Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label politics. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Civilly Speaking: A Curriculum on Civil Discourse (redux)

In the summer of 2018, Harlene Appelman, a mentor, friend and the Executive Director of the Covenant Foundation asked me and Joel Lurie Grishaver (also a mentor, friend and the Creative Chair of Torah Aura Productions) to create a curriculum on civil discourse.

She looked at the public environment and saw and heard people shouting at the top of their voices. And using language that would have gotten your mouth washed out with soap - at least if you grew up before the 1980's. Few people in the public sphere were listening to one another. Conversations were often no longer a free exchange of ideas leading to people making up their own minds, or even for seeking common ground to move forward together. They became competitive events to be won or lost.

Harlene was clear - we could not take sides in this curriculum. To be authentic, we had to begin from a place where all positions have legitimacy - the point was to focus on how to engage with one another with respect. We had to make sure that all participants understood that we are all created B'tzelem Elohim - in God's image. Even though we can agree that Nazis are bad, there were examples in real life that we avoided in order to not fall into the trap of seeming to take sides. Teachers years from now can look back to the events of this past decade with greater perspective.

As I watch the news and the various political campaigns right now, I think we need to get back to being civil with one another more than ever. When the rabbis of the Talmud considered the question of how God could have allowed the Romans to destroy the Temple in 70 C.E., the only answer that made sense to them was Sinat Chinam - baseless hatred. The Saducees, Pharisees, Zealots, Sicarii and Essenes were splinter groups (some of the splinters were very large) who were often incapable of coming together for the good of the Jewish people. The rabbis said that if they could have figured out a unified position, the Temple would still be standing.

And as President Lincoln said in accepting the nomination of the fledgling Republican party in 1858: "A house divided against itself cannot stand." That was true then when the issue was slavery. It is equally true today when the issues are many and varied.

Friends, teachers, colleagues: I urge you to teach the value of civility. Be like Shammai and greet each person with a smile and teach your learners to do the same. And on behalf of myself and Joel, I invite you to download the free six lesson curriculum on Civil Discourse from the Covenant Foundation site. Each lesson has three versions. One is for middle school, one for high school and one for adults. Feel free to mix and match parts based on your knowledge of those you are teaching.

Help us keep the metaphoric temple - the United States and the Constitution - from being destroyed.

The curriculum is here:

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Encountering Truths, Opinions and One Another

I have I have waited to post about the presidential election results. I wanted to make sure that what I said here is what I truly want to say. I will likely share several postings on the topic. One thing I have decided is that since my blog is primarily about Jewish Education, I am not going to focus on the politics of the elections nor my concerns for what will happen next politically. At least for now.

Although there are protests going on in several places, until something changes through legal means, I am going to assume that on January 20, Donald Trump will be sworn in as president of the United States. And I do know that there are several educational and spiritual issues before us. 

I serve with two rabbis, Evan Schultz and Jim Prosnit. They are my partners in education and teachers in spiritual connection. Reeves Shabbat Lech Lecha, the first following the election, Evan shared the following sermon. I believe he captured some essential truths and rephrased how we need to think about politics, ideas and one. Another in a way that is brilliant, authentic and right.

My words to our community this evening:

Lech L’cha 5777

“Now Melchitzedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High and blessed him, saying “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, who has given your foes into your hands.”

I share this verse with you tonight, just days after a presidential election that has in so many ways deeply separated us as a country, that has brought us to realize there are so many in this country who we in no way understand, that has brought many here this evening scared and deeply anxious about the acts of hate, antisemitism, and bigotry that already are plaguing our schools and our streets.

Many of us have undoubtedly read countless articles and opinion pieces on why the election went as it did, and no matter where each of us stands politically, there now is a sense of soul searching and real questioning as to where we want our country to go and what we want it to be.

As I too engaged in this process over the past two days, and undoubtedly will for weeks to come, the realization I have had is this one:
I surrounded myself with people who shared the same ideas as my own and dismissed those with alternate views.  I read articles that furthered my own beliefs about the election and the future of this country, and dismissed any other point of view.  I stereotyped and generalized and characterized those who did not agree with my point of view as ignorant, stupid, and gullible.

As I dug deeper, I realized the world that I had created for myself.
A world in which I had, at some point along the way, mistaken my own beliefs and opinions for truth.

I, a Reform Jew, who joined this movementprecisely because we outwardly state that we do not have a stronghold on the truth,
have over time staked many truths firmly in the sand.  I turned a blind eye to those with other opinions, I dismissed them.

Just yesterday, as I sat in a room full of Reform rabbis and educators at Eisner camp, I realized how I have never shared with our kids and teens an opposing opinion on many social issues.
We take our tenth graders to the RAC, The Religious Action Center in Washington, DC,and they hear the Jewish position on social issues such as women’s rights, on gun control, on abortion.
We have presented these not as our opinions, not as our beliefs, but as truths to our children.  As if there is only one right way to think about this issue.

I recall a couple of years ago, on our trip to DC with our teenagers,
a student from another congregation, who I did not know, told me he was pro-life during one of the issue sessions.  I didn’t know what to say to him, there was no space for him in a room filled with teens committed to a women’s right to choose. And this was another Reform Jew.  I didn’t ask him why.
I didn’t try to understand him.
I didn’t raise my hand and point out there’s a student with a different opinion.
I shut the door on him.  Shame on me for that.

And I know the same thing happens on the other side.  Each side has essentially turned opinion into truth, we’ve staked our ideas deep into the ground, and look at the result, look at the dangerous world we’ve all now created.

I know there are extremists on both sides, I’m not here to talk about them tonight.  We know that bigotry, hatred, anti-semitism and misogyny are deep manifestations of evil and it is our obligation to fight that with no hesitation.

And I do know there are certain issues which have been irresponsibly turned into matters of opinion, such as climate change, and it is certainly our job to call out people who deny what science has proven over and over again.

I’m talking tonight about the many people who shut out the other side on issues that really do have two sides, who live in their own Facebook feed, who characterize the other side as just plain wrong, or even worse, idiots for believing any other way.

Our country is in need of healing.  And that is why I started with the biblical verse that I did.

This verse, from Genesis chapter 14, is a rare moment in the Biblical text.  Abram, who has just come victorious from battle, sits down with a non-Israelite king-priest name Malchitzedek.  The two come from opposite sides, opposite peoples, opposite places.  And what does Malchitzedek do, he breaks bread with Abram.  He pours him a glass of wine. And he blesses Abram.

Talk about a calling for what we need right now.

Yesterday I thus committed myself to two things.

One, more face to face conversations with people who have opinions and viewpoints different from my own.

Two, reading more literature and books that take me outside of my own ideas and opinions.

I am not na├»ve, I know there is immense work to be done and a great deal to be concerned about after Tuesday.  But in times of uncertainty I look to the Torah.  And if anything this verse pushes me to sit down and break bread with those who have different opinions and viewpoints from own.
It prompts me to listen.  To remind myself that my positions on many issues are opinions, they are deeply held, strong beliefs, but they are not Truth with a capital T.

I have begun the work.
This week I’ll be sitting down with a person from our community who holds positions very different from my own.  I said to him, I don’t want to talk issues. I don’t walk to talk policies.

I just want it to be two human beings, sitting down,trying to understand each other.
He agreed and welcomed the talk.
I know it is not going to change the world.
But it’s a small step in rebuilding a bridge that has fallen apart.

Our Torah portion this week begins with the charge to Abram –
“lech l’cha m’artzecha,” Go forth from your land. In other words, now is the time to slowly step outside of our own circles of ideas and opinions – and I say this to both sides, both sides who are here in our synagogue and community.

Now is the time to offer an invitation, to reach out, with a sense of curiosity and empathy, with a hope of repairing the bridge,
with a faith that like Abram and Malchitzedek, there is good in breaking bread together,of offering blessing to one another.
It is a first step on the journey as we go forth.

Please God, give us the strength and courage to do this work,
help us to see the path we need to forge together. Amen.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Teaching in the time of Trump

One of my favorite subscription e-mails is from HistoryTech.  It is written by educator, consultant and tech guy Glenn Wiebe. He is definitely my kind of educator. His blog consists not only of his own thoughts about the use of technology in teaching history, but also those of others he learns from. And it is about good teaching, not just good use of technology. Each posting has links to web sites or apps that educators might find useful usually around a common theme or idea. Very accessible. 
History Tech
History, technology, and
probably some other stuff

Today he relies on his own wisdom as well as that of others to give some insight on how to approach one of the most troubling phenomena we have faced in some time in the American classroom - Donald Trump. It is a big issue for more than the Donald being Donald. In our classrooms - both secular and religious there is requirement of political neutrality on the part of the teacher and the school. But this is not a topic that can or should be ignored. So here is Glenn's post, which can also be found at

Teaching in the time of Trump

Several days ago, I wrote a quick post highlighting seven ways to survive a divisive election while making your students smarter. That post generated an interesting conversation – many teachers began asking similar kinds of questions. Specifically . . . how can we teach diversity and tolerance when much of the campaign rhetoric directly challenges these very American values while at the same time maintaining a neutral political stance?

A recent article in the National Council for the Social Studies journal Social Education can help us address this concern. Titled Teaching in the Time of Trump by Benjamin Justice and Jason Stanley, the NCSS article provides context, rationale, and specific suggestions for focusing on American democratic values and process.
The article is an incredibly useful teaching tool but it also provides a powerful reminder of our fundamental task. Head over to get the full text but I’ve pasted some snippets below to provide some flavor of what Justice and Stanley have to say.
Teaching in the time of Trump raises a fundamental pedagogical question: is it permissible for a teacher to adopt a non-neutral political stance in the classroom, either through explicitly addressing the problems with Trump’s rhetoric or, conversely, by remaining silent in the face of it? How can teachers balance the much cherished value of political impartiality (protecting the students’ freedom of expression and autonomous political development) against the much cherished American values threatened by Trumpish demagoguery?
Why should we even worry about this?
Democracy has two chief values, liberty and equality. In most conceptions of liberty, demagoguery is allowed in a democracy. Controversial speech is still free speech. The problem of demagoguery lies not in its conflict with freedom, but with the democratic value of equality. Demagoguery causes problems in the absence of equal respect; it feeds off of and strengthens divisions in society.

Public school classrooms are training grounds for liberal democracy, where students learn democratic skills and knowledge.

Students must learn the bounds of reasonableness by interacting with apparently fixed knowledge – such as that in their textbooks – and also by applying knowledge to their engagement with other students in the process of analysis of public issues. In that process, teaching for democracy is not the same as giving free rein to all perspectives so that all are treated as equally reasonable. Rather, teachers lead conversations and set reasonable parameters so that all students can safely participate and learn what is reasonable and what is not reasonable. This is the fundamental political purpose of a public education.

Democratic principles and ideals are not themselves neutral. Neither is teaching students to become citizens in a society that aspires to these ideals. Because of the value of liberty, one should not suppress the speech of those who argue that one religion should have a preference over others, for example. But it is reasonable for a teacher to observe that Trump’s rhetoric is a contemporary example of a violation of the democratic ideal of equal rights for all religions.

Teachers also cannot be neutral about the misrepresentation of facts or the violation of norms of truth in public speech. They should emphasize to students the importance of evaluating the accuracy of statements made by candidates. Some examples of websites that check these are FactCheck, the Washington Post Fact Checker, and PolitiFact.
Why worry about facts?
Trump’s rhetoric exhibits several characteristics of demagogic speech. If political speech ought to be guided, in liberal democracy, not just by reasonableness but also by truth, then Trump’s seeming willful disregard of it is also illiberal, whether it was his efforts as a “birther” to discredit President Obama by demanding his birth certificate or his recent claims about Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the World Trade Center attacks.

In another example, Trump tweeted an inaccurate graphic claiming that 81% of whites who were murdered were killed by blacks; the real number in 2014 was 14%. Such disregard for truth is a mark of the rise of history’s worst tyrants. Hannah Arendt in her book Origins of Totalitarianism grimly observed this axiom in action: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such . . .”
Justice and Stanley suggest three strategies for teaching in the time of Trump:
  • One approach would examine the material conditions leading to a situation in which voters are attracted by undemocratic rhetoric. Perhaps the institutions of democracy have failed them. A state that promised its citizens a raft of goods, but in fact never delivered them, would in so doing lay the groundwork for a protest candidate who proved his or her credentials by violating its norms of respectability.

  • A second approach involves a comparison of the current material conditions to those present at other times in U.S. history at which demagogues achieved some measure of success through the politics of division and exclusion based on religion, race, and political belief. In short, one could compare the political environment that gave rise to Trump to the ones that gave rise to Father Coughlin in the 1930s and George Wallace in the 1960s, by examining similarities or differences in the state of the economy, social tensions, and disagreements over controversial government policies. Several of my Twitter PLN suggested a similar approach by asking students to look at other places around the world and in different time periods. Compare current US events to leaders and events in the past and discuss implications and consequences of those actions.

  • A third approach would track the genesis of Trumpism to the shift in rhetoric brought into public debate by partisan news media and social media. This would involve a historical project comparing previous media norms to the ones at work in contemporary partisan media. Students might examine the impact of the growth of stridently conservative radio and TV programs and electronic media during the last 25 years, and consider whether they prepared the way for the political rise of Donald Trump.
What’s our obligation? Our job?
Silence is not an acceptable strategy. As teachers, we should advocate no particular political party, candidate, or public policy. But we are all obligated, deeply, to hew to the basic principles of democratic life in order to help our students discern what is reasonable. Public school teaching is not neutral and has never been intended or understood as such.

Public schools are places where reason and reasonableness must be cultivated in the best traditions of liberals and conservatives alike, striking the balance between the principles of equality and freedom, preparing students for the maelstrom that awaits them.
It’s not necessarily an easy job. But it’s one that we cannot ignore.