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Teacher: No, my lesson to 7th graders on ocean pollution is not indoctrination — even if a state legislator thinks so

Garbage and pollution that washed up on a tropical beach. (iStock)

The North Carolina state legislature has taken up a bill that would require all publicly funded schools with more than 500 students to post teacher lesson plans and related instructional materials prominently on school websites.

The legislation would require that posted lessons and other materials — such as videos and other digital materials — be for the current school year but also the previous one. (It is worth noting the state’s Department of Public Instruction already allows for the public to review educational materials used in schools.)

Supporters say the legislation will help parents know what their children are learning.

Teachers say it would be an extraordinary time-consuming effort to post the material; the North Carolina Association of Educators called it “teacher abuse.”

Opponents also say it is an effort by Republicans waging a culture war to expose what they say are liberal views of teachers. That culture war is the focus of a Washington Post story by my Post colleagues Laura Meckler and Hannah Natanson, who report on a backlash by conservatives who see initiatives in schools to “address systemic racism and inject an anti-racist mind-set into campus life” as efforts to “shame White teachers and sometimes students for being part of an oppressive system.”

This post is by a seventh-grade teacher, Justin Parmenter, who got caught up in the legislative discussion about this bill. In a meeting of the state House K-12 education commission, Iredell County Republican Rep. Jeffrey McNeely discussed a lesson Parmenter was teaching in regard to this legislation — and Parmenter takes issue with what he said.

Parmenter teaches seventh-grade language arts at Waddell Language Academy in Charlotte. An educator for more than 20 years, he has written a number of posts for this blog about teaching and the effects that data-driven school reform has had on his profession and on students.

Parmenter published a version of this on his blog and gave me permission to republish it. You can find him on Twitter here: @JustinParmenter

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By Justin Parmenter

A member of the North Carolina House of Representatives held up my teaching as an example of harmful indoctrination of children this week as state legislators met to discuss a new bill which would require teachers to post their lesson plans online for public review.

The K-12 Education Committee approved HB 755, also known as “An Act to Ensure Academic Transparency.” It passed the House by a vote of 66-50 and now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation mandates that all lesson plans, including information about any supporting instructional materials as well as procedures for how an in-person review of lesson materials may be requested, be “prominently displayed” on school websites.

Iredell County Republican Rep. Jeffrey McNeely gave the bill two enthusiastic thumbs up, pointing to my teaching as an example of the so-called hidden indoctrination that will be exposed if the bill is passed into law. He said:

We tend to come to teach our kids with everything with a twist to it. And I think transparency is one of the most important things we can do, and maybe what we’ve learned from this pandemic, through virtual, some of the parents actually seeing what their children are taught and how they’re taught.
I saw in the Charlotte Observer the other week a English teacher was complaining because he had to do remote learning and in-person learning at the same time and it caused him to shorten his English class on environmental pollution.
What you think about that?
So I think ... this will help the parents going to the next grade be able to look and see what that teacher taught the year before, and hopefully we’re just gonna teach the kids, we’re not gonna try to indoctrinate ’em or teach ’em in a certain way to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write, the ability to read.
So I like this bill...

McNeely is referring to an editorial that I wrote and that was published in the Charlotte Observer last week about my experiences with hybrid teaching during the covid-19 pandemic.

In the article I discussed being in the middle of a lesson with students both in person and on Zoom when the fire alarm rang, forcing me to prematurely end class for my remote students in the middle of an important conversation.

The Iredell County legislator ignored the overall point I was making about the challenges the pandemic has created for teachers and students, directing his comments instead to my opening words: “Not long ago I was leading a discussion about environmental pollution with my 7th grade English class.”

For McNeely, this line exposes a sinister plot to deviate from state standards in support of a leftist agenda. Why else, that thinking goes, would an English teacher be discussing environmental pollution with students, if not “to make ’em believe something other than the facts, the knowledge, the ability to write the ability to read?”

I teach seventh-grade English Language Arts in Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools. We use EL Education’s Language Arts curriculum, which is organized into modules that last several weeks. (The curriculum is open source, so materials are prominently displayed here.)

While working toward mastering state English Language Arts standards, this year my students have studied the lost children of Sudan and the Harlem Renaissance, and right now they are learning about plastic pollution.

Through our current module, Mecklenburg County’s seventh-grade students have gained an understanding of how plastic has become an integral part of our lives over the years but also how much of it makes its way into the world’s oceans as microplastics, harming wildlife and posing a threat to humans as well.

Rep. McNeely may not be aware that teaching students to read and write involves selecting topics for them to read and write about. This process allows teachers to create a broad and engaging educational experience for students and enables us to integrate instruction across subject areas so that our students see connections in class content between my English class, for example, and their social studies, science and math classes.

It’s not a leftist plot; it’s how school is supposed to work.

This drum beating about indoctrination of students is absurd.

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The vast majority of the public trusts teachers to do their jobs and understands that we already have way too much on our plates without adding the enormous burden of posting everything we do in class online for the pleasure of people who are convinced they are fighting a culture war.

Legislators who support this legislation need to stop and think about creating policies that will actually improve the lives of North Carolinians.