September 19, 2022

John Thompson: In Support of Summer Boismier

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John Thompson is based in Oklahoma, where teacher Summer Boismier got in hot water for daring to post a QR code for Brooklyn’s national banned books program. Here Thompson looks at the many issues her ordeal raises. 

Summer Boismier was the teacher in Norman, Oklahoma who felt forced to resign after posting a QR code in her class to a Brooklyn library. Secretary of Education Ryan Walters, the rightwinger running for reelection, wants to revoke her license for challenging HR 1775, a de facto ban on Critical Race Theory. Walters claims, “There is no place for a teacher with a liberal political agenda in the classroom.” His Democratic Party opponent, Teacher of the Year Jena Nelson, counters that HR1775  is an “ambiguous” law that frightens teachers. And, sure enough, Ms. Boismier now has reasons to fear for her safety.

Ms. Boismier now explains in the Oklahoman that when she was 15 years-old, and her father committed suicide, she went to school the next day. She did so because school was where she felt safe, and “felt seen and heard and valued for who I was and, most importantly, for who I was becoming.”

She then expresses the truth that, over the decades, few Oklahomans have dared to express, “Education is inherently political, but it is not automatically partisan.” And, “Politics is power — who has it and who wants it. If knowledge is also power, then it would stand to reason that the classroom is indeed political.” She also cites Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who:

Argued that stories are mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors. Stories are also telescopes and prisms and ladders. Stories are safety. Stories are possibility. Stories are connection and validation. Stories are power.

On the other hand, politics can disempower students who “walk into public schools,” and “get the message loud and clear that the state sees such stories as smut and such lives as less than.”

The Norman Public School Superintendent, Nick Migliorino, eventually “told families in the district that there was no violation of HB1775, yet alone any district-wide book bans. He said the issue that arose with Boismier was not related to the QR code she sent out to students, but rather was about her making a political statement in her classroom.”

But, in my experience, that completely misses the point. As has been true for generations, the issue is not the letter of the laws that are imposed on Oklahoma schools; it is the intimidation that everyone knows is an effort to silence educators. When HR 1775 was first passed, legislators often pretended that because the words “Critical Race Theory” weren’t used the law didn’t ban it. Now, it seems like nobody is seriously making such a claim. The oft-stated goal is to impose a new wave of fear, targeting “liberal” educators and “leftwing indoctrination.”

This is another, recurring assault on public education. Whether it was the “Little Dies” committee of 1941; the McCarthyism which well continued well into the 1960s in my K-12 schools; the Reagan administration’s A Nation at Risk campaign, mandates for adopting Texas curriculums and teach-to-the-test; or the 21st century’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB), and Race to the Top (RTTT), these assaults on teaching and learning have created a culture of compliance based on a culture of powerlessness. And each of these sad histories did longterm damage to public schools.

When I began teaching in the early 1990s, I was stunned by the number of students who volunteered explanations of how they had been robbed of an education by worksheet-driven, boring classes, and challenged me to teach in a holistic manner

By the end of my career, as RTTT was implemented, students from the poorest neighborhoods served by our high school were virtually unanimous in complaining that their chance for a meaningful education was destroyed by drill-and-kill instruction. Like their teachers, students began by being cautious about who they would open up to. But they didn’t understand why more adults didn’t fight for their rights to an education.

But that is what Ms. Boismier is doing!

She is resisting the rightwingers who are also attacking socio-emotional learning and the teaching of anything more than reading, writing, and arithmetic with, in many places, exemptions for “pro-life” and “Christian” beliefs.

But we all should consider some of the other issues raised by Ms. Boismier. Oklahoma is always near the top of states where students endure multiple traumas, such as the suicide of a parent. What will happen, regardless of the letter of the laws, if schools are bullied to the point (as has often happened) where they don’t dare reach out to students and build a safe culture?

Second, build a learning culture that respects students’ minds and they will rise to excellence. But, as happened so often, when schools back off from meaningful and holistic instruction, students will feel betrayed and their motivation for learning undermined. And, again, these waves of destruction must be challenged early, not when they finally become unbearable for adults. After all, it typically takes years or decades for public education and its values to recover from these assaults.

And, YES!!!, teaching is a political process!  Determining what should be taught, as well as building classroom behavioral norms, must be an open, inclusive process. Even more important, I believe, we should affirm teaching as an act of love. Ms. Boismer is one of the first to risk her career for her students – and for the students who will come afterwards. She is absolutely right that:

It is time to come together as Oklahomans and side with a politics of critical thinking and compassion.”  This November you have a choice to make for the future of our state and the state of our public schools: a politics of inclusion or exclusion. So what’s your story? What side are you on?


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