By Skyler Gilbert and Joshua Milien
Education experts want teachers in diverse Nassau County high schools to examine national current events and have classroom dialogue addressing the current social and racial climate.
In late August, walls of Syosset High School were graffitied with swastikas and gang tags, the latest in a string of similar incidents around the county in the last year. In an unrelated event in June, Oceanside seniors distributed T-shirts with racial slurs.
The uptick in these crimes has been caused by the Trump administration’s apathy and tolerance toward extreme right ideologies, Hofstra teaching professor Alan J. Singer said. But he sees the behavior as a learning opportunity for students.
“What we need to do is to engage kids in understanding,” Singer, an expert in social studies education, said. “I don’t see [the Syosset incident] as a major disciplinary act; I see this as an educational opportunity into the meaning of these acts and what the implications are for people.”
Last month, thousands of insurgent alt-right protesters marched at the University of Virginia campus, donning swastikas and confederate flags, in support of a statue of general Robert E. Lee. Members of the group chanted, “Jews will not replace us.” According to a recent Morning Consult poll, one in five Trump supporters have a favorable impression of white nationalism.
Singer pointed to New York City’s recent commission about what to do with area statues and place names as an opportunity for community involvement for 12th grade government students. Smithtown, for instance, is named after a 17th century slaveholder.
“This is a perfect opportunity to not just study, but engage the kids in civic activism,” Singer said. “It doesn’t take kids off the curriculum, it enhances the curriculum.”
One issue in public rhetoric has been the decrease in nuanced, sophisticated argument and a reliance on name-calling, Cheryl Greenberg, a history professor at Trinity College said. She believes the onus is on the educator to demonstrate these skills.
“We, as teachers, should model appropriate civic behavior,” Greenberg, who also chairs the West Hartford School District board, said. “Teachers need to model what using facts as evidence looks like, what making an argument looks like, what kinds of evidence persuasion requires, those sorts of things
Multiple educators from Nassau County acknowledged the importance of using present-day talking points in class dialogue, although they lacked specificity in the implementation.
“It’s incredibly important our students study current events,” Thomas Troisi, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction at Valley Stream South School District, said. “We are supposed to be preparing young people for their place in the world. If we don’t, we’re selling them short.”
Following the Syosset incident, whose suspect is still at large, the district’s superintendent, Dr. Thomas Rogers, invoked the national trend in his denunciation of the actions.
“One need look no further than the nightly news to see that our nation’s broader commitment to tolerance is being tested,” Rogers said in a statement to the school community. “But I am convinced that Syosset’s dedication to diversity is not superficial. It was not created overnight, and it will not be easily undone by the overnight actions of a few.”
Long Island has great racial and political diversity in many of its school districts, particularly in Nassau County, according to data from U.S. News and World Report. Valley Stream South, for instance, is nearly equally divided across four races: 29 percent Hispanic, 26 percent black, 24 percent white and 21 percent Asian.
“It’s important we teach students how to work together,” Troisi said. “We have a very diverse student population and that foundation starts here.”
In a student body with political diversity, which stems from racial, ethnic and economic diversity, Greenberg said, racial dialogue and empathy are even more important.
“I think if you have a diverse classroom, regardless of what kind of diversity you’re talking about, you must talk about it, because they’re going to talk about it,” Greenberg said. “They have to understand the issues. That’s what school does; it educates us about issues.”