Civics teacher Jon Greenberg will continue trying to help his students understand race in America.
Jon Greenberg has spent more than a decade teaching students the value of being engaged citizens in a democracy where government responds to the people. But life is messier than a textbook lesson.
In 2013, Greenberg was teaching Humanities and Social Studies at The Center School at Seattle Center when the family of one of his students made a formal complaint to the district about a class called Citizenship and Social Justice.
The initial complaint said the class created an intimidating atmosphere, and a second complaint accused him of harassment for allowing other students to create a petition supporting him and the program during class and sending an email about the situation to all parents except the ones who complained.
The former superintendent, José Banda, said a class section drawn from the Courageous Conversations protocol for discussing race was not age appropriate. But the class is a college-level course for seniors, and students who’ve taken the class told the School Board it was both challenging and rewarding.
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Courageous Conversations is a tool for promoting meaningful conversations about difficult issues, in this case, race. It provides a structure for those conversations that starts with four agreements: stay engaged, experience discomfort (it’s OK), speak your truth, expect and accept nonclosure. Greenberg adapted it for his classes.
Greenberg invited speakers who spoke to the class about racism, and students discussed racism themselves. He said he didn’t force students to talk; they raised their hands if they had something to say.
Greenberg was forbidden by the Seattle Public Schools to use that section of the curriculum he put together. And he was transferred to Hamilton International Middle School because of the second complaint. He spent a year at Hamilton.
“I’m a civics teacher,” Greenberg told me, but he said that when students turned to the Seattle School Board for help, “I watched representative democracy utterly fail.”
Like a lot of people, I was surprised the district was so responsive to one family’s complaint. Greenberg had taught the class for 10 years and has even been praised by the city for his work. He got strong support from teachers, parents and both current and former students.
An arbitrator recently ruled the district couldn’t use a transfer to punish Greenberg, but that he had not protected the student from possible harassment and recommended a suspension of 10 school days.
Greenberg said he was notified the district would allow him back but suspend him for the first two weeks of the semester. A delegation of students delivered a petition to Superintendent Larry Nyland asking that Greenberg be allowed to return for the start of the semester, and last week he was told he could return without delay, but his record will still show a suspension.
Greenberg believes, as I do, that schools need to do more to educate Americans about race. A few days before his Monday return to The Center School, I asked him about his commitment to teaching about race and social justice.
He grew up on Queen Anne during the time of extensive busing in Seattle. A few students, mostly Asian American and Pacific Islander were bused to his elementary and middle schools, but his real experience with race came when he was bused to Franklin High School near the end of busing for integration. He’s a 1991 graduate.
Greenberg said that was one of the pivotal experiences in his life, the first time he was in the minority. He said he was one of the “skinny white kids” who went there carrying stereotypes about Southeast Seattle.
There was still classroom segregation — he was in the humanities program with lots of other white students — but he got to know kids through track and weight training. And he started dating a student who had one black and one white parent and who challenged his understanding of race.
At the same time, his teachers made the high-school experience so rich for him that he began to think about teaching. In college, he decided he would indeed become a teacher and return to Franklin to do his part to improve the prospects of students there.
Greenberg said that even though he’d been in the minority at Franklin, white people were still ultimately in control. He wanted to see what it felt like when that wasn’t the case, so he spent a semester in Kenya. He said he learned instead, “the power of whiteness on a global scale.” He was in the minority but part of a hierarchy in which white people still held privileged status.
He came back to the U.S. and taught in a program for students who had special needs. Almost all the students were black and came to the program with stories of lives far removed from his.
He searched further. He taught in Bogotá, Colombia, and discovered that light skin, especially white skin, conferred privileges and dark skin often meant poverty. After two years there, he came back to Seattle for graduate school at Seattle University, then applied for jobs.
In 2001 he was offered a position at a new school just before his interview for a position at Franklin. The idea of being one of the founding teachers at The Center School appealed to him so he signed on, but not without some internal conflict. Greenberg said the school is mostly white and was created in response to requests from Queen Anne and Magnolia parents for a school of their own.
He mentioned Jonathan Kozol’s book, “Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America,” which singled out the creation of The Center School as an example of school segregation in action. The school now admits students from all over Seattle.
To address his conflicts, Greenberg works to attract minority students, and he’ll try to give all his humanities and social-studies students a more complete understanding of their society with a reworked curriculum. (He also blogs about race.)
If he can do his job well, there will be more people committed to making this a more perfect democracy. We need more of that, not less.