gender told in the classroom to students is never a good idea. It is not even a good idea for a teacher to post such a “joke” on Facebook because such speech might be considered as not addressing a matter of public concern and would not be protected by the First Amendment. However, using an historical photo, engraving or picture that included a negative image of an ethnic, racial or religious group might be okay in the context of examining what was seen as humor in the past and understanding the prejudice that existed during a particular time period. For example, when teaching about the Holocaust, a teacher might carefully use Nazi cartoons to demonstrate the high level of prejudice at the time. Another example might be using images of blackface or corporate ad campaigns to show racial attitudes when teaching about Jim Crow. The teacher does not need many examples to make the point. Know your audience. Choose carefully and be aware that certain advertising images from the Jim Crow era may offend some students in the class. The purpose of using controversial issues is important. At the core of deciding what a teacher should or should not say or do in the classroom is good judgment.

Should a teacher share his or her viewpoint on a controversial issue with the students?

Whether a teacher should share his or her opinion or viewpoint on a controversial issue will depend on the age of the students, if the opinion was requested by the students, and the comfort-level of the teacher.  A teacher’s opinion may have too much influence on younger students and should probably be avoided. What if a middle or high school student specifically asks for your opinion? Such “natural disclosures” in response to a direct question by a student should be accompanied by a disclaimer, such as “This is my view because…” or “Other people may have different views”.  If you prefer not to disclose your view, explicitly state that and explain why. Remember, the goal is to help students develop their own well-informed positions. Be mindful of your position as the “classroom expert” and the potential impact on the students. If you decide to disclose your own view, do it carefully and only after the students have expressed their views. Unrequested disclosures may be seen as preachy, or may stop the discussion. (See Hess, Controversy in the Classroom)

So, for example, should a teacher take a position on climate change?  In terms of content, climate change is in the state standards and should be in the local school curriculum. If parents disapprove of this topic, this disagreement is really with the curriculum set by the school board, not with the teacher.  However, the teaching strategy is important. Rather than taking a position, which may be seen as indoctrination or may simply stop the classroom inquiry, the better approach might be to have the students examine the issue and let the facts speak for themselves.  Let students use the facts that exist to construct their own arguments about whether or not climate change is the result of mankind’s use of fossil fuels in industry and transportation.  If the topic is presented in a balanced, neutral, non-indoctrinating manner, the teacher should not be subject to discipline. Objections by parents should be referred to the school administration because it is a matter of policy (Should climate change be taught?), which is decided by the state and local boards of education, not the teacher.

How should teachers address questions from students regarding Black Lives Matter and racial inequality? The ACLU in the state of Washington prepared a short online article, “Free Speech Rights of Teachers in Washington State” (NJ’s ACLU only has a publication about students’ rights) with a related hypothetical:  The teacher is instructed not to discuss personal opinions on political matters with students.  In a classroom discussion on racial issues in America, the teacher tells the class that he/she has recently participated in a Black Lives Matter demonstration.  Revealing this is the same as giving an opinion and may not be protected speech. Teachers can be disciplined for departing from the curriculum adopted by the school district and this would be a departure.

Can a teacher state that New Jersey is a segregated state when it comes to communities? Is the teacher stating this as a personal opinion or as a fact related to a topic of learning? There is no reason to simply state that NJ is segregated unless it is in the context of helping students understand and appreciate the history of segregation in NJ consistent with state standards and district curriculum. (For example, see “Land Use in NJ” and “School Desegregation and School Finance in NJ” for history, context and facts at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html).

Is a teacher permitted to take a stand on the issue of removing public monuments? Assuming that this is part of a current events lesson, it would be better if the teacher remained neutral and let the students’ voice differing views. If the students all have one position, perhaps the teacher can take a position as “devil’s advocate,” but it should be made clear that this is what the teacher is doing.

Can a teacher assign blame to protests to specific groups or left or right extremist groups? Assigning blame is the same as a teacher giving his or her personal opinion. The better approach would be to have students look at the actions of specific groups and determine their appropriateness.

Can a teacher assign blame to Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett regarding a Supreme Court decision that is 5-4 and against the teacher’s preference (i.e. Affordable Care Act, marriage, etc.).  Assuming that this is part of a classroom lesson about the Supreme Court, the teacher should refrain from “assigning blame” because this is expressing his or her opinion, but should instead let the students consider the reasoning and impact of the decisions.

Is a teacher permitted to criticize or defend the government’s policies or actions on immigration? Outside the classroom, a teacher has a first amendment right to express his or her views on public issues. As part of a classroom lesson about immigration, rather than criticizing or defending the government’s policies or actions on immigration, the better approach would be to present or let students research the history of immigration policy and its impact and let the students discuss and draw their own conclusions (For example, see “Immigration Policy and its impact on NJ” at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html).

Can a teacher show a video clip from a specific news station (Fox, CNN) or assign students to watch a specific news program as an assignment?  As long as the purpose is not indoctrination to any particular point of view and the assignments are balanced. If the teacher wants students to see and compare various media views on the same topic, that would be a valuable classroom activity. (For example, see “Educating for Informed, Engaged Citizens” virtual workshop, for background on helping students understand bias in news, at the New Jersey Council for the Social Studies website at http://www.njcss.org/;  also see Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at https://www.choices.edu/teaching-with-the-news/;   and Constitutional Rights Foundation Fake News at https://www.crf-usa.org/images/pdf/challenge/Understanding-Fake-News1.pdf and https://www.crfusa.org/images/pdf/challenge/Tackling-Fake-News.pdf).

Conclusions

A teacher has a personal right under the First Amendment to share his view on public policy issues in public but NOT in the classroom.  A teacher sharing his opinion or viewpoint in the classroom may be seen as indoctrination. So, for example, teachers should avoid sharing personal views on one’s sexual preference, regarding a particular candidate, President Trump’s taxes, a decision by a Grand Jury, prosecutor, FBI on racial issues, etc. Your school district may even have an explicit policy that teachers should not discuss personal views on political matters in the classroom, in which case, this policy should be followed.  Everything a teacher says or does in the classroom should be considered based on the possible impact on the students.

This does not mean that teachers should avoid having students examine and discuss controversial topics. Encouraging the development of civic skills and attitudes among young people has been an important goal of education since the start of the country.  Schools are communities in which young people learn to interact, argue, and work together with others, an important foundation for future citizenship.  Since the purpose of social education is to prepare students for participation in a pluralist democracy, social studies classes NEED to address controversial issues.  Teachers have the right and the responsibility to help their students understand controversial topics and to develop critical thinking skills.  However, the controversial topics should relate to the broad scope of subjects included in the NJ Student Learning Standards and the local school district curriculum.  And controversial subjects should be addressed in a neutral or balanced manner, without any effort to indoctrinate students, but rather to help them develop the knowledge and skills they will need as workers, parents and citizens in a democratic society.

Background Materials

Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390 (1923)

West Virginia Board of Education v. Barnett, 319 U.S. 624 (1943)

Adler v. Board of Education, 342 U.S. 485 (1952)

Shelton v. Tucker, 364 U.S. 479 (1960)

Cramp v. Board of Public Instruction, 368 U.S. 278 (1961)

Baggett v. Bullitt, 377 U.S. 360(1964)

Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)

Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968)

Epperson v. Arkansas, 393 U.S. 97 (1968)

Mt. Healthy City School District Board of Education v. Doyle, 429 U.S. 274 (1977)

Connick v. Meyers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983)

Kirkland v. Northside Independent School District, 890 F.2d 694 (5th Cir. 1989), cert. denied (1990)

Bradley v. Pittsburgh Bd. of Educ., 910 F.2d 1172 (3d Cir.1990)

Boring v. Buncombe County Board of Education, 136 F.3d 364 (4th Cir. 1998)

Edwards v. California University of Pennsylvania, 156 F.3d 488 (3rd Cir. 1998), cert. denied, 525 U.S. 1143 (1999)

Ali v. Woodbridge Twp. School District, 957 F.3d 174 (3rd Cir. April 22, 2020)

Keith Barton and Linda Levstik, Teaching History for the Common Good (Erlbaum, 2004)

Diana E. Hess, Controversy in the Classroom: The Democratic Power of Discussion (New York: Routledge, 2009)

Nel Noddings and Laurie Brooks, Teaching Controversial Issues: The Case for Critical Thinking and Moral Commitment in the Classroom (New York:  Teacher’s College Press, 2017).

William W. Van Alstyne, “Academic Freedom and the First Amendment in the Supreme Court of the United States:

An Unhurried Historical Review,” 53 Law and Contemp. Probs. 79 (1990)

ACLU-Washington at https://www.aclu-wa.org/docs/free-speech-rights-public-school-teachers-washington-state

American Association of University Professors, “Academic Freedom of Professors and Institutions,” (2002) at https://www.aaup.org/issues/academic-freedom/professors-and-institutions

Center for Research on Instruction and Teaching, University of Michigan at https://crlt.umich.edu/tstrategies/tsd

Choices Program at Brown University: Teaching with the News at https://www.choices.edu/teaching-with-thenews/

Constitutional Rights Foundation at https://www.crf-usa.org/

EdSurge at https://www.edsurge.com/news/2018-01-17-why-we-need-controversy-in-our-classrooms

Facing History at https://www.facinghistory.org/educator-resources

Find Law at https://www.findlaw.com/education/teachers-rights/teachers-different-freedoms-and-rightsarticle.html

Forbes at https://www.forbes.com/sites/jessicabohrer/2020/09/14/teaching-children-about-freedom-ofspeech/#25cb6ff07101

John Goodlad, “Fulfilling the Public Purpose of Schooling: Educating the Young in Support of Democracy May Be Leadership’s Highest Calling,” School Administrator, v61 n5 p14 May 2004.

Jonathan Gould, Kathleen Hall Jamieson, Peter Levine, Ted McConnell, and David B. Smith, eds. “Guardian of

Democracy: The Civic Mission of Schools, Philadelphia: Annenberg Public Policy Center, 2011

Amanda Litvinov, “Forgotten Purpose: Civic Education in Public Schools, NEA Today, Mar 16, 2017 at https://www.nea.org/advocating-for-change/new-from-nea/forgotten-purpose-civics-education-publicschools#

New Jersey Center for Civic Education (New Jersey lessons) at http://civiced.rutgers.edu/njlessons.html

New Jersey Law Journal at https://www.law.com/njlawjournal/2020/06/28/as-woodbridge-teachers-case-showsfacts-do-matter/?slreturn=20200929134110

New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association at http://www.njpsa.org/documents/pdf/lawprimer_FirstAmendment.pdf

Phi Delta Kappa, “Do you have the right to be an Advocate?, at https://kappanonline.org/underwood-schooldistricts-control-teachers-classroom-speech/

Poorvu Center, Yale University at https://poorvucenter.yale.edu/teaching/ideas-teaching/teaching-controversialtopics

Teaching Tolerance at https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/publications/civil-discourse-in-theclassroom/chapter-4-teaching-controversy

Texas Association of School Boards at https://www.tasb.org/services/legal-services/tasb-school-lawesource/personnel/documents/employee_free_speech_rights.aspx

The First Amendment Encyclopedia at https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/973/rights-of-teachers U.S. Civil Liberties at https://uscivilliberties.org/themes/4571-teacher-speech-in-public-schools.html

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

Academic Freedom: Are American Teachers Free? Should They Be?

James K. Daly

In 1936 Howard Beale asked if American teachers were free. It is a question that still resonates today. The issue is entangled in the complex and ever-changing world of educational policy, political pressures, and cultural tensions. A second question to Beales earlier one could very well ask, should they be? What does it mean for teachers to be free? How do cultural expectations impact on what schools, communities, and larger groups perceive as appropriate for examination in public schools?

Many suggest topics, issues, and claims to truth should not be examined at all. Those who know the truth often feel compelled to teach it. Educational orthodoxy, whether of the political Left or the political Right, can silence opposing views, materials, attention. There is a long history of efforts to suppress perspectives. Legislation in many states has institutionalized restrictions on viewpoints, and textbook publishers have complied. Practitioners supporting the status quo, or the work of activist special interest groups have also contributed to censoring views (Jenkinson, 1979, 1985; O’Neil, 1984; Parker and Weiss 1983; Merry, 2009; Fallace, 2011; Hill, 2020, Nelson, 2021).

The essentiality of critical thinking

Critical thinking is regularly cited as an essential skill for preparing the young to succeed in the 21st century. The NCSS C3 framework identifies critical thinking as a key element in developing engagement and participation among citizens (NCSS 2013). Nelson et al. (2021) cite critical thinking as among the most important issues in schools.

Scholars have long stressed the need for schools to move away from indoctrination, the antithesis of critical thinking. Social studies is where young people must examine conflicts in beliefs and values (Hunt & Metcalf, 1955). Any belief not carefully examined is by definition a prejudice. Oliver and Shaver (1966) assert that the ability to choose on issues of public importance depends on awareness of alternatives. Schools must not just tolerate but encourage the examination of these alternatives. To accomplish this critical thinking is essential.

Critical thinking in schools allows individuals to scrutinize information and claims to truth. Learners explore what can be demonstrated, proved, and accepted using the best available information. Views are challenged, defended, discarded, or temporarily accepted. Learners recognize that acceptance of truth may well be tentative, pending additional knowledge (Pinker 2018).

Critical thinking skills are essential to examining topics on which society is divided (Nelson, 2021a). They protect against propaganda and conspiracy theories. Without these students are simply told what is correct, and which views are to be accepted. Recent years show the danger of this.  In a world of rapid fire media proclaiming new truths throughout the day, with little or poorly supported evidence, students can be ignorant of their own ignorance. This may be welcomed by any number of special interest groups but is anathema to maintaining democracy. 

Critical thinking takes a great deal of time. It requires considerable financial and other resources, from purchasing tools and materials to providing professional development opportunities. The amount of energy needed to do this in a field not easily measured is a challenge (Nelson et al., 2021).

Critical thinking and critical issues

Can critical thinking be promoted when only one or a narrow range of similar views are explored? Can critical thinking be developed for transfer to authentic settings if current critical issues are not examined? Traditionally many ‘givens’ are found both in the formal and the hidden curriculum. They are drawn from the dominant political and cultural perspectives reflecting the larger community. Scholars have consistently asserted that discussing controversy is essential in a diverse democratic society. Critical thinking needs to be about issues that in themselves are critical, with many and competing views. Critical thinking helps students explore different outlooks, and constructively consider consequences of alternative views. Ettinger (2004) refers to this a “constructive harnessing of conflict”. Conflict can be embraced as offering opportunities for exchanging information, evidence, and making tentative conclusions on actions.

Barton and Levstik (2004) state that the aim of history education, and indeed for social studies, is preparing the young to act. Actions and consequences of historic challenges can be scaffolded to frame current day issues. They cite Newman (1975) and his call for intelligent action, the ability to use knowledge and skills to develop a commitment for addressing social problems. The context in which critical thinking skills evolve is pivotal. Barton and Levstik mention Parker and others in advancing the need for the young to understand and experience participatory democracy. Students need to be taught, and practice critical thinking skills on topics where disagreements are analyzed.  They refer to McCully (2002) suggesting that just working on critical thinking skills may not help in examining current divisive topics. Building critical thinking skills without an exploration of authentic current issues may fall far short of what is needed.

Claims to truth need to be analyzed, with critical thinking skills scaffolded, enhanced, and regularly practiced. These skills support conflict resolution strategies, utilizing active listening and clear communication (Katz, 2020). This reinforces what Lortie (1975) referred to as the apprenticeship of observation. Learners routinely experience situations in which these skills are refined and improved. They grapple with different views and competing sources of evidence. The routine and expected school experience would demonstrate a respectful appreciation of diverse views. The hidden curriculum would be supportive of the intellectual work of considering conflicting opinions. The norm would be examining issues in practiced and familiar patterns, respectful of opinions, while accepting disagreement on conclusions. Democratic principles and foundational documents along with Human Rights concepts need to provide the context in which critical thinking evolves. Examining how well these principles, documents and concepts have demonstrated themselves over time provides framing for analyzing current issues.

The need to address critical thinking skills, and the need to do so when addressing current controversial topics puts the teacher at the center of public scrutiny. It is in the larger public arena that controversy is housed, and from which it enters classrooms.

The preponderance of scholarship supports dealing with controversy. Schools must offer individuals opportunity to escape the limitations of the group into which they were born (Dewey, 1916). Schools should create awareness of the larger society. Few other institutions can guide an analysis of past events, an exploration of current considerations, with a focus on the future. 

In a nation as diverse as ours, and in the current political and cultural climate, controversy enters schools and classrooms. The interactions between teachers, administrators, professional organizations, and the public are fraught with complex and often contradictory expectations. Sustaining a democratic republic in this context requires citizens who can examine topics on which there is disagreement (Lynd, 1939; Selakovich, 1967; Newman and Oliver, 1970; Shermis and Barth, 1979; Berlak, 1977; O’Neil, R.M.,1981); Apple, 1982; Besag and Nelson, 1984; Engle and Ochoa, (1986); Daly, et al., 2001; Underwood, 2017; Nelson 2021a).

Are American teachers free?

Teachers appear to be willing to address controversy but often don’t because of concerns about the consequences (Byford, 2009). Nelson (1992) writes that many report they have academic freedom. However, when questioned about teaching specific issues, a typical response was that they were too controversial to teach. Teacher belief in their ability to address controversy does necessarily translate to their doing do (Daly, 1986; Mitchell, Evans, Daly, & Roach, 1997; Misco and Patterson 2007). Patterson (2010) reveals that while 98% of teachers in one study reported they had academic freedom (of varying degrees), over 93% indicated limits to what can be taught. Some of those restrictions might be called self-censorship. Limitations included barriers raised (or anticipated) from community members, administrators, and students. Girard and Harris (2021) describe that teachers in one study found it easy to add topics and issues to provide a more inclusive view. However, they were unwilling to examine contemporary society and power relationships. The local commuity was cited as a significant influence on what teachers address.  In an Education Week article considerable percentages of teachers disclosed they avoided teaching many topics (Pendharkar, 2021). 

Potential Sources supporting teacher freedom

Decisions made by practitioners have consequences for what is taught and how it is taught. State curriculum standards impact those decisions. An analysis of state standards for History indicated clear and opaque support for teacher decision making and selection in many states (Girard and Harris, 2020). The impact on teacher freedom ranged from rigid specificity to almost limitless choice for teachers. Standards may well support considerable freedom in many states; however, more is needed.

Academic Freedom is a philosophical framework buttressing teacher freedom. There are legal decisions that help uphold it. Philosophical views without more compelling legal support cannot be relied upon. They can and should be used to engage educators and communities in discussions on exploring difficult topics. Language supporting academic freedom needs to be in district policy manuals and guides. Hess (2009) reminds us that controversy is a socially constructed phenomenon. She recognizes that the public has a right to have an influence on what is taught in the schools. Engaged and systematic review of the need for, the limits on, and the student benefits of academic freedom need to be promoted. While the specific topics may change, controversy is a given.  Underwood (2017) recognizes that many who would restrict teacher freedom fear indoctrination. They feel left out of curriculum discussions, unaware of pedagogical strategies, and suspicious of views other than their own. Discussions on the nature and purpose of academic freedom may ease that fear.

Academic freedom

The National Council for the Social Studies advocates teacher freedom. The organization issued Position Statements on Academic Freedom in 1969, revised in 2007 (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010).  The most recent maintains that teachers should be free to create settings that foster democratic processes (Social Education, 2016)). Academic Freedom for teachers is necessary to create citizens aware of contentious issues and positions on them. Students need to examine factual claims, discuss competing perspectives, investigate, and analyze topics of concern. This promotes understanding of the relationship between past and present, providing skills and dispositions for grasping local, national, and global views. Truth is difficult to discover and claims to it need to be thoughtfully considered.

Affirming academic freedom is important, as it informs educators and the larger community of its twin features. Academic freedom is not just a concept addressing the teacher, but one focused on the student (Hofstadter and Metzger (1968). Emerging from early German universities, the right of the student to learn was essential. The student was free to explore ideas and not simply compelled to accept all that teachers, text and school presented.

Reassuring the public that academic freedom does not promote indoctrination is critical when many believe schools are overtly trying to impose views antithetical to them. Compelling acceptance of views can create a spiral of silence (Noelle-Neumann, 1977; Journell, 2017). Students presented with one perspective, taught by teachers supporting and promoting that perspective, may feel themselves to be in a minority. That perception can lead to silence. Anecdotal evidence suggests that students, and families, know what teachers expect, what outlooks are correct, and often the moral value attached to various views. With academic freedom the constraints of local perspectives are open to be examined in a wider context, but student acceptance or belief in those viewpoints is not required. Those who embrace Academic Freedom recognize it is not a license for teachers to force views on students or to limit the issues examined. The concept is a defense against the imposition of certainty, which seems to be an objective of many along the political continuum.

The role of school boards

School Boards approve curricula, resources, and materials. Board meetings often have limited time for public discussion of issues, let alone providing for discussions and examination of curricula content. Entering the term Teacher Academic Freedom on the National School Boards website had no hits. Under one heading on that site Boards were urged to say no to any Federal intrusion of local decision making authority (School Boards Association, 2021). That would seem to provide support for considerable community influence on what is taught, and how it is taught. In the Advocacy Agenda for 2019-2020 (the only one on the website as of 2/16/22), there does not appear to be much about how to work with communities beyond the traditional interactions. No role for the larger public is evident.

Recently local Boards have addressed concerns about what may inappropriately be referred to as Critical Race Theory. A quick google or YouTube search provides evidence that the issue is one generating considerable conflict, and political action at the local and state level. The many YouTube videos, and anecdotal evidence suggest that school board meetings are not the best time or place for discussion. The very structure of public input at Board meetings seems to add frustration and anger to already potentially confrontational topics. Limited time, and the lack of a structure to permit significant and sustained conversation suggests other approaches need to be explored.

A memo from the FBI Director provides evidence that the anecdotal and social media reports of Board confrontations are accurate. The memo cites a spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school employees and officials. It indicates that the agency will use FBI agents to discourage, identify and prosecute such threats. (Federal Bureau of Investigation, 2021).

What is the role of the larger community? Are they to be relegated to sporadic outbursts on social or traditional media, angry statements at school board meetings? How should public views be identified, shared, and considered. Who decides what is controversial, what gets addressed, and how, or if, opposing views are examined, welcome or tolerated?

Should American teachers be free?

American teachers should be free to foster citizens who can critically examine current controversial topics that divide the society. There is a need to protect the right of the student to learn. Teacher freedom brings responsibilities. There is a responsibility to ensure that practitioners and those preparing to practice are knowledgeable about the need for such freedom. There is a responsibility for practitioners to be open to guidance in planning, teaching, and assessing when focused on controversy. Administrators and Boards need to support teachers engaged in this work. They have a responsibility to create environments in which teachers work with colleagues, administrators, and the larger public to build support for addressing controversy. There are too few fora in which such conversation occurs. Those promoting teacher freedom and the right of students to learn beyond indoctrination need to work with school board members and the school community. Together those in schools must actively seek to find opportunities to have difficult conversations about the need for teacher and student freedom.

Preparing teachers for these challenges

Those planning to teach must understand the nature of academic freedom, recognize the need for dealing with controversial issues, and their relationship to citizenship education. Research on teacher preparation in this effort is mixed. Misco and Patterson (2007) report that teacher education candidates understand the concept of academic freedom but believe that it offers only limited protection. Some revealed they would not exercise those freedoms for several reasons, including fear of reprisals. Uncertainty about how to properly deal with controversy led to a deference to community preferences. The majority were aware of constraints on what and how issues could be addressed.

Even after completing a social studies methods course, participants in a study by Nganga et al. (2020) displayed limited awareness and understanding of teaching controversial issues. Most were unwilling or cautious about addressing issues with which they did not feel comfortable, or about which they had little experience. There was acceptance of the need to conform to the views and values dominant in the community (Engebretson, 2018; Hess 2002).

Teacher education programs themselves may not model ways to deal with alternative perspectives. The spiral of silence found in other settings may also be present within these programs (Journell, 2017). Holding conversations and exploring differing perspectives on foundational ideas may not be a priority. There may be ‘single stories’ (Adichie, 2009) in teacher preparation. Divergent views need to be shared and explored.  Doing so would model how to examine differences in the schools in which students will work.

Education programs may be one of many ‘silo’s’ within the university, with their own “silo’s’. Conversation and collaboration between the programs for administrators and other specialists is essential. Counselors, teachers, administrators in training all benefit from examining the nature of controversy, community engagement, and the benefits to teachers and students of academic freedom. There are overlapping interests, and common audiences. This collaboration would help explore ways to engage with the communities in which they already work and those in which they will work.

What needs to be done?

Little in the larger culture provides examples of how people can discuss deeply held and contrary views. The skills of active listening and clear communication need to be practiced examining issues of current importance, even when presented in an historic setting. Students need experience checking the validity of various claims. They need practice within agreed upon ground rules. Time needs to be provided for researching evidence on topics and discussing views. Students require opportunities to analyze issues using various strategies. Students need structure and practice in hearing contrasting views and doing so in respectful ways.

Teachers need to be free to select books, resources, materials, and strategies. This must support the curriculum and be consistent with state standards. Approaches on how to navigate those requirements is needed. Pre-service training and professional development for practitioners needs to be authentic, providing active participation in using various strategies. Routine focus is needed on the rationale for dealing with controversy. Pre-service training needs consistent and collaborative support from professors, clinical field supervisors, cooperating teachers and their administrators. Practitioners need support from colleagues, administrators, and local community members. These groups, committed to democracy, are essential to promoting conversation instead of confrontation on issues of significant disagreement.

References

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Beale, H. K. (1936). Are American teachers free: An analysis of restraints upon the freedom of teaching in American schools. C. Scribner’s Sons. https://doi.org/10.1086/ahr/43.1.177

Berlak, H. (1977). Human consciousness, social criticism, and civic education. In J. P. Shaver (Eds.), Building rationales for citizenship education. Bulletin 52 (pp. 34-47). National Council for the Social Studies.

Besag, F. P., & Nelson, J. L. (1984). The foundations of education: Stasis and change. Random House.

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Daly, J. (1986). Patterns and perceptions of censorship among secondary educators: Censorship in New Jersey Schools [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. Rutgers University.

Daly, J. K., Schall, P. L., & Skeele, R. W. (2001). Protecting the right to teach and learn: Power, politics, and public schools. Teachers College Press.

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Harris, L. M., & Girard, B. (2020). Evaluating the support of teacher choice in state history standards. The History Teacher, 53(4), 613-633.

Hess, D. E. (2009). Controversy in the classroom: The democratic power of discussion. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203878880

Hill, R. (2020). The problem of self-censorship. In A. M. Dawkins (Eds.), Intellectual freedom issues in school libraries (pp. 88-98). Libraries Unlimited

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McCully, A., Nigel Pilgrim, A. S., & McMinn, T. (2002). ‘Don’t worry, Mr. Trimble. We can handle it’ Balancing the rational and the emotional in teaching of contentious topics. Teaching History, 106, 6-12.

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Pendharkar, E. (2021, December 10). You’re not going to teach about race. You’re going to go ahead and keep your job. Education Week. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/youre-not-going-to-teach-about-race-youre-going-to-go-ahead-and-keep-your-job/2021/12

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New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

New York State’s Birthday and First Constitution

Bruce W. Dearstyne

Social studies and history teachers routinely cover the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution in their courses. But every state also has a “birthday” (the day it got started as a state) and its own state constitution. The origins of states and their first constitutions can be very useful teaching tools, adding a new dimension to students’ historical insight and understanding.

New York State is an outstanding example. April 20 is New York’s Birthday! That was the date in 1777 when the Convention of Representatives of the State of New York, an ad hoc group elected the previous year to guide New York’s Revolutionary War efforts and develop its first constitution, finished work on that document.

The story of New York’s first state constitution is a dramatic one. New York had moved from steadfast loyalty to Britain to reluctant rebelling colony to a full-scale push for independence through the actions of three Provincial Congresses, the first elected in 1775, to guide New York in the growing alienation from Britain. The “Convention of Representatives” had been elected the year before as New York’s fourth Provincial Congress. Meeting initially in White Plains, they authorized New York’s representatives to the Continental Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence in early July, then, to keep out of reach of British forces, fled north to Fishkill and finally to Kingston where they completed their work. Along the way, they changed their name from Provincial Congress to Convention of Representatives of the State of New York. 

When they began their work it wasn’t entirely clear just what a “state” was. People knew about colonies/provinces (New York had been one), and nations or nation-states as they were sometimes called (such as Britain). There were few precedents of models to draw on. Other colonies-becoming-states were writing their own first constitutions. The Articles of Confederation, which would link the new states together, was not completed until November 1777. The U.S. Constitution was a decade in the future. The creative New York drafters drew on their own experience in colonial government, their knowledge of European writers on the concepts of natural rights and representative government, and  a few American leading-edge advocates such as Massachusetts’ John Adams. But mostly they drew on their own creativity and improvisation.

The delegates worked in haste and approved the final draft of their document, which still had strikeouts and marginal notes when they signed it. There was no time to make a clean copy before sending the document to the printer. They took a day off but the next day, April 22, the convention’s secretary mounted a flour barrel outside the court house where the group had worked and read it aloud to Kingston citizens.

New York State had in effect proclaimed itself into existence.

The document began by quoting the Declaration of Independence. This connected New York with the other colonies asserting their independence. It stated that the convention acting “in the name and by the authority of the good people of this State doth ordain, determine, and declare that no authority shall on any pretense whatever shall be exercised over the people or members of this State, but such as shall be derived from and granted by them.” In 1777, a document purporting to represent the consensus and will of the people, and their right to govern themselves,  was a startling, radical departure from the past.

The original copy of the first constitution is preserved in the State Archives.   The Archives has provided a scanned version at https://digitalcollections.archives.nysed.gov/index.php/Detail/objects/10485.You can read it online in typed form at the Yale Law School Avalon Project. William A. Polf’s 1777:  The Political Revolution and New York’s First Constitution, also available online, provides a good introduction. It is also described in Peter Galie, Ordered Liberty: A Constitutional History of New York and in my book, The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History.

The 1777 constitution is just over 5000 words in length, It outlined the structure and purposes of state government but did not provide much detail.

It created a two-house legislature — one house, the Assembly, to be more numerous and more broadly representative of the people, and the other, the Senate, to be smaller and more attuned to the interests and property. That basic structure is still in place today.

It declared that “the supreme executive power and authority of this State shall be vested in a governor” who “shall take care that the laws are faithfully executed.” That wording is similar to what exists in the current State Constitution. But the 1777 writers had had enough experience with the King of England and some colonial governors who had over-asserted their power that they hedged the authority of New York State’s governor. Instead of giving the governor veto power over bills passed by the legislature, they created a “Council of Revision” consisting of the governor, chancellor, and judges of the supreme court with veto power. Rather than giving the governor sole appointment power, they vested that in a “Council of Appointment,” consisting of the governor and four senators chosen annually by the Assembly,  to approve all appointments.

The document made only a brief reference the courts; fleshing that out later would require legislative action. Voting rights were restricted to men who met certain property-holding or other requirements.

The Constitution was not very long but it was a sound beginning. Hastily-organized elections were held in the spring and summer. The first legislature assembled in Kingston in September and got to work. The newly-elected governor, General George Clinton, had to await a lull in the fighting to come to Kingston, take the oath office, make  the first gubernatorial address, and then hurry back to lead troops again.

The fledgling government did not have tranquility for long. It had to flee as British troops arrived and assaulted and burned Kingston on October 16. The legislature soon re-assembled in Poughkeepsie and resumed work. By then, patriot forces had defeated British incursions from the west (at Oriskany, August 6), the east (at Bennington, on August 16) and the north (at Saratoga, October 17, a major victory that became the turning point of the Revolution).

1777 turned out to be something of a “miracle year.” New York State was here to stay. The new constitution endured without major changes until 1821.

There are many ways of approaching the use of the first State Constitution in social studies and history courses. Some possibilities:

*It is an inspiring, against-the-odds story. It is a story of people determined to control their own collective affairs through representative government.  At the beginning of 1777, the odds of New York’s success did not seem great. By the end of the year, New had written a constitution, established a government, held elections, fended off invasions from three directions, and survived invasion and destruction of its capital.

*It represented compromise and consensus. The writers had a number of disagreements and varying viewpoints and perspectives going into the process. But along the way they put aside their differences, compromised, and came together to develop a consensus document. That process is worthy of study now, when too often it seems difficult to reach agreement on divisive political issues.

*It was successful, flexible, and enduring. The first constitution proved to be a viable framework for years when New York grew remarkably fast. Even when the first major revisions came in 1821, the structural changes were relatively modest. The revisions abolished the Council of Revision and the Council of Appointment and replaced them with procedures more similar to what we have today.

*It left important work undone. The convention discussed abolishing the horrible practice of slavery but in the end it did not. That had to await legislation in 1799 and slavery was not formally abolished until 1827. Restrictions on men’s voting rights were gradually abolished in ensuing decades. Women finally got the right to vote in 1917. The constitution had no bill of rights other than protection of freedom of religion. The legislature enacted a bill of rights in 1787 and they were embodied in the 1821 constitutional revision. Since then, the constitution has been revised, updated, changed, and amended many times. That is a reminder that constitutions are subject to update and change over time, with voters’ approval.

*It was influential. The New York constitution includes some of the principles that were embodied in the U.S. Constitution a decade later, 1787. New York led the way in a sense. That is not surprising because New York patriot Gouverneur Morris was one of the principal writers of the New York document and a decade later, then a delegate to the Constitutional Convention from Pennsylvania, he was also one of the writers of the U.S. Constitution.

*It is a source for teaching about self-government, constitutional law, and civic responsibilities. The constitution could be a source for deepening students’ understanding of self-government and their roles and  responsibilities as citizens. Educating for American Democracy , a recent report on civics education, notes that students need more study of “the social, political, and institutional history of the United States in its founding era, as well as the theoretical underpinnings of our constitutional design. The state constitutions and the federal 1787 Constitution, as amended, form diverse peoples and places into an American people: one overarching political community.”

An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in NewJersey as Part of Local History

An Educator’s Perspective on Teaching the Voices of Enslaved People in New
Jersey as Part of Local History

by Robert Fenster

Few high school history textbooks have much to say about Black people in the northern colonies and states. While coverage of the evils of slavery has dramatically increased since I was a student in the 1980s, the focus has predominantly been on enslaved people in the south and not enslaved northerners nor free Black people. Slavery is mentioned 14 times in the New Jersey Student Learnings Standards from 2020, but the only connection to slavery in New Jersey is 6.1.8.History CC.4.a: “Explain the growing resistance to slavery and New Jersey’s role in the Underground Railroad.”[1] The standard implies that New Jersey was a hotbed of abolitionism instead of the dark reality: the gradual abolition law in 1804 maintained slavery for life for those born before its passage[2], and the so-called Act to Abolish Slavery in 1846 replaced slavery with apprenticeship for life. The ratification of the 13th Amendment didn’t merely free the slaves in states that were in rebellion, but also 16 people who remained enslaved in New Jersey in December of 1865.[3]

            Is it at all surprising that most students graduate high school in New Jersey unaware of the enduring nature of this institution or the experience of Blacks in the north? Although it might be argued that malignant forces are behind a whitewashing of New Jersey history, it seems more likely that a collective reductionism is at work here. There are only so many days to “cover” the curriculum, so some simplification is necessary. It’s easier for students to understand the binary depiction of the southern enslaver states being evil while the north is celebrated as the home of abolition. That sort of teaching is oversimplified and not only does injustice to actual history, but to the lives of thousands of men and women who were enslaved in New Jersey, as well as the lives of free Black people. This essay shares my ongoing pedagogical journey, and provides some suggestions for my fellow educators who wish to improve student understanding of the history of Black people in New Jersey.

Although modern textbooks include the death of biracial Crispus Attucks at the Boston Massacre, overall Black participation in the actual American Revolution is typically relegated to a sidebar or absent altogether. Graham Russell Hodges describes the American Revolution as a Black revolution, “the largest slave revolt before the Civil War.” Hodges indicates there is documentation for at least 18,000 Black individuals who fought for the British, with the possibility of tens of thousands more having served in an effort to throw off the oppressive shackles of the colonial governments.[4]

            At a week-long National Endowment for the Humanities seminar on Slavery in the Colonial North in 2020 at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, New York run by Leslie Harris and Jacqueline Simmons, I saw the buildings where enslaved people toiled, and heard from expert tour guides who shared how historians pieced together so much of the history of the manor. It inspired me to focus more on slavery in New Jersey. I went to my county clerk’s office and found birth certificates and manumission records of enslaved people from our town and prepared a lesson plan incorporating these primary sources. My students were taken aback especially to see names familiar to them among the enslavers. In addition to discussing how the descendants of the enslaved people might feel about their history, the students also considered what the descendants of enslavers might think about their family’s past. That lesson in and of itself was impactful, but I was acutely aware it didn’t do enough to explore the lives of enslaved men and women.

            Well-intentioned teachers sometimes make cringe-worthy mistakes. There are lessons I did early in my career (and, truth be told, even more recently) that were tone deaf at best. It seems as if every year there’s another incident where a misguided teacher somewhere in the United States steps knee deep into controversy by running a slavery simulation. The vast majority of teachers know such a lesson has no pedagogical value and runs the risk of inducing trauma. A cursory search for lesson plans online still finds dozens of “walk a mile in their shoes” lessons, where educators think they can responsibly and effectively get students to learn by pretending they understand what an enslaved person went through, usually done through some kind of journaling activity. Although I believe it can be useful to consider what enslaved people might have been feeling, it’s ultimately presumptuous and reductive to suggest students would be able to have that level of empathy and understanding. The temptation to work solely in the affective domain when dealing with slavery and other atrocities should be resisted.

            Many enslaved people were actively prevented from learning how to write, creating a dearth of first-person documents in comparison to white contemporaries who kept journals and wrote letters. There are a number of insightful enslaved person narratives, but when trying to keep to New Jersey history it is a bit challenging. There are a handful of narratives written by white contemporaries, like William Allinson’s Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist. Although Allinson is an abolitionist, he uses his subject as a prop to further his political cause rather than illuminate the individual he is writing about. This focus belies an utter lack of interest in the enslaved person’s internal life and somewhat limits the usefulness of the text.[5] Historians are left to construct meaning out of other resources like fugitive notices, laws, tax registers, censuses, travel logs, registers of free Black people, and manumission records. New Jersey has a fairly robust set of available documents, making the work of historians easier than in several neighboring states.[6]

My evolving goal as a history teacher is three-fold: depict enslaved people as complex individuals who exercised their agency in a variety of ways, examine the ugly reality of slavery in our town, county, and state, and empower students to become historians themselves by examining the wealth of resources available to them on local history.

# # #

The study of agency is absolutely essential to shift student understanding from a one-dimensional conception of hapless victims to recognizing the humanity and complexity of individuals. Enslaved people’s agency was exhibited on a daily basis in a wide variety of ways. When students would ask me “Why didn’t they fight back?” I used to foolishly accept their premise and engage in a conversation about weaponry, psychology, and geography. Although those are all worthy of examination in a larger conversation on the subject, the fact is they fought back in innumerable ways. Agency was exhibited through armed revolt, breaking equipment, arson, working slowly or poorly, poisoning, feigning illness, self-harm, self-liberation, negotiation, and the development of an enslaved culture through language, families, community, religion, and music.

Jigsaw lesson plans are best used when the specific content is less important than the larger concepts. Examining the organized rebellions of enslaved people is an excellent opportunity to use this approach to its maximum efficacy. Students can research the Stono Rebellion, the New York Conspiracy of 1741, Gabriel’s Conspiracy, the German Coast Uprising, and Nat Turner’s Rebellion, for example. I have my students identify key figures, provide a description of the events, and then require them to find a way to frame the event as a successful endeavor. Students, of course, recognize the limits to their success, but by going beyond the reductionism of “Were they emancipated as a result of their rebellion?” it provides a key lesson.

Incidents of self-harm present a challenge to educators. We want students to understand the lengths to which enslaved people would go to assert their agency, but want to be careful about triggering existing trauma on the subject of self-harm. I’m still grappling with how much focus to put on the subject, but have used some narratives of enslaved people and newspaper articles to at least touch on the subject, if not dwell on it. The National Humanities Center has a collection of suicide-related items for teachers to consider using in their curriculum.[7] There are also an array of primary and secondary accounts of self-mutilation, such as the report of the “Desperate Negro Woman” in the Staunton Vindicator who “deliberately cut three of her fingers off, taking two licks at them” with an axe.[8] Needless to say, educators should tread lightly in this area, keeping a keen eye out for the reactions of their students.

Small acts of sabotage are more challenging to document as they likely would be chalked up to accidents or the natural wear and tear on equipment when tools would break. I don’t use any primary sources for this, but there are quite a few descriptions in narratives of enslaved people describing particular incidents that occurred prior to their emancipation. More dramatic forms of resistance like arson tend to capture students’ imagination such as the Albany fires of 1793.[9]

We used to speak of “runaway slaves,” but both terms have undergone a transition for similar reasons. As Katy Waldman pointed out, “To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation.”[10] Similarly, Daina Ramey Berry writes about the self-liberated: “[T]heir emancipation reflected a level of agency—a public showing of their personhood—and for them, escape was not a crime.”[11] Students can benefit by examining enslavers’ advertisements about the self-liberated which reveal so much about their assumptions and beliefs about their “property,” and often unintentionally expose the skills and accomplishments of the individuals in question.[12]

Giles Wright wrote that the American Revolution was “the cultural metamorphosis of Africans into African Americans.”[13] However, students rarely consider the creation of a common culture to be a form of resistance without being led to that conclusion.  I’m still working on developing plans to help students see enslaved people as something more than one-dimensional figures. I found the Historic Hudson Valley’s People Not Property interactive website particularly useful in helping students make the connection.[14] Modules on the poetry of Phylis Wheatley, the celebration of Pinkster, and the role of extralegal marriages help students better understand how oppressed people can offer resistance through assertions of their own humanity. It helps students understand that these individuals were not passive victims who allowed their oppressors to defeat them at every turn.

# # #

            When I was given the opportunity to participate in the New Jersey Council For Social Studies grant “Telling our Story: Living in New Jersey in the 1770s” focusing on the lives of lesser known individuals during the American Revolution, I knew from the outset I wanted to research Black people from Somerset County, and ideally, from Hillsborough, the town I teach in. I’d read Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills’ powerful book If These Stones Could Talk. The Revolutionary War service of William Stives gets particular attention along with his decision to settle near Hillsborough after the war.[15] The Sourland Mountain ridge runs 17 miles from Lambertville to the western end of Hillsborough, so my students would recognize various geographic locations from his life story. However, since the authors’ work had gained significant attention, I wasn’t sure my focusing on his life would do much to elevate Stives’ story.

            I spent several afternoons at the Somerset County Library in Bridgewater, poring over their local history holdings. Having never done much in the way of local history research, it took awhile to orient myself as to what was available, but before long I encountered a number of promising leads. The most significant came from the Somerset County Historical Quarterly, an outstanding publication compiling historical essays and primary source documents, which ran from 1912 to 1919. It was all I could do not to get lost reading unrelated articles about Hillsborough and nearby towns. However, the article entitled “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave” in the 1914 edition utterly captivated me.[16] The story of an enslaved man named Samuel who served as a substitute for his enslaver in exchange for the promise of freedom takes several awful, though not surprising twists. Samuel’s two years of service, including fighting at the battles of Long Island, Princeton, Monmouth — and the very local Millstone — ended in two leg wounds and the broken promise of his enslaver. Decades later, in his mid-80s, Samuel sought a pension for his service, but was repeatedly denied his just due because the pensions board claimed he had not proven his service. Ultimately, the New Jersey legislature passed a law specific to Samuel, providing him $50 a year for the remaining few years of his life.

            Chasing down information on Samuel Sutphen (as he came to be called later in his life) was both challenging and invigorating. It’s been decades since I was a college student doing research in the basement of Alexander Library at Rutgers University. I had hoped to revisit the same location for both nostalgic and practical reasons (the holdings at Rutgers are quite impressive), but Hurricane Ida made that an impossibility. Instead I relied mostly on internet-based research and was able to gain enough materials to prepare a structured academic controversy for my students. The activity incorporated materials on the multiracial Marbleheaders, and Black participants Benjamin Whitecuff, Colonel Tye, and Prime. Frankly it is a work in progress in need of development, but my students saw the breadth of Black participation in the war instead of merely seeing the battles through the eyes of the white officers.

            When I mentioned my desire to learn about enslaved people in Hillsborough, I was pointed towards the biography of Silvia Dubois, a formerly enslaved woman who received her freedom after a physical altercation with her enslaver. Dubois self-liberated after the encounter and negotiated her freedom in exchange for promising never to return.[17] Her story is remarkable, but chronologically was outside the purview of the grant. Nonetheless I read a series of items about her story and took notes for a future lesson plan. In the meantime, I encountered an article about her grandfather Harry Compton written by Kenneth E. Marshall. In turn, this led me to Marshall’s book Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth Century New Jersey, in which he focuses on the lives of three enslaved men, including the aforementioned Quamino Buccau. I liked the idea of examining a second Black man from the time period who had not served, but instead experienced changing circumstances during the American Revolution. With many enslavers off serving in the militia or Continental Army, numerous enslaved people used the opportunity to liberate themselves, negotiate better conditions for themselves, or rebel in other ways.

            In examining the experiences of various individuals based on limited and sometimes questionable documentation, it is crucial that students understand that there are limits to what we can definitively know. Many students struggle with history because they struggle with nuance, wanting everything to be crystal clear. For me, the shades of grey are what make history fascinating, and the use of deductive reasoning a great and wonderful challenge. The best conversations in the classroom are the ones where students have honest disagreements about historical interpretations with equally compelling logical arguments to support their positions. What we can do to help them is to identify particular facts and events that serve as anchors. Quamino Buccau, in his teens, was forced to watch executions of enslaved people accused of arson and other crimes.[18] Because Allinson never bothered to ask his subject how he felt about his experiences, we are left to speculate about how such experiences would impact an individual and their subsequent behavior. When he converts to Christianity after hearing what he believed to be the voice of God, a fascinating dichotomy occurs. Some, like Allinson, hold him up to be a model enslaved person, the very proof the abolitionist is seeking to demonstrate the notion that Black people could become responsible citizens imbued by their faith in religion. His subsequent enslaver, however, looked at his religiosity as something inappropriate and suspect. Kenneth Marshall raises fascinating questions about how an enslaved person might show interest in Christianity to curry favor with their enslaver, and how that in and of itself might be an assertion of agency.[19] There’s a lot to unpack here and it may be something that cannot be easily converted into a one- or two-day lesson plan. That being said, a discussion of religion and agency is definitely important in the coverage of slavery.

            Conducting this type of research and lesson planning is simultaneously rewarding and humbling. Even as I create a useful lesson plan that I will share with other educators and likely use for the rest of my career, I reflect on how many years I didn’t adequately address the subject matter in my classes. And I recognize that despite including them in the opening paragraphs of the essay, I have yet to develop resources and lessons on the lives of free Blacks in New Jersey. There is always more work to do, but at least we’re going in the right direction.

# # #

We want our students to be more than passive receptacles of knowledge that we distill. There are myriad critical thinking activities we can provide, but perhaps nothing could surpass doing the actual work of historians. There are thousands of primary and secondary source documents available online, in historical society archives, and in government offices. For example, in West Hartford, Connecticut, students participated in the Witness Stones Project, researching their town’s sordid history in connection to slavery. Beginning with an Advanced Placement US History class and then spreading out to lower grade levels, students dug into historical archives to learn more about the lives of enslaved people, commemorate their lives, and create lasting tributes through the placement of historical markers.[20] Although Covid-19 continues to present obstacles for some research, there’s no reason that our students here in New Jersey can’t start doing similar work to the West Hartford students in an effort to elevate the stories and voices of forgotten people from our local communities.

References


[1]New Jersey Student Learning Standards – Social Studies, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.state.nj.us/education/cccs/2020/2020%20NJSLS-SS.pdf.

[2]An Act For the Gradual Abolition of Slavery (1804), accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.loc.gov/resource/rbpe.0990100b/?sp=1; Selected New Jersey Laws related to slavery and Free People of Color, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.montclair.edu/anthropology/wp-content/uploads/sites/36/2021/06/Slavery-in-New-Jersey-Literature-Review-Appendix-B-Slave-Codes_Remediated.pdf

[3] Julia Martin, “Slavery’s legacy is written all over North Jersey, if you know where to look,” NorthJersey.com, accessed January 8, 2022, https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/essex/montclair/2021/02/28/american-dream-paramus-nj-part-north-jersey-slavery-legacy/4212248001. In addition, the work of James J. Gigantino Jr. provides extensive resources on this subject.

[4] Hodges, Graham Russell. Interview with the author. Bob’s Just Asking podcast, January 27, 2022.

[5]Kenneth E. Marshall, Manhood Enslaved: Bondmen in Eighteenth- and Early Nineteenth-Century New Jersey (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 18

[6] Hodges Interview.

[7]National Humanities Center, “Suicide among Slaves: A “Very Last Resort,” accessed February 5, 2022, http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/pds/maai/emancipation/text2/suicide.pdf.

[8]PBS, Slavery and the Making of America, “Responses to Enslavement,” accessed February 5, 2022,  https://www.thirteen.org/wnet/slavery/experience/responses/docs8.html

[9]New York State Education Department, “The Conflagration of 1793,” accessed February 5, 2022, https://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov//albany/doc/fire1793.html

[10] Katy Waldman, “Slave or Enslaved Person? It’s not just an academic debate for historians of American slavery,” Slate, May 19, 2015, https://slate.com/human-interest/2015/05/historians-debate-whether-to-use-the-term-slave-or-enslaved-person.html.

[11] Daina Ramey Berry, “The Truth About Black Freedom,” The Atlantic, June 18, 2021, https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2021/06/what-freedom-really-meant-juneteenth/619239.

[12]Arlene Balkansaky, “Runaway! Fugitive Slave Ads in Newspapers,” Library of Congress, accessed February 5, 2022,  https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/10/runaway-fugitive-slave-ads-in-newspapers/

[13] Giles Wright, “Moving Toward Breaking the Chains: Black New Jerseyans and the American Revolution,” in New Jersey in the American Revolution, ed. Barbara J. Mitnick (New Brunswick, NJ, Rivergate Books, 2005), 113.

[14]Historic Hudson Valley, “People Not Property: Stories of Slavery int he Colonial North,” accessed February 6, 2022, https://peoplenotproperty.hudsonvalley.org.

[15] Elaine Buck and Beverly Mills, If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell VAlley, Sourland Mountain, and Surrounding Regions of New Jersey, (Lambertville, NJ, Wild River Books, 2018).

[16] Abraham Van Doren, “Revolutionary War Record of a Somerset County Slave,” Somerset County Historical Society, Volume III (1914), accessed February 6, 2022, http://hdl.handle.net/10929/46268.

[17] Greg Gillette, “The View From Hillsborough: Silvia Dubois,” My Central Jersey, February 4, 2016, https://www.mycentraljersey.com/story/news/local/view-from-hillsborough/2017/02/07/silvia-dubois/97586960.

[18] William Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist, accessed February 6, 2022, https://docsouth.unc.edu/neh/allinson/allinson.html, 4-5.

[19] Marshall, 100.

[20] Witness Stones Project: Students Find and Share an Untold History of the Enslaved People of West Hartford, accessed February 6, 2022, https://we-ha.com/witness-stones-project-students-find-and-share-an-untold-history-of-the-enslaved-people-of-west-hartford.

Boosting Reading Skills Through Social Studies at the Elementary Level

Boosting Reading Skills through Social Studies at the Elementary Level

Karissa Neely

Want to improve students’ reading scores? Incorporate more social studies into their instruction.

“The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study shows that social studies is the only subject with a clear, positive, and statistically significant effect on reading improvement. In contrast, extra time spent on English Language Arts (ELA) instruction has no significant relationship with reading improvement,” Adam Tyner and Sarah Kabourek explain in their 2021 Social Education journal article, “How Social Studies Improves Elementary Literacy.”

According to the study, social studies has the power to boost literacy and student language acquisition. Because of its focus on people and the world around us, social studies gives students context for their ELA learning. As students use background knowledge to decipher informational text, they build real-world vocabulary and gain stronger reading comprehension skills.

In many elementary schools, where teachers have very limited social studies instruction time, they can use informational text from social studies during their language arts block.

“Integration of ELA strategies into social studies gives students an opportunity to use and refine ELA skills while using relevant content,” says Kelly Jeffery, ELA curriculum director at Studies Weekly.

Beyond reading, social studies instruction can also be more deeply blended with ELA, and support reading, writing, listening and speaking skills. Here are four tips for further integrating social studies and ELA:

1. Use Interactive Notebooks

“[I]nteractive notebooks are simple spiral-bound notebooks into which students glue or tape my handouts,” says Christina Gil in a 2016 article for Edutopia. “It’s just a simple, functional way for students to create, write, and explore ideas all in the same place.”

Jeffery adds that interactive notebooks are a way for both the teacher to see what students are learning and thinking. Students use them to take notes, explore ideas, ask questions, reflect and respond. They then become a sourcebook for students as they review for assessments.

“They pair very well with Studies Weekly because it is a perfect way to consume our publications,” Jeffery explains.

2. Create a Presentation

Students need different types of opportunities to share their understanding and presentations are perfect for this.

Brochures, posters, Google Slides, Nearpods, etc. are all interactive avenues for students to work individually or collaborate together to demonstrate knowledge. Similarly, students can create video journals to storyboard events and their responses. The goal is not a perfect analysis of the event or the historical figure they are studying, but a reflection on it.

Additionally, students can create readers’ theaters or short plays based on historic events, and perform them for the class. Others might opt to write a poem about a historic figure or create a children’s book explaining about an even


Three examples of easy ways students can show learning (from top left): file folders used to summarize information, popsicle puppets to share information from a historical figure’s point of view, and trioramas used for summarizing, fact/opinion, analyzing a primary source, or as a mini-report.

3. Create a Supported Response

Using informational texts, students can create a reasoned persuasive argument sharing their opinion on an event or person.

One form of supported response is a small paragraph following the TEES Template as explained by Jeannette Balantic and Erica Fregosi in their 2012 article, “Strengthening Student Thinking and Writing about World History,” for Social Studies and the Young Learner.

The TEES Template helps students strengthen their thinking, reasoning, and responses to open-ended assessments. With this exercise students go beyond learning historical facts — instead they use these facts to form arguments and support.

4. Hold Collaborative Groups

After reading an article, students may analyze the information and reflect on it within their interactive notebook.

With their notebooks and/or articles in front of them, teachers can guide students in opening up a dialogue about what they read with a small group or the entire class. Students should consider all voices and sides to an issue or event, and use additional sources, if needed, to deepen their understanding.

As they share their opinions and factual evidence, students should also be instructed to actively listen to the other side. The goal of this exercise is not to win but to try to find a compromise between both positions.

These four tips are only just few options to help teachers blend social studies and ELA in the elementary classroom. Even more, in addition to integrating with ELA, social studies is also the gateway to deeper learning in all subjects. For example, as students learn geography, they learn spatial math concepts. Or as they learn about historical developments in technology, they develop background knowledge for science. Even within the study of social studies, students learn how to make connections between a specific topic and its effect on people, events, and society. They begin to understand how geography affects a region’s economics, history affects governments, and governments affect society.

Teaching social studies with an integrated learning approach strengthens students’ ability to reason and think critically, gain a deeper understanding of the content, and transfer information to solve new problems. This knowledge can prepare them for the future as they become the world’s government, business, and family leaders.

References:

Balantic, J., & Fregosi, E. (2012, November). Strengthening student thinking and writing about world history. Social Studies and the Young Learner, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-studies-and-young-learner/25/2/strengthening-student-thinking-and-writing-about-world

Gil, C. (2016, August 30). Interactive notebooks: No special hardware required. Edutopia. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.edutopia.org/blog/interactive-notebooks-no-special-hardware-christina-lovdal-gil

Tyner, A., & Kabourek, S. (2021, January). How social studies improves elementary literacy. Social Education, National Council for the Social Studies. Retrieved May 27, 2022, from https://www.socialstudies.org/social-education/85/1/how-social-studies-improves-elementary-literacy

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

The Rise of Corporate Power and the Disintegration of American Democracy

by Anthony  Higueruela

“No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack”.[1]  These words open the Powell Memorandum’s “Attack on American free enterprise System”, written by Lewis Powell and sent to the United States Chamber of Commerce in 1971.  Lewis Powell would become one of four justices Richard Nixon appointed to the United States Supreme Court that would gradually dismantle the more liberal leaning Warren court of the 1950s and 1960s.[2]  For Powell the sources of the assault on American business were wide and varied.  “They include, not unexpectedly, the Communists, New Leftists, and other revolutionaries who would destroy the entire system, both political and economic”.[3]  Powell is thorough in his inquiry into the many forces at work throughout the United States hell-bent on upending the capitalist order.  He states that: “Yale, like every other major college, is graduating scores of bright young men who are practitioners of despair.  These young men despise the American political and economic system… their minds seem to be wholly closed.  They live, not by rational discussion but by mindless slogans.  A recent poll of students on 12 representative campuses reported that: almost half of the students favored socialization of basic U.S. industries”.[4]  The Powell Memorandum would prove to be a rallying cry for big business and global corporations to assert their rightful place in the sphere of American economic and political life.  Powell argues in almost Orwellian tones that the battle for corporate dominance must be waged on multiple fronts: that textbooks in universities should be kept under surveillance, television networks closely monitored and scholarly articles propagated on the positive benefits of a capitalistic system.[5]  He urged corporations to take a page out of the playbooks of labor and realize that political power is essential for corporate growth and must be meticulously cultivated.[6]  The Powell Memorandum is essential because it provides a framework for business interests to utilize and manipulate the existing framework of the United States legal system to gain rights that would become akin to corporate personhood.  One can think of Powell’s letter to the Chamber of Commerce as both a rallying cry and a blueprint for corporate America in order to gain greater hegemony in the United States.  The purpose of this paper is to argue that through corporations’ utilization of the legal system to gain personhood and the rights that accompany it, the political and economic welfare of the American citizen has been jeopardized. 

The first battles in the war for corporate supremacy would be waged on the legal front.  Corporations used the court system to gain access to rights historically reserved for United States citizens.  With the continual accruement of First Amendment speech rights, corporate America argued that monetary contributions by business is protected free speech guaranteed by the constitution.  This came to have disastrous consequences for the future of America’s political and democratic systems.  As corporations grew more powerful they were able to use the wealth and resources at their disposal to buy political influence and favorable legislation.

The first defining court case appeared in 1976, a few years after the establishment of the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA).  FECA’s primary goal was to establish new standards for fundraising and influence in the political spheres, much of which grew out of the reforms post-Watergate scandal.[7]  This act mandated public disclosure of contributions, made campaign contributions over a certain amount of money illegal and set caps on the amounts for campaign spending.[8]  The most ardent opponents of FECA were anxious that the law could be used as a tool by established politicians in order to maintain their own stranglehold on power.[9]  Their main concern lie in the fact that if the government could enact punitive measures on political communication, then entrenched politicians could utilize spending limits on insurgent political operatives in order to hold onto their own power.[10]  This law would eventually be challenged in the United States Supreme Court with the case of Buckley v. Valeo.  On January 2, 1975 a suit was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia by New York Senator James L. Buckley and Eugene McCarthy.[11]  The plaintiffs in this case argued that the Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971 and the Presidential Election Campaign Fund Act were unconstitutional.[12]  The Supreme Court upheld the majority of the law, however it struck down the spending limits on grounds of the First Amendment.[13]  The Supreme Court reached the conclusion that legislatively passed limits on spending were unconstitutional due to the fact that they infringed on the First Amendment and were not adequately related to solving the issue of corruption.[14]  Buckley would serve as a starting point for the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on money and political affairs.[15]  The influence of money and monetary contributions to politicians had far reaching consequences to the U.S. political system.  Robert Kaiser’s So Damn Much Money makes note that “the more important money became to the politicians, the more important the donors become to them”.[16]  This new setup, although beneficial to corporate America, was problematic to the health of American democracy and the right of the average citizen to have fair representation.  With the growth of corporate donors and their extensive resources which allow them to donate large sums of money to political campaigns, one must ask the question—what does this do to the balance of influence between people and corporations?  This answer is simple: it dramatically shifts it in favor of corporations.

The culmination of over three decades worth of litigation would result in Citizens United v. FEC (2010).  This seminal case proved to be the crowning victory for corporate America’s right to donate unfettered amounts of money based on their first amendment rights to freedom of speech.  Just as Bellotti opened up a loophole for corporations to donate money in ballot measures, Citizens United threatened to do the same for corporate money in campaign elections.[17]  The case that would forever alter the landscape of campaign finance law began when a conservative nonprofit corporation sought to air a ninety minute movie about Hillary Clinton on DirecTV.[18]  Citizens United also wished to air thirty second advertisements for their movie regarding Hillary Clinton on cable television.[19]  The Federal Election Committee (FEC) sought to block both the movie and the television ads on the basis that they violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (2002), which did not allow corporate funded campaign ads within thirty day of a presidential primary contest.[20]  Citizens United challenged the decision handed down by FEC on the basis that it was a documentary and not offered on broadcast television, therefore BCRA was not applicable.[21]  The government, however, argued that it was a ninety minute advertisement designed to damage Clinton in the primaries and its distribution did indeed count as broadcast.[22]  Ted Olsen, one of the leading lawyers for Citizens United argued that the law had no justification since there was no quid pro quo when corporations donate money to campaigns.[23]  His argument rested on the fact that Congress’s power to limit corruption in elections rested on their power to punish and deter clearly explicit bribes, anything else could not truly be counted as corruption.[24]  Olson went so far as to tell the court that the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act was essentially a ban on the free speech of corporations, and that the government had distinctly prohibited speech.[25] 

Proponents of Citizens United often attempt to downplay the damage it did to democracy.  In the Wall Street Journal, Bradley Smith argues that the ruling allowed corporations to make independent expenditures in campaigns and elections.[26]  He also argues that Citizens United opened the door to new political challengers and is quick to dismiss any critics as simply being put off that their preferred candidates did not win.[27]  What Smith fails to recognize is that the ruling from Citizens United puts corporations and wealthy individuals at a disproportionate advantage when compared to the ordinary citizen.  Citizens United essentially gave big business and special interests a pass to legally bribe politicians for legislation favorable to their interests.  This in turn diminishes the political rights of the American citizenry.  

Citizens United is unique in the sense that corporations are described as associations that have taken on corporate form.[28]  Historian Adam Winkler noted, “if the first amendment has any force, Kennedy read aloud from his opinion, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens or associations of citizens for simply engaging in political speech” (Winkler 364).  What is significant in this fact is that by defining corporations as associations of citizens, it allows them to subsume the rights of other people, in other words the corporations own members.[29] 

One must then examine the implications of allowing corporations to assume rights of multiple individuals.  If a corporation, as an association of individuals, can assume their collective rights then what recourse is left to individuals within the corporation to seek redress from grievances perpetrated by the corporation?  If all rights belonging to individuals within a corporate framework are taken by the corporate entity then workers and employees are left powerless against corporate abuse and excess.  The adoption of corporate personhood and corporate legal speech rights to utilize money in campaigns robbed the average citizen of their rights to a free and fair democracy.  According to Zephyr Teachout, “while corruption has narrowed to quid pro quo, free speech has expanded to encompass all money spent on communication”.[30]  Large corporations, due to their wealth and resources, are at an unnatural advantage when compared to the average citizen in terms of spending money on campaigns and referendums.  This undermines democracy as it creates rule by a few large corporate entities as opposed to rule by the people.  It also allows corporations to buy greater access to political candidates in order to secure favorable legislation towards their own interests.  Taken a step further, Teachout argues, “because of Citizens United it is not illegal for a corporation to spend millions of dollars to punish a congressperson who voted against their interests”.[31]  This only further increases the power of corporations at the expense of the American citizens due to the fact that corporations are able to use their money and lobbying power to ensure favorable outcomes for themselves in regards to legislation.


[1] Lewis Powell, greenpeace.org, 1.

[2] Adam Winkler, We the Corporations (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2018)

[3] Lewis Powell, greenpeace.org, 3.

[4] Powell, 3.

[5] Winkler, 286-87

[6] Winkler, 287.

[7]Teachout, 206.

[8] Teachout, 206-07

[9] Teachout, 207

[10] Teachout, 207.

[11] Fec.gov, 1.

[12] Fec.gov, 1.

[13] Teachout, 207.

[14] Teachout, 207.

[15] Teachout, 207.

[16] Teachout, 209.

[17] Winkler,

[18] Teachout, 229-230

[19] Teachout, 230

[20] Teachout, 230

[21] Teachout,  230

[22] Teachout, 230

[23] Teachout, 231

[24] Teachout, 231

[25] Winkler, 361

[26] Bradley Smith, “The Incumbent’s Bane: Citizens United and the 2010 Election”, Wall Street Journal, 2.

[27] Smith, 2.

[28] Winkler, 364

[29] Winkler, 364

[30] Teachout, 241.

[31] Teachout, 112.

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

Parts of this essay appear in At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for our Children’s Future (Peter Lang, 2022). https://www.peterlang.com/document/1166664

Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future

by Doug Selwyn

            A group of approximately 30 teachers, administrators, over the family members, health officials and others in our town of Greenfield, Massachusetts met summer of 2020 attempting to plan for the opening of the 2020-2021 school year. COVID-19 was raging and we had to make choices about whether to have in-person schooling, a hybrid model that had children in schools some of the week and learning remotely the rest of the week, or to conduct school entirely remotely, at least to start.

            Several things became evident as we considered our options. First, there might be no institution as inextricably bound to the community than are schools. Any decision we made would reverberate through the community, with consequences for families, for businesses, for those needing childcare, for virtually every aspect of town life. It also meant that what was happening in the community would have significant consequences for what was happening in the schools. Second, it was clear that what we already knew, that there was (and is) significant inequality across our community, was even more prevalent and more consequential than we had realized. Third, our schools were already severely underfunded and under-resourced before Covid. The arrival of Covid made things even worse, stretching resources beyond the breaking point, which made realistic planning all but impossible because there was no way to really do what needed to be done. Fourth, there would be no time to offer adequate professional development or preparation time for faculty and staff. And fifth, the federal and state governments were prioritizing political and economic interests over educational or health-related concerns.

And what was most clear was that the best-case scenario was to be able to get back to near “normal,” to the education we had before the arrival of the pandemic. We were in crisis mode and getting ready for the school year was all that mattered.

I had written a book two years before focused on the question, what would our schools look like if our primary focus was on the health and wellbeing of our children. What I found was that if that really was our primary concern we would have to address the underlying issues in our society such as the increasing gap between rich and poor, a lack of health care for mothers during pregnancy and for newborns and their families through their first months and years of life, and the various stresses and traumas our children were experiencing from racism, from living in a toxic environment, from a lack of access to health care, and from other social, or economic factors if we wanted our children to both be healthy and able to come to school ready to learn. We could not simply say to schools fix yourselves while doing nothing about the underlying issues in our communities and country.

No one on our committee had time or energy to think about these larger issues as we pondered how to open schools. They simply wanted to get back to as close to “normal” as possible. While I recognized the enormous pressure the committee was under to get schools open one way or another, having as a goal returning to a school system that was failing so many of our children, particularly those who are most vulnerable, was not good enough, so I decided to research the question what do our children need to learn and know and how can we help them to learn it so that they are going to be as prepared as possible to move into their future, which is, by definition, unpredictable. While we recognize that one of the responsibilities of the adults in our society is to educate our young, there is not always agreement about what that education should consist of, who should receive it, who should offer it, who should pay for it, and how it should be assessed. These questions led me to invite the thoughts of educators and activists on what education our children needed and how we might help them to achieve it. I cast as wide a net as I could in gathering points of view, experience, perspectives, and understandings, and we looked at several aspects of the question including understanding the role of schools within the larger society, learning from our experiences with COVID, looking at the content we offer, considering who should be teaching and how they should be educated, how we might assess, and what other models of education might we consider, beyond public schooling. I pulled the essays and interviews together into a book, At the Center of All Possibilities: Transforming Education for Our Children’s Future (2022), and want to briefly share what I learned, starting with a brief look at my own story.

I was mis educated about much of U.S. history by Walt Disney and other programs on television. I “learned” from Disney and other media that U.S. history really began with the “discovery” of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued as (white) European Americans moved across North America fulfilling their Manifest Destiny to civilize and settle the essentially empty continent. I watched Disney’s take on Davy Crockett to learn about what that meant; fighting hostile, savage Indians who stood in the way of that Manifest Destiny, and later, fighting hostile, evil Mexicans who surrounded and murdered heroic Americans at the Alamo. Disney never mentioned the genocide and forced resettlements that were at the heart of Manifest Destiny, or the land grab that was the so-called Mexican War, or its link to perpetuating and maintaining slavery. It was nationalistic myth making that was echoed by virtually everything else that appeared on television, our prime window on the world outside of our neighborhoods.

Disney and other media also (mis) educated me about race relations, gender roles and values, which seemed to center on strong, silent, gun toting men who traveled alone or sometimes with a clownish sidekick, and pretty, vulnerable and relatively helpless women. And, of course, all the good guys (and women) were white.

Despite the fact that I went through a well-regarded K-12 school system, I did not encounter any real pushback to the Disney version of history until I was in college, and that pushback mostly came from “teachers” and situations outside of the classroom. I spent my summers living across the street from the Six Nations Museum, in Onchiota, NY (population 62), within a small Mohawk community, and got to know Ray Fadden, the man who built and ran the museum., “Uncle” Ray and my other neighbors helped me to learn a much more accurate picture of the genocide and forced removal that were the hallmarks of Manifest Destiny, and I learned more about the complex and layered governing and social systems at the heart of the Iroquois Confederacy that challenged virtually everything I’d been taught at school, or by Disney.

This experience awakened me to the need to question, to challenge, and to not automatically accept what I was being told in school, in my neighborhood (which was an essentially middle class, white, quietly racist community of young families), and from media of all sorts, including the news.

When I finally decided on becoming a teacher, more than a decade after graduating from college I thought back on my relentless mis education and realized I had to formulate my own goals, my own purpose as an educator. I came up with a short list of goals and aspirations for my work as a teacher, which I continued to add to with experience. They included:

The children are more important than any of the subjects.

  • Every child should feel welcomed and valued.
  • All children in class should have the opportunity to explore what is most important to them, at least some of the time.
  • I should avoid using textbooks as much as possible as they are both deadly boring and inaccurate or incomplete.
  • It is crucial to bring in more points of view and voices than what are featured in textbooks or in mandated curriculum.
  • I must be a learner, to model what I hope the students will take from their time with me.
  • I will bring as much joy and excitement to learning as possible.
  • I want to help students to learn to critically question what they are encountering, including me.
  • I must do everything I can to tell them the truth, and to help to learn to find the truth for themselves.

I can’t say that I have always been successful in meeting those goals, but they are always the compass points I try to steer by. My research and conversations while editing At the Center of All Possibilities have moved me to update my list. I would now add:

  • Having an increased awareness of the cultures, histories, and contexts of the students.
  • Learning much more about the impact that inequality, white supremacy, racism, and capitalism play in determining, or strongly influencing the lives we lead
  • Becoming a more active and engaged advocate for social justice outside of the classroom. Helping students understand the crippling impact of slavery and racism on our society, that continues to this day
  • Supporting students learning to listen and communicate clearly with their peers, and to work with them as allies and cooperators rather than as competitors.
  • Developing alternative ways of organizing education that pattern after the freedom school model, with a focus is on a smaller, more personal educational experience focused on the needs and interests of the students.
  • Assessing the quality of our work together, in my classroom and in my school by the quality of our lives inside and outside of school. How are we feeling about ourselves and each other, how are we behaving with each other, how much are we engaging in learning that is of interest, and how are putting what we learn to use in service to what we care about, in school and out. If there is no evidence that school is moving them towards becoming engaged, caring, and joyful humans then we are failing them and need to change what we are doing.

I would also add to my list the importance of reaching out to the community to help me to learn about the students, to learn about content I don’t know, to help me identify resources and to help me think through how best to make the educational experience as effective and meaningful and joyful as possible. Many of us enter classrooms thinking we must do it all ourselves and are reluctant to “blow our cover” by admitting we don’t know how to deal with particular content or a particular student or situation. That is evidence of a flaw in how we are trained rather than educated in our K-12 and university systems. I learned so much by asking them to be a part of this project. I hope that readers will keep this learning in mind as you think about how to transform education in your school or district, that you will be well served by inviting others to think and plan and act with you. We are in this together and are wiser and more powerful when we join together.

I want to close with a few words from Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, in Tennessee. He was in dialog with Brazilian educator Paolo Freire and said this: “If I had to put a finger on what I consider a good education, a good radical education, it wouldn’t be about methods or techniques. It would be loving people first…. and that means people everywhere, not just your family or your own countrymen or your own color. And wanting for them what you want for yourself. And then next is respect for people’s abilities to learn and to act and to shape their own lives. You have to have confidence that people can do that… The third thing grows out of caring for people and having respect for people’s ability to do things, and that is that you value their experiences. You can’t say that you respect people and not respect their experiences.” (Bell, Gaventa, & Peters, 1990, p 177-178)

There is so much that we can do if we trust, respect, and value the people we work with, beginning with our students and their families. When we trust, respect, and value people enough to listen to them when they share who they are, what they care about, and what their goals and dreams are, we have already taken a significant step towards the transformation of their educational experience, and ours.

References

Bell, B, Gaventa, J, & Peters, J. (1990). We make the road by walking: Conversations on education and social change. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Selwyn, D. (2022). At the center of all possibilities: Transforming education for our children’s future. Peter Lang.

The Freedom to Teach by the National Council for the Social Studies

This statement is from March 2022 and can be found at https://www.socialstudies.org/current-events-response/freedom-teach

Poster-Congress of Industrial Organizations, 1950s

School districts, the most active battlefield in the American culture wars today, are facing an unprecedented number of calls to remove books from schools and libraries, false claims about “obscenity” invading classrooms, the elimination of teaching about evolution and climate change, challenges to the need for making sense of and critiquing our world in the mathematics classrooms, and legislation redlining teaching about racism in American history. These actions are putting excessive and undue pressure on teachers, who are caught in the crossfire of larger political conflict, motivated by cultural shifts and stoked for political gain.

Teachers are being maligned as “harming” children and are subjected to constant scrutiny (and even direct surveillance) by many parents, school administrators, and activist groups. Some are afraid to offer their students award-winning books that may violate vaguely stated laws about teaching the history of racism or that may be misleadingly labeled as pornographic. As a result, teachers’ very ability to do their job is under threat.

In their zeal, activists of the current culture wars unfortunately treat teachers as if they are enemies. The truth is that teachers are uniquely important leaders who, in educating current and new generations of students, bear responsibility for this country’s future. They are trained professionals with one of the hardest and most demanding jobs, a job that requires deep commitment, but brings little financial reward.  

Teachers need our support; they need our trust; they need to have the freedom to exercise their professional judgment. And that freedom includes the freedom to decide what materials best suit their students in meeting the demands of the curriculum, the freedom to discuss disturbing parts of American history if and when they judge students are ready for it, and the freedom to determine how to help young people navigate the psychological and social challenges of growing up. In short, teachers need the freedom to prepare students to become future members of a democratic society who can engage in making responsible and informed contributions and decisions about our world.

The stakes are too high. We cannot let good teachers leave the field because they no longer have the freedom to do their job. We cannot let the education of our children and young adults become collateral damage in partisan political machination.

The Diary of Asser Levy by Daniela Weil

The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York

By Daniela Weil

Reviewed by Hank Bitten, Executive Director NJ Council for the Social Studies

In the teaching of world history or global studies, the concept of continuity and change over time is important for students in understanding the big picture of history. In learning about the American colonies, the migration of populations and the perspectives of ordinary people are important in understanding the diversity of the people living in the New World.

Teachers are able to understand the big picture of the 20th century and the rise of the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Soviet Union, India, China, Israel, and the United States. Some teachers may also understand how the fall of Austria Hungary, Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Germany changed the world.  We teach about the permanent members of the UN Security Council but also recognize the power and influence of the media, investment firms, energy cartels, and technology firms. History is complicated.

The Diary of Asser Levy provides an opportunity to understand the big picture of European history in the context of Brazil, the western Caribbean, the Dutch colonies in America, and the Roman Catholic Church. The book is less than 100 pages and packed with a chronological memory over a period of twelve years. Students can easily read the accounts of a day in the life of Asser Levy, or a week or a month in a matter of a few minutes. The photographs and images are designed to connect students with the historical content and promote inquiry, literacy, and memory.

The book is written from the perspective of a teenager or young adult about age 16-18. He lived in Recife, Brazil in a prosperous Jewish community. In the 17th century, the Dutch were a powerful empire and one in competition with Portugal, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. The entries of the diary take place only six years after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in Europe and marking the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands and the Dutch empire in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Spanish Century of the 16th century was characterized by “God, gold, and glory” was now declining in influence as new states were rising.

The conflict between the Dutch and Portugal is an extension of the Thirty Years War in Europe and a victory for the Protestant beliefs a century after the Protestant Reformation. The ‘new economy” in Europe was based on their global markets. For Portugal and Netherlands, it was the spice trade in East Asia and sugar and sweets in the New World.  Most teachers do not even mention the trade wars of the 17th century and the Diary of Asser Levy provides a point of inquiry for students to ask, “why do the Dutch want Salvador or Recife in Brazil?”

The military operations by the Dutch in Brazil took less than two weeks and 10,000 soldiers. Although the control of Salvador and Recife would be difficult to maintain over time, it changed the way of life for ordinary people who were citizens of the Dutch empire! Conflict is always unsettling because it separates families, postpones dreams, and presents challenges to the spiritual beliefs ordinary people value. This is the point of entry of Daniel Weil into your classroom and her influence on what your students will be thinking.

The Evacuation

“The Dutch have waged war against the crown of Portugal,” Barreto proclaimed, “yet we shall not retaliate.  I will give all foreigners a period of three months to leave Brazil.  You may take back any possessions you can carry. We shall provide additional ships needed to return you to your homeland.” (January 26, 1654, Page 16)

Although this appears a welcome gesture and is better than imprisonment or death, it uprooted the lives of more than 1,600 Jews living a prosperous life after a century of persecution in Europe under the Inquisition. Many Jews were forced to be baptized in Spain and Portugal and as a result many fled to Amsterdam. Under the protection of Dutch laws, the Jews in Recife were allowed to openly practice their religious beliefs and established, Kahal Zur Yisrael, the first synagogue in the New World. Isaac Aboab da Fancseca was the first rabbi in the New World. The Kahal Zur Israel congregation had an elementary and secondary school and supported charities in Recife. Many textbooks call attention to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, which was built more than one hundred years later in 1763.

The Jewish population of Recife had to sell possessions, close their businesses, end the education of their children, and return to Amsterdam, a place they left more than twenty years ago. Middle school students familiar with the voyage of Columbus, Virginia Company, Pilgrims, and the Massachusetts Bay Company might speculate what the voyage back to Amsterdam in February, 1654. Use this situation to simulate the family discussions in the homes of Recife.

What were the sleeping accommodations like?

Was there adequate food on the ship?

Were the ships seaworthy in storms?

Did people experience sickness?

Was there danger from enemies or pirates?

Were families together or separated?

What dangers did young men and women experience?

Stranded in the Caribbean

Asser Levy wrote in his diary on March 20, 1654, “This morning, the Falcon rocked harder than usual.  I fumbled my way up to the deck to see what was going on. An ominous grey sky had replaced the blue, and strong winds howled.  Ripples turned into waves, and waves into giant swells. The captain ordered all passengers to take cover below. Lightning exploded over the ship. The Falcon was being tossed around like a toy boat.” (Page 27)

What choices did passengers who are also refugees have at sea? Did they have any rights as Dutch citizens?  Would their religious beliefs sentence them to prison, would able workers be kidnapped, could they be killed? Would they feel safe in a Spanish or Portuguese port in the Caribbean?

Five days later on March 25th, Asser Levy wrote with an exclamation, “Red flag!” Pirates!  The most likely encounter middle and high school students have with pirates, is the Disney experience of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’  For Asser Levy and the other refugees fleeing Brazil, this was a death sentence, perhaps their greatest fear. They would lose their possessions, men might be kidnapped, women raped, and death or injury to anyone who dared challenge the pirates.

Use the two maps below for students to make a claim about the voyage from Recife, to the place of the storm, the boarding of the ship by pirates, and arriving in Jamaica. [On the first map, Jamaica is just south of the eastern end of Cuba and Recife is not visible. In the second map, Recife is on the most extreme end of the eastern coast of Brazil and Jamaica is south of Cuba.]

On April 1, about one week later, the Falcon, in need of repairs, drifted close to Jamaica. Understanding the geography of the Caribbean, especially the journey of approximately 40 days at sea from Recife to Jamaica should result in many questions and arguments that need evidence. Try to follow the diary and map the intended route of the Falcon with the actual route taking them to Jamaica.

Students studying colonial America are generally familiar with the religious exodus of people with Protestant faiths coming to Virginia, Massachusetts, New Sweden, and Connecticut. They likely understand the settlement of Maryland and the passing of the Toleration Act, 1648. Ask your students if people kept or lost their rights when their ship docked in a Spanish port. How did the Inquisition play out in real time when their ‘passports’ were checked? Asser Levy and the Jewish passengers on the Falcon were now under interrogation and the penalty of imprisonment or death for heresy.

Frustrated in New Amsterdam

This morning, September 5, 1654, “the St. Catherine turned and entered a large bay.  The ship slipped through a narrow passage between two forested hills.  We drifted into calm, sheltered waters, leaving the agitated open ocean behind, In the distance, the top of an island covered in mist slowly became visible. All the passengers came up on deck to witness the sight.” (Page 41)

When studying the past, we do not have all the answers. In fact, asking the right questions is necessary to the historical context when documents and artifacts are not available or never existed. Ask your students to draw a picture of Asser Levy who departed Cuba on August 15 and now, 21 days later, has arrived in New Amsterdam.

Draw a line from the place in the image of Asser Levy to answer the following questions:

What does he see with his eyes?

What is he thinking in his head?

What sounds does he hear with his ears?

What sentences will he write with his hand and pen?

What does he smell with his nose?

What does he feel in his heart?

When he arrives on shore, where will his feet take him?

What are his fears?

Why is he holding a weapon?

What are his hopes?

The traditional opportunities to learn about diversity in the American colonies focus on Roman Catholics in Maryland and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams from Massachusetts Bay, it is 1654, so the Charter of Liberties has not been adopted in Philadelphia, and a safe haven for debtors in Georgia is still 80 years in the future. The evidence in Asser Levy’s diary provides inquiry into the lives of Jews who were Dutch citizens.

There are also clues in this book about self-government in the colonies. Most students learn about the representative government in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, the town meetings in New England, the power of the purse in determining local taxes, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The Diary of Asser Levy provides a unique look into the authority of judges and the colonial court system. It also provides a prompt for discussions about civic engagement to correct what Asser Levy believes to be arbitrary or unfair decisions.

September 9, 1654: “Two days have passed since our trial.  Today, we had to return to court with Mr. Petersen and face La Motthe again.

The captain made his case.  He had not been paid the remaining guilders.  Mr. Pietersen begged for a little more time.

“’The Jews have not paid their legal debt to Captain La Motthe,” Stuyvesant declared. “However, they have sufficient property on the St. Catherine.  I will allow the captain to sell all of the Jews’ belongings at public auction within four days.’” (Page 51)

For high school students, consider comparing the court system in New Amsterdam with the experiences of four enslaved persons in the courts of Virginia around 1650. (Source). The arrival of the 23 Jewish refugees from Brazil corresponds directly with the arrival of 300 enslaved individuals from Brazil in New Amsterdam.  The double arrival presented problems for this colony of 1,000 residents regarding diversity, language barriers, housing, and work. By 1660, New Amsterdam was considered the most significant slave port in North America. (Source) These ‘threads,’ or themes, that are part of the historical tapestry of the colonial experience are available to your students through supplementary texts, The Diary of Asser Levy, and digital resources.

The information in The Diary of Asser Levy is a rich resource for student inquiry, especially for teachers who want to involve their students with guided research, interdisciplinary connections, understanding the diversity of the American experience, and evaluating decisions. The illustrations in the book from colonial New York, with specific street addresses, also provides information for teaching how communities have changed over time.  For example, the history behind Pearl Street, Mill Lane, Maiden Lane, William Street, Water Street, and Wall Street are part of the local historical narrative.

Resilience and Restoration

The subtitle of The Diary of Asser Levy is, “First Jewish Citizen of New York.” Brainstorm with your students if it should be changed to, “First Jewish Dutch citizen of New York,” “First Citizen Advocate,” “First Jewish Homeowner in America,” “First Refugee in New York,” “First Jewish Banker,” etc. According to the author, Daniela Weil, Asser Levy was the 38th wealthiest person in America. History comes to life for our students when they make connections with the relevance of today.  The websites in the Works Cited section provide digital resources for further exploration and investigation. Of particular note are www.newmasterdamhistorycenter.org, www.unsung.nyc/#home, and www.archives.nyc/newamsterdam.

It is the resilience and civic engagement of Asser Levy as a young man under age 20 who spoke for justice, pursued equality, advocated for the right to employment, homeownership, freedom of religious expression, and made the colony of New Amsterdam, and after 1664 the colony of New York, a safer and better place. This is not a book or lesson about any one person or group of people. Instead, it is a starting point for a deeper discussion about the ordinary people who are the ‘soul’ of America more than a century before the Declaration of independence and the birth of a United States of America.

In this context, students might reflect on the legacy of Asser Levy and how history and New York remember him, when his memory was first discovered, if communities outside of New York have places named in his honor, and how he will most likely be remembered in the future of this century and specifically on August 22, 2054, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Amsterdam!

Asser Levy Park, Brooklyn, NY (near Coney Island)

Weil, Daniela, The Diary of Asser Levy, Pelican Publishing, New Orleans, 2020.

Decision Activity: Quamino, New Brunswick, NJ, Somerset County, 1789

Decision Activity: Quamino

Somerset County, NJ 1789

Quamino was born near New Brunswick, New Jersey in 1762. Young Quamino had a complete family unit when he was living in Somerset County. Despite describing Quamino as “compliant,” his contemporary biographer William Allinson described a horrific episode where young Quamino was forced to watch a fellow enslaved person burned at the stake as punishment for alleged crimes. At no point in the memoir or in any other documentation is Quamino described as rebellious or uncooperative. Much of this is attributed to his religious conversion and subsequent piety. Allinson essentially uses Quamino as the model version of a benign, non-threatening Black man as a means of condemning the institution of slavery, consistent with Allinson’s abolitionist views. Allinson’s book is described as a memoir, including numerous quotations directly from Quamino, but neglects to offer a physical description of the man, the names of his siblings, or many of his inner emotions and rationale for his behavior.

At age nine, Quamino was essentially rented out to an enslaver in Poughkeepsie, New York. He was separated from his family and upon the commencement of the Revolutionary War was unable to have any communication with his “master” (and thereby his family). From roughly age 9 to 18, he remained in New York, but in 1780 was unexpectedly returned to his original enslaver and reunited with his family. Allinson wrote, “Overcome with this too sudden announcement, he burst into a violent and uncontrollable fit of crying, and for hours cried aloud as though he had been beaten — unable to answer questions, or to stay his emotions at the kindest efforts to pacify him.”[2]

How do you think each of the following may have contributed to his uncontrollable response to the news?

  1. Shock that his situation would ever improve.
  2. Joy at the prospect of being reunited with his family.
  3. Separation from his family caused emotional deprivation.
  4. The experience of enslavement is a form of mental and physical torture.

Consider the implications of each of the items in a response of two or three sentences.

Back in Somerset County, Quamino had a religious experience, claiming that God had spoken to him, thus beginning his period of devout faith in the Methodist religion. His enslaver looked suspiciously upon enslaved people’s faith, believing it could interfere with maintaining a degree of ignorance and thus make them less “serviceable” as workers. He even suspected Quamino’s position was a pose, designed to gain a level of respect from others in the community. Consequently, he would criticize and may have beaten Quamino for participating in religious services, but Quamino accepted the consequences and maintained his personal beliefs.

As there is only one source for this information, we have no idea of how sincere Quamino’s religious conversion was, but either way, one could argue that maintaining his faith was an exercise of autonomy and personal agency.

Two Options to Consider:

A. Quamino was wholly genuine in his religious conversion, and was willing to deal with any obstacles in his path to exercise his faith.

B. Quamino was less than 100% genuine in his conversion, but believed that some degree of deception would provide him some degree of social standing.

Describe in two to three sentences how each of the options would mean that Quamino was exercising personal agency.

In 1788, he married Sarah, an enslaved woman who lived nearby. She was soon sold and moved five miles away, allowing them to see one another as infrequently as once a week. When Quamino’s enslaver died around 1789, he was passed onto one of the enslaver’s sons. Several years later, he was beaten by his enslaver. Quamino told him he refused to work for him further, a tactic that some other enslaved people had used to demand being sold to a new owner. In some locations, the relationship between enslaver and enslaved was perceived as a sort of social contract with obligations flowing in both directions. “Unjustified” abuse might be grounds for “slave quitting” depending on local customs. Although enslaved people might be aware of instances of slave quitting via word of mouth, nothing was in the law, thus employing this tactic was enormously risky for Quamino.

Consider the possible outcomes of this risky decision.

Three Possible Outcomes to Consider:

A. His enslaver could have rejected the claim and then worsened his treatment of Quamino.

B. His enslaver could agree to sell him to a new enslaver whose treatment of Quamino could be the same (or worse).

C. His enslaver could agree to sell him to a new enslaver whose treatment of Quamino would be an improvement.

Which of the following seems the most likely outcome?

If you think the outcome would have been A or B, would Quamino have regretted his decision of refusing to work?

Why was it difficult for Black Americans to enjoy the ideals of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as stated in the Declaration of Independence?

Quamino was sold to a new enslaver, who did not seem to have used physical violence against those he enslaved. Quamino even arranged for his new enslaver to purchase Sarah, allowing the couple to live together as husband and wife.  In 1806, Quamino was manumitted through an elaborate process that included having to testify before a committee to demonstrate that his freedom would not be a burden upon the state of New Jersey. Sarah died in 1842 and Quamino lived to around 1850 (age 88). They had at least two sons together, although it appears at least one of them was sold as an infant.


[1] Frontispiece of William Allinson, Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist

[2] Allinson, page 6.