Teaching History and Addressing Controversial Topics in the Newton Public Schools

  • The Newton Public Schools’ core values include openness and critical thinking. One of the gifts we give our students is the opportunity to carefully listen to and debate different perspectives. With regard to our history curriculum in particular, the department’s mission statement calls for students to “appreciate the historical and cultural influences that shape their individual identities, our national identity, and the cultures and countries that share our planet,” and to “learn to assess and interpret evidence, to understand change over time, to think logically and express themselves clearly.”

    Below, we have provided a list of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) to share information about our curriculum and our approach to teaching controversial topics. As always, we encourage our families to reach out to their student’s teacher, department chair, or building administrator, with any questions or concerns.

History Curriculum

  • How are history courses in general taught in the Newton Public Schools?

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    In our history classes, we present a range of opinions and perspectives to interpret historical events and we provide proper context in these balanced discussions. Our educators work to ensure that students understand when they are learning specific historical events and details, and when they are being exposed to sources that represent a particular perspective on history. We do not teach students that they should agree with every perspective they encounter in our classrooms. We want student opinions to be well-informed and their interpretations to be based on evidence from the historical record. As has always been our practice, we are focused on teaching students how to think rather than what to think. 

     

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  • How do teachers in Newton decide what topics to teach and what materials to use?

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    The topics in our core courses in the Newton Public Schools are determined by and aligned with Massachusetts state curriculum frameworks. Course textbooks are chosen and purchased citywide, after a rigorous selection process involving teachers, students, and administrators. Supplemental teaching materials are selected by teachers, working in collaboration with their colleagues and supervisors.

     

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  • How are primary sources used in teaching history courses?

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    History courses in Newton rely on a range of historical primary sources, such as letters, articles, books, and visuals from the time period being studied, to illustrate the perspectives that existed in the past and to promote student understanding of the voices of the past. Some primary source material, including historical and contemporary opinion pieces, are used to illustrate different points of view on controversial events and concepts, and is always supported by rich classroom discussion and reflection to promote critical thought regarding each source and perspective.  The inclusion of these documents is not used to advocate for those perspectives or ideas; rather, the content of each document is used in class to allow students to understand different points of views and develop their own perspectives on key historical ideas.

     

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  • How does the Newton Public Schools lead discussions in classes about controversial topics?

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    Our skilled faculty and administrators work to ensure that students learn to separate fact from opinion, to discern between perspectives and not to accept everything they are exposed to in the classroom.  Through thoughtful classroom experiences based on varied source material, inquiry and facilitated discussions, our aim is for students to challenge their own thinking and that of their peers, and to develop opinions through the study and the testing of ideas.  Most importantly, NPS focuses on teaching students how to think, not what to think.

     

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Middle East Curriculum

  • Why and how does the Newton Public Schools teach about the Middle East?

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    The history of the Middle East and the relationship between the region’s peoples and nations is a long and complicated one. Based on our mission, the Newton Public Schools believes that our students should develop an understanding of this region’s history and people with an appreciation for the range of complex perspectives.  We believe that we should not avoid controversy, but rather work diligently to teach events and share various points of view with objectivity, respect, and intellectual rigor. At the high school level, this topic is typically covered in 10th grade modern world history courses.

     

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  • How does the Newton Public Schools vet and ensure the objectivity of classroom materials?

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    Objectivity can be difficult to define, much less achieve, as even content created with the intent of being completely objective often has inherent bias. In order to reflect on the material used in our courses, we typically ask ourselves a series of questions:

     

    • What material is presented and what material is left out? 
    • How much time is spent on one side vs. another? 
    • How many different voices are enough? 
    • What is the more essential vs. the less essential material to present?  
    • Which points of view are most instructive or revealing? 

     

    The way we navigate this challenge is not to vet material for neutrality in the elusive hope that it can be made bias-free. Rather, we look at materials as a starting point for discussion and exploration. Our students are taught to ask: Who created this material, and when?  Why was this material or perspective chosen rather than a different one?  What overt or subtle points of view might the creator be trying to communicate? How can this material be placed in the most useful context? What is fact and what is opinion?

     

    Unfortunately, some have misunderstood the classroom use of some primary source material and opinion pieces to mean that we are actively teaching the content or point of view established in those documents.  This is inaccurate. In each case, it is the discussion and critical thinking about documents that represent different points of views and perspectives that is the key to developing deeper learning for our students.

     

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  • What are the different ways in which the Newton Public Schools teaches about this topic?

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    Most of our teaching happens in traditional classroom settings. Source material typically comes in a range of forms including books, magazine and newspaper articles, film clips and videos, talks by organizational leaders, presentations by subject-material scholars, and dance, music, and other art forms.  In addition to traditional classroom instruction, students often want to learn more about the topic and apply/share their knowledge to the school community. Students have initiated and organized outside speakers to come to explore the rich culture and complex issues that exist in the Middle East. While we have specific policies regarding student initiated forums on controversial topics, we encourage our students to engage academically and extracurricularly in this and other topics in appropriate ways.

     

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Controversy and Impact

  • Why is there such controversy over the NPS’ teaching of topics in the Middle East?

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    Over the last several years, a very small but vocal group of Newton residents and non-residents have leveled accusations against our school system, including charges that we use material that is anti-Semitic, anti-Israel and anti-American. In some cases, documents being used to share different points of view on issues have been mischaracterized as the official perspective of the Newton Public Schools, while in other cases criticisms have been attempts to sensationalize and polarize the larger community around controversial issues.  Time and again, claims of bias have proven baseless, only serving to denigrate the hard work and professionalism of both our skilled faculty and dedicated students.

     

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  • What are community leaders saying about these accusations?

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    Over the years, respected religious and community leaders have voiced support for our approach to educating students and concern about the nature and tone of these attacks. See the links below for more information: 

    Message from the School Committee  

    Letter from Religious Leaders  

    Opinion Piece in Newton Tab  

    Newton Interfaith Clergy Association Statement (Facebook)

    Boston Globe background article

     

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  • What are the concerns of Newton educators about teaching controversial topics?

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    Over the past several years, Newton Public Schools teachers have been singled out unfairly and harassed by the outside groups that have been critical. As a result of the increasingly personal nature of the attacks, our faculty is expressing growing concern about teaching controversial topics given the harsh and unfair criticism they have received. Should these attacks continue to escalate, we believe it will jeopardize our ability to expose students to diverse opinions and to teach them about controversial issues that require open minds and critical thought. Given the current political environment, it is more important than ever to explore controversial topics in a manner that encourages thoughtful and open dialogue.

     

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  • What is your plan moving forward?

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    We will continue to work hard to support our students’ and faculty members’ efforts to engage our community around complex and challenging issues in a responsible, intellectual, and balanced way.  As a part of a larger curriculum review based on new state standards for History and Social Sciences approved in the spring of 2018, we will be engaging in a complete redesign of our high school history curriculum.  As a part of that redesign, we plan to review and update all of the materials used in our courses, including that which is related to the Middle East.

     

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Your Questions

  • What should NPS families with questions about this topic do to get more information?

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    We encourage families to bring any questions about curriculum to their child’s teacher or department head. Information and teaching materials are always available to families and our administrators and faculty are happy to discuss them.  

     

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  • Are concerns frequent?

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    Parents concerns about the teaching of controversial topics are not frequent, but they do arise. Over the past few years, administrators have reviewed questions about curriculum in all major academic subjects. Sometimes the review results in changes, and sometimes it does not. In all cases, administrators are guided by their professional judgment along with the mission and values of the Newton Public Schools.

     

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