Rules proposed for engaging students

BAR HARBOR — A draft policy aimed at providing guidance for teachers in addressing controversial subjects in their classrooms is going to the Mount Desert Island Regional School System board for initial consideration Oct. 15.

Members of the board’s policy committee, along with a few school administrators and teachers, reviewed the policy last Thursday.

“It is not our intention to limit discussions; it is to support those discussions in a way that’s going to be healthy for students and teachers,” Superintendent Marc Gousse said.

“If we look at the world around us now, there’s enough conflict. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when it was more critical for our young people to be exposed to information so they can make informed decisions.”

Gousse recommended a sample policy developed by the Maine School Management Association (MSMA).

The MSMA said in an introduction to the policy that educators “have long been aware that well-development critical thinking skills are essential to understanding and addressing difficult and sometimes emotional and contentious issues.”

To cultivate those skills, the MSMA said, teachers need to “help students learn how to assess information and discern fact from fiction, to make and defend their own opinions and to engage in respectful expression and debate.”

The MSRA’s sample policy on “Teaching Controversial Issues” states that the study of such issues “should be objective and scholarly with a minimum of emphasis on opinion and a maximum emphasis on facts and critical thinking.”

The policy further states that students have the right “to form and express opinions on controversial issues without jeopardizing relations with the teacher or the school” and the right “to study under competent instruction in an atmosphere free from bias and prejudice.”

The MSMA has offered a similar sample policy on “Guest Speakers in Schools,” which also is being forwarded to the school system board for consideration.

MDI High School history teacher Mark Puglisi indicated at the policy committee meeting that he supports policies that encourage the exchange of ideas and opinions in classrooms.

“I think anybody who is worth their salt is trying to get kids to disagree, even to disagree with you [the teacher] because that’s where the energy comes from,” Puglisi said.

The draft policy on teaching controversial issues states: “The teacher has the right to identify and express his/her own point of view in the classroom as long as he/she indicates clearly that it is his/her own.”

Puglisi said he sometimes tells his students where he stands on an issue and explains his reasons because students want to know what their teachers think.

“I have given my opinion, and many a time there’s been a kid who’s told me I was full of crap, not in so many words,” he said. “I would rather have a kid do that than just sit there and shrug. Shrugging is the enemy.

“The thing we need to instill the most in our students is self checking, a little self doubt about why they think something. ‘Do I think that or do I know it?’”

Puglisi added: “What concerns me is that sometimes in our society things are being politicized that are not political issues.”

He cited climate change as an example.

Jessica Stewart, a member of the Tremont School Committee, agreed.

“I think the more controversy in the classroom the better,” she said. “But I do want kids to distinguish between what’s a debate and … things we have established information about.”

The school board asked for a policy recommendation on teaching controversial or sensitive issues, Gousse said, “because people want to know what the parameters are.”

Tremont School Committee Chair Heidi Lawson said, “The reason [for the policy] is we want to protect our staff; we want them to feel supported. At the same time, we want to make sure our students are getting the education that we signed on to make sure they get.”

Teachers in politics

In addition to the recommended policy for teachers and a similar one regarding guest speakers, Gousse and the policy committee are sending to the school system board a draft policy titled “Staff Participation in Political Activities.”

It states that school employees are encouraged to engage in political activities as private citizens. However, they must not do so “while carrying out their work responsibilities during the school day [or] while performing work for the school outside of the school day on school premises or … at any other location.”

The policy’s definition of “political activities” includes campaigning for a candidate, party or issue; wearing apparel with political messages; and collecting funds for political causes.

In talking with students outside of school, the policy states, “Employees should be mindful of the potential effect of their position, authority and influence when stating personal opinions in regard to candidates and political issues.”

At the same time, the policy that the school board will consider acknowledges the right of school employees to “discuss the … issues of the day in public venues; participate actively in the political party of their choice; become a candidate for public office; and campaign in the community for candidates and in support of political issues.”

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