Difficult Conversations

Student-led panel at 2019 Independent Charter School Symposium

I grew up in the 50’s-60’s in Oak Park, a leafy village on the west side of Chicago, benignly haunted by the ghosts of Hemingway and Frank Lloyd Wright. As the Cold War slowly ratcheted up, we started to see TV ads for nuclear fallout shelters but to my knowledge none of the families of my schoolmates ever invested in one. We may have had a “duck and cover” drill once – but I don’t really remember. What I do recall is this: Beginning at 5th grade, every day at Horace Mann Elementary School started with an hour discussion of “current events” in which we all had to participate. We talked about Richard J. Daley, Ike and Fidel. We talked about Khrushchev and tensions in Berlin and nuclear bomb tests. Every day.

In 1960, as we were looking forward to high school and as the Democratic primaries were getting interesting, some of my classmates wondered aloud whether Kennedy had what it took to stand up to the Soviets. Oak Park was, after all, a traditional conservative suburb of sober-minded folks. We all wanted a president who could take on Khrushchev, the man who had shouted “we will bury you” to western diplomats. The man who weaponized his shoes at the UN. And, as if on cue, JFK “out-hawked” Nixon in the first televised presidential debates, leaving little doubt that he was “up to it.”

Here’s something else I remember: At night we slept well. We trusted those in our government and military to protect us. We weren’t living in a bubble of ignorance: we discussed scary stuff every day at school. We just knew that there were grownups in charge and that one day we would become those grownups.

Does this happen anymore? How much actual classroom time is devoted to the discussion of the existential issues of our times? Has the hyper-partisan divide—or lack of leaders with grown-up bona fides—steered teachers away from controversy? How many precious minutes can even be spared for open-ended discussion in today’s “accountability” environment?

We’re going to try to find out, at least within our own 200+ member schools.

So please be on the lookout for another short survey that will help shed some light here. The CPICS Board of Directors recently approved a resolution that was presented to them by student climate activists at our Symposium in Albuquerque in November. One of the student “asks” is that schools help them become better advocates. We need to think about what that means and how we can best accomplish that.

Students have far more to worry about these days than my schoolmates and I had during the Cold War. They’re dealing with epidemic gun violence, resurgent nationalism, and the threat of environmental collapse. That’s just for starters. They are difficult topics but these conversations need to happen in the classroom and we owe it to our students to provide space, encouragement and modeling for these discussions.

“The battle outside is a raging,” but it’s the work that we do every day in our schools that will sustain us. We’re modeling what public schools can be. Thanks, everyone.

Steve Zimmerman


© 2020 Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools

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