Oakland Unified pushes back against unsanctioned “teach-in” on Palestine

The Oakland Unified School District is pushing back against what it has called an “unsanctioned” teach-in centered on the “Palestinian struggle for liberation,” on Wednesday, and organized by Oakland educators.

“I want to make clear that the District does not authorize this action,” said Dr. Kyla Johnson-Trammell, the superintendent of Oakland Unified, in a message shared with the school community Monday morning. “Our schools are sanctuaries for learning, and I am deeply disappointed by the harmful and divisive materials being circulated and promoted as factual.”

The teach-in is planned for Wednesday, Dec, 6. In a 12-page lesson plan prepared for the teach-in, resources were compiled for children aged 4 to 18. The lessons range from a Palestinian-themed alphabet book with the letter i representing intifada, a word typically used to describe armed uprisings against Israeli occupation; to an Amnesty International article titled Israel’s Occupation: 50 Years of Dispossession. 

The lesson plan also included a digital notebook, where students are encouraged to create a social media post to share their thoughts on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Ellen Brostky, an organizer with the Bay Area’s chapter of the anti-Zionist organization Jewish Voice for Peace, said the teach-in could provide a useful corrective to an education system that she said is often coded with pro-Israel messaging.

“There’s a lot of narrative about how it would make Jewish students feel unsafe when Palestinian voices and narratives are brought into the classroom, but there’s a difference between feeling unsafe because someone is telling their narrative and being uncomfortable,” Brotsky said.

Mike Hutchinson, the school board president, said teachers who go through with Wednesday’s plans could face discipline from the board — possibly including termination, even.

“I don’t want to draw this direct line of, ‘If you engage with this on Wednesday you’re losing (your) job,’ but it’s just like any other job: you can’t show up and do whatever you want and not face any consequences (for) that,” Hutchinson said in an interview.

It is unclear which educators organized the teach-in, how many plan to use the materials on Wednesday, and what the repercussions could be for doing so. But it does seem the lesson plan was created by a group of educators within the Oakland Education Association, the union representing more than 3,000 staff members at OUSD.

Earlier this fall, the union released a statement sharply condemning “the 75-year long illegal military occupation of Palestine,” and blamed the Israeli government for creating “an apartheid state” and espousing “genocidal rhetoric.”

“I’m concerned that the district is less responsive to the needs and to the experiences and to the requests of our Muslim families and students,” said OUSD parent Nate Landry, in an interview with NBC Bay Area. “My understanding is that the materials that OEA educators have put together do meet curriculum state standards.”

In her message, Johnson-Trammell stressed that the district has “remained unwavering in our stance against antisemitic, anti-Israeli, Islamophobic, or anti-Palestinian prejudice or discrimination within our District.” But she said it’s important that teachers help students understand an important issue and how to think critically about it rather than tell students what to think.

“As you have heard me repeatedly say, our role as educators is to prepare our students to meaningfully contribute to our community locally and globally. That includes nurturing the curiosity of our students, promoting critical thinking through balanced and factual learning materials, and creating opportunities for meaningful collaboration despite our differences,” said Johnson-Trammell.

But Brotsky said the materials do that.

“Teachers are professionals,” she said. “I’m confident they know how to teach in a way that helps students think critically.

Sam Davis, a member of the OUSD school board, said that since no teachers actually signed their name on the teaching materials, it was hard to say how many were taking part in it.

“The curriculum proposed by the organizers of the “teach-in” is beyond the pale and has no place in any school district,” said Jeremy Russell, a spokesperson for the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Bay Area. “Our community’s biggest fear is that it will incite violence against Jews and Israelis, and we have heard tremendous concern from Jewish families, some are even talking about keeping kids home from school that day.”

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Author: Elissa Miolene, Shomik Mukherjee